From The National Review:
Recent allegations of sexist misconduct against author Junot Díaz have reignited an old debate: Should we engage the work of artists whose personal conduct or belief systems are reprehensible? At the Washington Post, Sandra Beasly has weighed in on this question; she wonders whether she should “continue to teach the work of people we now suspect of behaving unethically or abusively.” Her answer to the question is nuanced, so I won’t attempt a brief and therefore unsatisfactory summary.
My response, though, is an unequivocal yes: We should read the books of flawed writers who produce great art.
. . . .
Between artists and the art they produce should be erected a large and nearly impenetrable wall. An author’s personal misconduct should not distract us from questions of literary merit — and neither should the sorts of obscenities that appear within the books themselves. When a novelist writes, he creates a voice, the voice of a narrator who does not exist in the real world. Such a voice must be judged on its own; it must be separated from its authorial creator and be given the freedom to explore even the more monstrous aspects of the human experience.
This insight about separating author from narrator seems to have been forgotten in much of the conversation surrounding Díaz. One writer called his books “sexist and regressive,” suggesting that we should refrain from reading that which our culture has deemed verboten. Having read most of Díaz’s fiction, I can confirm that there is certainly a great amount of misogyny depicted. That does not mean that his oeuvre as such encourages sexism, any more than Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serves as an apologia for slavery, any more than James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room endorses homophobia, or any more than Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon promotes segregation. Twain, Baldwin, and Morrison are masters of their craft, able to depict bigotry and intolerance in all their vile and irrational glory; the same is true of Díaz. We shouldn’t condemn authors for portraying the truth of life’s brutalities.
Feminist literary critic Roxanne Gay reviewed Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her back in 2012. She got it exactly right: “The influence of [sexism] is plainly apparent throughout This Is How You Lose Her. Women are their bodies and what they can offer men. They are pulled apart for Yunior’s [the protagonist’s] sexual amusement. There’s nothing wrong with that, the fact that Yunior is a misogynist of the highest order . . . that none of the men in this book are very good to women. This is fiction and if people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human” (emphasis mine).
. . . .
Dickens was a writer who cared deeply about the poor of England but was simultaneously contemptuous of the Indian victims of British imperialism. What are we to do with him? Should we read him because of his sympathy for the poor or dismiss him because of his racism? Neither, I argue; instead we should read him because he is a monumental figure in the history of British writing. And, of course, we can read him even as we keep in mind that he was a complex human, capable at the same time of making abominable moral judgments and of producing lasting works of fiction.
Link to the rest at The National Review
PG will note that he does not always agree with the content of everything he posts about on TPV.
The OP is not the first to raise the question of whether we must expose ourselves to evil in order to gain an understanding of evil. As with many questions of this type, PG believes the answer is yes and no.
In some cases, exposure can be beneficial to our understanding. Reading Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto and the writings of Mao Zedong underpinning Land Reform, The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution may be examples of such beneficial exposure and increases our understanding without negative side-effects.
On the other hand, direct exposure to hard-core and child pornography and snuff films may be examples of exposure that doesn’t really help to increase our understanding of these evils and may have continuing detrimental effects.