The Mookse and the Gripes discussion

Author Chat > Separating the art from the artist?

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message 1: by Antonomasia (last edited Aug 16, 2018 04:43PM) (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments This branches from a discussion that was started by WndyJW on page 2 of the In Memoriam thread.

WndyJW wrote: "Has anyone given much thought to an author’s personal life? Would you choose to not read a book written by an unapologetic bigot, assuming the book was not in the service of promoting bigotry?"

I've read a lot of discussions about this over the years, and been in quite a few.

I think that pretty much all authors further in the past will have done things, or had opinions which are now considered unacceptable. So from a purely logical POV I see no point concerning oneself with it, especially as regards dead authors or second-hand and library copies where the authors are not making any profit. If one wanted to read something by a living author whose views or behaviour you disagreed with, I would see nothing wrong with getting a copy you didn't pay for.

But individual readers will have things they feel strongly about or which squick them out, whether it's about book content or biographical detail. There is no point forcing yourself to read things you won't like, unless possibly you're being paid for it or getting a qualification out of it. I think it's a bit obnoxious when 'separate the art from the artist' zealots upbraid people for exercising their choice that way. (In practice, I've seen that happen more with film, in online settings where there are a lot of posters in their teens and twenties.)

There is an argument re. not promoting a work to others, who may go on and purchase something new from an objectionable living creator, or consider values espoused in an old work to be okay. But that is a type of purism that, especially for private individuals, I consider to be taking things too far.

This liberal / individualist approach to the question is typical among people I know in their late thirties and up, but from what I see online, collectivist stances seem commoner among those in their twenties and early thirties.

I'm sure others will have opinions on this question. Hoping it can stay amicable. In some places I've seen that this can be a contentious topic.

message 2: by WndyJW (new)

WndyJW | 6608 comments I ask because I think it’s an interesting dilemma. I posted that I loved A House for Mr Biswas and then worried that I was being insensitive to women rightly offended by his archaic views on women. it was one of my favorite books years ago so I decided to be honest and say I loved the book and when I read Naipaul I read knowing this is not an author with a fair view on women.
How many classics would we have to leave unread if we knew how the authors conducted themselves in private?

message 3: by David (new)

David For me it really depends and might be more something I can't really articulate a policy about. In general, I know that the longer ago an artist lived and the more that person's prejudices were in line with common thinking at that time, the less I am likely to see that as a reason not to read the person. And the more separate the person's offensive acts or beliefs are from their work, the less I am inclined to think that a reason not to read their work.

Two examples come to mind of living writers, one I would not forego reading and one I will. Orson Scott Card has expressed fairly extreme homophobic views. I knew about these views when I read Ender's Game. My sci-fi fanatic friends all assured me that you can't tell from the book that the author is a massive homophobe, and I found this to be true. I didn't like the book enough to have read any more of Card's work, but his offensive views are not a reason I have not read more of him.

On the other hand, I just read Richard Ford for the first time this month when he had a new story in The New Yorker. Subsequent to reading it I read a little about him, learned he spit in Colson Whitehead's face after Whitehead had criticized Ford's work, and that many years later he doubled down and said he would do it again. I also learned he once sent Alice Hoffman a copy of one of her books with bullet holes in it after she criticized one of his books. The man is a racist psychopath and I doubt I could read anything he wrote without being hopelessly distracted and completely unable to enjoy it at all. So the one story I read will remain the only thing of his I will ever read.

message 4: by David (new)

David And now another thought: I have a hard time finding people who agree with me about this, but it is very clear to me that The Merchant Of Venice is an antisemitic comedy. All the "good guys" in the story do not merely hate Shylock for reasons personal to his character, but repeatedly express hatred of all Jews. The story also ends happily with Shylock being "saved" by a forced conversion to Christianity.

Now for me, the fact that I see this play as an antisemitic one that can only be properly appreciated from an antisemitic perspective makes it all the more interesting as an object of study. In some ways, it is my favourite of all Shakespeare's plays because it has this extra layer of interest. So despite the fact I have no doubt it is a powerful expression of antisemitism, something I find quite repulsive, I have read the play numerous times and would recommend it to others. A work designed to promote the most hateful views is not something I regard as a deal-breaker for both reading and enjoyment.

message 5: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments That sheds new light on this curious article by Ford from last year. It was already clear from that that he is quite unconventional socially. I now find it a good example of how self-awareness can just be self-awareness: it doesn't always mean other-awareness or an ability to modulate oneself or to be nice.

message 6: by Ang (new)

Ang | 1685 comments I am sorry to hear that about Ford.

The person who springs to mind that I will not read is Susan Hill. When she was a Booker judge in the "zip along" year, she joined the forum which was hosted by Man Booker. She was a bully, plain and simple. I can't see any of her books without thinking of her behaviour on that forum.

MisterHobgoblin I had liked to think I was able to separate the at from the artist. But then I came across You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik. It is the story of a teacher who has an affair with one of the schoolkids and gets her pregnant.

I knew nothing about the book before I read it - I thought it was convincing, thought provoking and really pretty impressive.

Then, I read other reviews that suggested Maksik was writing from personal experience. He was a teacher who was sacked for raping one of his students. His former students had read the book and recognised themselves in it. There were confidences broken, there was denial of wrongdoing, there was auto-hagiography. Worst of all, he put words into the mouth of his victim by narrating her perspective in first person.

At this point, I felt a crisis about my 4 star review. I let it stand because that is what I felt the art was worth. But the artist...

message 8: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3595 comments Mod
To be honest this is not a question I have ever given much thought to, but knowing unsavoury things about a writer probably does influence me subconsciously and make me less likely to read them.

message 9: by Robert (new)

Robert | 2262 comments As always it depends on the situation.

As a school librarian, my duty is my students' safety - If I find out that a living writer has certain tendencies, then I will remove the books from the shelves, namely because I don't want the kids writing fan e-mails to them etc.

As adults, I don't think it should influence us - really what's important is the book itself.

message 10: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Pool The most obvious example of a book that pitches personal queasiness (knowing the background) against accepting free speech must be Mein Kampf?

From the TLS
The copyright to Mein Kampf expired on December 31, 2015. Mein Kampf was never actually banned in the Federal Republic of Germany; it was sold in second-hand bookshops, was obtain­able in libraries, and in recent years has been readily available on the internet.
Only the publication of the book was proscribed.
The heft and price of the new Mein Kampf is the best guarantee that it will not become a must-read in racist and extreme nationalist circles. The initial print run of 4,000 copies sold out in days, however, with 15,000 subscribers still awaiting delivery. Sales reached 14,000, securing it a second place on Der Spiegel’s bestseller list. In other words, Mein Kampf, so long out of print, has become a celebrity book, eagerly acquired by bibliophiles and comparable to prestige editions of Shakespeare or historical-critical editions of the Leitfiguren of the German intellectual pantheon. Released from the poison cabinet, Mein Kampf has become a desirable commodity.

message 11: by Antonomasia (last edited Aug 17, 2018 05:31AM) (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments Ang wrote: "The person who springs to mind that I will not read is Susan Hill. When she was a Booker judge in the "zip along" year, she joined the forum which was hosted by..."

The following may be age, or hypocrisy. I grew up thinking of spats between authors and newspaper columnists as an integral part of the entertainment of the literary world. But I've realised after reading your comment that I *am* put off authors and publishers who engage in mudslinging on Twitter and other social media. It's the frequency of it that I find unpleasant and ...vulgar, I suppose. Whereas a couple of well-written 1000-word pieces in print a year (so perhaps even a greater total word count), that have to pass someone else's editorship, plus asides about the business in other people's articles, used to seem quite elegant and contained. But because of the overexposure of contemporary spats on Twitter, the old stuff doesn't always seem as amusing to read any more.

I don't mean that there should be a dull world where everyone pretends to like art and opinions they don't: I object to that too. It's the excesses of Twitter mobs and dogpiling, and the things they say in public when they don't have the time to think that would have been involved in writing, for example, a book review for a newspaper in 1993. I like authors who stay off social media, and have been slightly saddened when ones I liked who didn't used to use it, started (e.g. Nicola Barker). I think it's terrible that publishers seem to make it pretty much compulsory for new writers.

message 12: by David (last edited Aug 17, 2018 05:32AM) (new)

David Jonathan, I don't think Mein Kampf is a tough call at all. As with any document of historical importance, I would expect people who have a strong interest in that historical period would want to read it not as something to admire, but so they better understand what happened. You can't study the US Civil War properly without reading the racist justifications for war Southern leaders gave. Similarly, you can't really understand WWII and the German Nazi movement fully without reading a lot of racist stuff, including Mein Kampf. Sometimes the reason something is offensive and that the author is reprehensible is also the reason something is worth reading. With non-fiction that can often be the case.

With fiction written as propaganda, it can also be worth reading for similar reasons, but because the reader is not reading straightforwardly thinking the work is good, but for some secondary value of it, it's not quite the same thing as reading a book by a run-of-the-mill horrible person.

message 13: by Jonathan (new)

Jonathan Pool David. That’s a well argued distinction. Thanks.

message 14: by Lark (new)

Lark Benobi (larkbenobi) | 432 comments Both of my kids are gay. Orson Scott Card, author if Enders Game, is a well-known and outspoken homophobic. My kids wanted to read his books so they asked me to buy the books used, not new, so the author would not directly earn money from their interest. I thought that was a pretty good solution. They were unable to discern homophobic messages in the books themselves.

message 15: by David (new)

David Lark wrote: "Both of my kids are gay. Orson Scott Card, author if Enders Game, is a well-known and outspoken homophobic. My kids wanted to read his books so they asked me to buy the books used, not new, so the ..."

I agree that the economic support argument is an important one. The copy of Ender's Game I read was downloaded from the Internet from a torrent site - both the audiobook and an electronic version of the text. Card is a horrible person, but a popular enough writer that it was easy to get the book online.

message 16: by Claire (new)

Claire  | 44 comments I’d make a difference between ideas and behaviour of an author. If I’d refuse to read because of opinions of an author, I’d not read the Iliad, full of slaves and that is seen as completely normal. If male authors ignore women in a time all women were ignored, I take notice, but it doesn’t bother me. Mein kampf, which I read, is indeed an historical document and as such interesting.

The author’s bahaviour might be an obstacle for me. I’d have a hard time reading a novel about rape by an author who committed the same crime. The same is true for serious offenses as child molesting, murder etc.. , provided the author isn’t repentive.
These are the only instances I can imagine mixing up art and the artist in the sense of not reading books. ( but as any subjective human, I will be influenced by liking or not liking the author when judging a novel)

message 17: by Val (new)

Val | 1016 comments It would be very limiting if we only read authors who were unfailingly pleasant and polite and whose opinions we already agreed with, but Lark's solution means the unpleasant ones don't profit.

message 18: by James (new)

James Pomar | 92 comments Achebe dealt with this question as it concerns dead authors in his essay “Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness,’” specifically the question, how do we deal with canonized authors who believed and espoused such beliefs, and whether or not such individuals even belong in the canon. It’s an excellent essay, and one everyone should read and if they haven’t yet.

message 19: by WndyJW (new)

WndyJW | 6608 comments David, I am surprised to read that you have a hard time agreeing with your opinion about The Merchant of Venice. Is it that they don’t agree the play is anti-Semitic? How can they disagree with that?
I was nearly kicked out of a group in Shelfari (one I eventually left anyway) for saying that I had finally watched Gone with the Wind and found it appallingly racist and sexist.
The clear difference is between a writer who presents bigotry and asks the audience to confront it, as I hope against doubt Shakespeare was doing, and a writer who denies bigotry and for instance, gives us images of the happy slave and rape as passionate romance.

In this social media age and especially with authors on Twitter it’s harder to separate the art from the artist.

message 20: by WndyJW (new)

WndyJW | 6608 comments This is the most recent example of this question:

My initial reaction was that this was political correctness gone too far, until I read the reasons and now, sadly, I agree with the decision. I’m happy to see that no libraries are suggesting that her books be removed, just that discussions about race and gender in Laura’s time be had with young readers.

message 21: by Robert (new)

Robert | 2262 comments WndyJW wrote: "This is the most recent example of this question:

My initial reaction was tha..."

Enid Blyton went through the same problems due to golliwogs in her books.

I sort have mixed reactions. I don't think it is right to block or rearrange history because of these issues. Contextualising makes more sense but it is difficult to do that with children.

message 22: by WndyJW (new)

WndyJW | 6608 comments The article I read by a school librarian pointed out passages in the Little House series that were very derogatory and since these are autobiographical stories there’s no getting around the Ingalls family holding these views about people of color. I came to agree that the children’s literary award can’t have Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name on it if Native America children and Black children can’t be comfortable with the way they are portrayed and talked about in these books.

message 23: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments Achebe's essay can't help but be in a bind. It - because of Achebe's eminence and his being the first to make this critiqe of Conrad prominent just as post-colonial criticism was emerging - ended up giving Heart of Darkness a shot in the arm and making this a central text and debate to teach to new generations of students.
(This Kenyan critic seems to agree more or less.

Although in recent years there seems to have been something of a shift (in some schools and universities, in some countries) with dropping texts from the curriculum. And if tutors are in any case tired of teaching texts that have been staples since before they were at school, it just needs one more reason to replace them.
As I was bored by Conrad's style in HoD and didn't find Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird anything more than okay, I can well understand wanting to replace them with something fresher, and I can't find it in myself to argue with it. These books are still very widely available to anyone who wants to read them, in these schools they simply won't end up read by the kids who don't read classics outside the classroom.

I prefer the idea of simply adding more works to 'the canon', however one defines it, rather than actively removing them (and at the moment it seems Penguin, OUP et al are able to keep thousands of titles designated as classics) but when you are designing a GCSE curriculum, or the reading list for a university module, selectiveness inevitably comes into it, and with it the idea of what one wants to prepare learners for. With a background in texts foundational to English literature and which have influenced writers ever since? (More likely on a Russell Group Eng Lit course) Some engaging books that are relevant to the contemporary world and understanding types of people kids might meet, whilst learning some analysis skills on the way? (Makes sense for a mixed-ability GCSE.)

There's a very interesting follow-up to Achebe's essay in this 2003 interview he gave to Caryl Phillips, which, incidentally, mentions Naipaul in passing.

I think it's always a good idea to look for later responses to older pieces like this. An essay by a major writer is in literary circles too often treated as the final word on something, although in academic and allied contexts there may have been a great deal else said on the matter. (In this case, the prevailing current is with Achebe still, but Phillips' reframing was helpful and took account of some of what had been said in the intervening 25 years.)


Another thing I've been meaning to say since earlier in the thread is that Wendy's original question seemed (please correct me if I'm wrong) to be about what to write, rather than about purchasing. This is far more relevant now for members of the public than it was 15-20 years ago (when I think a lot of us on this thread were forming our reading and critical habits, in our 20s and 30s). Back then, other than for a few pioneering book bloggers, the purchasing decision was the influence we had. It wasn't possible for hundreds or even thousands of people to hear what we thought of a book.

It's taking a while to percolate what I wanted to say about this bit from a personal POV so will come back to the thread later.

message 24: by WndyJW (new)

WndyJW | 6608 comments I hadn’t thought about reviewing books by an ethically challenged author, but that adds interesting dimension to the question. I’ve heard people say they would read books, but not purchase them, but review or not review was not discussed.

message 25: by MisterHobgoblin (new)

MisterHobgoblin Having thought about this quite a lot, I think it is very hard to view art in isolation from its context. If, as in the case of the Maksik novel, you read it before knowing about the writer, you cannot help but revise your perception of the work when you understand its context.

Or, to take another example, if one reads a novel set in a developing country with indigenous characters, it could seem enlightening if written by a member of that culture, but quite inappropriate if written by a white westerner - I remember just this debate with Mr Pip.

And in this year's Miles Franklin longlist, there were two novels set in Aboriginal communities - one by an Aboriginal writer and one by a white writer. Although I felt that the one by the white writer was a better novel, I was not surprised that it was the other one that was shortlisted.

On this year's Booker longlist, I heard plenty of protest that the authors were not terribly diverse. The fact that this is an issue for discussion demonstrated the importance we attach to the artist.

Then there's the question of historic writers who are held in high esteem, but whose body of work includes titles that do not sit well with today's social values. The Brothers Grimm and The Jew in the Thorns, for example. Or Dickens with his overt anti-semitism in Oliver Twist. Should we turn a blind eye, should we just quietly forget the more problematic works, or should we damn the entire body of work? And should we adopt the same approach with every such writer? Do we tolerate homophobia as a quirk of the times but baulk at racism? How about elitism?

So I don't think this is a debate entirely about whether to buy a book that will pay royalties to someone we deem undeserving. It is actually about the nature of the art, the context in which it was produced and the prevailing context of the present moment. There isn't a magic formula for working out how these factors balance out, and one person's answer will be another person's problem.

message 26: by David (new)

David I might be going off on a tangent, but ....

I would not assume that a novel by an aboriginal author set in an aboriginal community would be enlightening or that one by a white author would be inappropriate or not be enlightening. For one thing, authors of all cultures can just be not very skilled at presenting the culture where a story is set, so that the author is an authentic member of that community is no reason to think they will present it well at all.

Secondly, a common complaint among many people of marginalized communities is that when a few voices from their community do manage to break through to get to present their work to a wider audience, it always goes through a filtering process that, in essence, means the voices we do hear are ones that people from the more dominant culture decide they like, and so might not be the most authentic ones.

Thirdly, I know with films that have been made set in the US and directed by non-Americans (Paris Texas and The Ice Storm come first to mind) it has sometimes been noted that an outsider can see things that someone from the culture might not notice because they are more inclined to take it for granted, meaning an outsider observer of a culture can sometimes capture that culture in a way an insider cannot.

Of course, there still are legitimate worries that whenever a white author writes about any minority culture there is a danger of it being gotten wrong in ways that perpetuate or even create negative stereotypes and it also can hurt the chances of writers from that culture to also be published, but the value of outsider voices in presenting and examining any culture should not be overlooked.

Yeah, I really did go off on a tangent there. Oops :-)

message 27: by David (last edited Aug 27, 2018 06:48AM) (new)

David WndyJW wrote: "David, I am surprised to read that you have a hard time agreeing with your opinion about The Merchant of Venice. Is it that they don’t agree the play is anti-Semitic? How can they disagree with that?"

Just a few days ago I picked up the 2018 publication of The Merchant of Venice in The New Cambridge Shakespeare series because it has a very long (25,000 words) introduction that seems quite good. I have not finished it yet, but this sentence stands out to me:

"If Shakespeare can be accused of anti-semitism this can be found not so much in his depiction of Shylock as in an involvement with Antonio that results in his letting the merchant's contempt for the Jew go unchallenged, whereas other Christian failings in the play do not go unchallenged."

There are two caveats in that sentence. One, she does not think Shylock is depicted in an antisemitic way. But I wonder if anyone could write a story today where the only major Jewish character is a money-obsessed moneylender who wants to murder a Christian out of pure hatred and not have it universally regarded as antisemitic.

Two, she starts the sentence with the word "if", indicating she does not want to commit to that description. This is all the more odd as her extensive discussion of the sources and influences of the play and the prevailing extreme antisemitism of England at the time the play was written all point to it being taken for granted by Shakespeare and his audience that Jews were evil.

I think that the problem, even for clearly intelligent writers who have done all the research, like the author of this introduction, is that not being able to separate the reverence that is felt for the artist's great talent from the art that is right in front of them makes them deny the problem with the work is even there. It's a "you might think, but you'd be wrong" sort of problem to be explained away. Admitting that this play was written to amuse an antisemitic audience seems to many to threaten the esteem they want to feel for Shakespeare.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 6990 comments Apparently Shakespeare was present when The Merchant of Venice was written but does not think he was involved.

message 29: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments David wrote: "Admitting that this play was written to amuse an antisemitic audience seems to many to threaten the esteem they want to feel for Shakespeare"

Yet practically no-one would dispute that elements of the history plays were meant to please a powerful part of the audience, as Tudor propaganda.
It does sound like a de-emphasis rather than saying the play is not anti-semitic, at least.

Re. your earlier post... again I am repeating arguments I've read many times before, rather than coming up with my own, but the main point is usually that there are lots of outsider views, especially from Americans, Brits, or other former local colonisers in certain countries, already, so to what extent are more needed?

It's inevitably rather fraught though, because it implies some writers should shelve certain ideas even if they seem good in other respects - this is very new and takes some getting used to (at least for people not in their twenties). It was only about ten years ago that one's own artistic expression was still seen as the most important thing, and that will have conditioned the inspiration process for many.

message 30: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments MisterHobgoblin wrote: "It is actually about the nature of the art, the context in which it was produced and the prevailing context of the present moment. There isn't a magic formula for working out how these factors balance out"


When it comes to things that the reader didn't personally feel from a book, it's about present context, and matters that have been the subject of public debate. I am not aware of people who apologise for being fans of Anne Sexton because of how she abused her daughter, although for some this will be as/more unsettling an element of her biography as/than the allegations against Woody Allen.

message 31: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments New article about this, which mentions Naipaul among others:

message 32: by David (new)

David Thanks for that Ant. I would not have seen it otherwise. I agree with this article entirely, especially this:

"I am in favour of removing monuments erected to celebrate individuals whose life work was to destroy the happiness or lives of others. I think the statue of white supremacist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, belongs in a museum with a lengthy note about Rhodes’s horrific legacy and the cultural circumstances under which the statue was first erected. The same is true of the many tributes across the US to Robert E Lee. But a book is not a statue. A story is not necessarily a tribute to, or celebration of, its author."

message 33: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 3595 comments Mod
Even then you are creating boundaries that are impossible to police!

message 34: by Isobel (new)

Isobel (isblrthrfrd) | 32 comments There was a great article on The Paris Review's blog on this topic toward the end of last year:

message 35: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments This article is mostly about authors whose views were typical for their time, but has some relevance.

It hadn't really occurred to me before to separate these ideas, because I always saw it the latter way, with the book as historical document:

It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present...

I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.

It is interesting and helped me understand one of the differences between people's responses these days - but he unfortunately doesn't address the argument that continued prominence for books and authors with these viewpoints *as literature* helps promote them. (Unlike some medieval and early modern texts, they are not just background reading for university history modules, getting negligible audience otherwise.) Which I think is really the main reason for objections to them.

Though his example about the phone isn't surprising either. Especially since reading Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, I think about consumption and resource-use in fiction more than probably most people do (while reading or typing on various second-hand devices). It also just has a certain amount of novelty and freshness because this angle is not used everywhere at the moment.

message 36: by David (new)

David Antonomasia wrote: "This article is mostly about authors whose views were typical for their time, but has some relevance."

I have not read the article yet, but it sounds interesting. I agree with you about the time traveler analogy. It's much easier to see how the audience is the time traveler when we think about the theater or films. If a play or film is really engaging, the audience does feel like they have traveled to whatever time or place is being presented to them. With the best experiences, it can even be a little disorienting when the lights come up at the end and you walk outside, back into the "real" world. A great book should do the same thing - take you to where it is, and not the opposite. Some of those places will be uncomfortable and some will feel objectionable in ways that will make some readers not want to stay there for long. But often literature can be a better teacher of human social history than anything else, especially when it takes you as close as you could ever get to being inside the minds of people of another time and another place.

message 37: by Trevor (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1859 comments Mod
I really liked the article -- thanks for sharing.

I agree that the article doesn't address (and probably isn't intended to address) the more difficult problem of how to respond to more recent works of art (even innocuous art) by artists with abhorrent opinions or actions who are still living or only recently gone.

It's one thing to say it's okay to go back to New York in the early days of the 20th century and take a look around with a grain of salt. I agree that can be extremely fruitful, and I think it's unfortunate when people cannot examine the weaknesses as well as the strengths. Wharton is a prime example of someone whose work has done a lot of good while also reflecting unacceptable views of the author. That kind of exercise feels like historical exploration.

It's harder to go into more recent works and feel like an explorer if the artist is a problem. I feel like I'm trying to overlook unacceptable views rather than explore, I feel like I may even be seen as defending or supporting views I'm not, and I feel complicit.

But then, where is the line? Hmm. This is a struggle that I think is good for all of us, even if I never quite know when I've come away with a good answer.

message 38: by Karin (new)

Karin (8littlepaws) | 29 comments My personal MO: I certainly don't know the personal lives of all the authors I read, however, if I hear of something in the lines of what's described above regarding Richard Ford, or Alexander Maksik, or what's been stated about David Foster Wallace, I'm just not going to read that author any more. For me reading an author is more than just paying cash for their book directly or indirectly through a library check out, it's also me posting about my reading online, and writing reviews and thereby promoting what I read. I have literally over one thousand books on my TBR here on Goodreads. I won't be lacking for reading material.

But for authors that represent views that were unfortunately acceptable at the time of writing, those I will still consider reading, agreeing with the historical exploration exercise example.

message 39: by Jibran (last edited Jan 12, 2019 01:14PM) (new)

Jibran (marbles5) | 289 comments Yes, it gets difficult when the author with unacceptable views happens to be closer to our own time rather than a relic of times past. The greater the distance in time the easier it is so overlook some views as being the 'product of their time.'

I don't personally have a set boundary or a red line as to what is acceptable to me and what isn't. For me, I think it depends on the extent to which the author's unacceptable views seep into their writing and colour their artistic worldview. This is where things get murky. For one, as the article points out, about the difference between the author's and the narrator's POVs. A classic example is Nabokov's Lolita. Some people hate Nabokov for 'romanticising' paedophilia.

Yet there is the open and unapologetic racism in Rudyard Kipling's writings, which is clearly a spillover from his personal views about race and civilisation. Shall I stop reading him and throw his books out of my house? I don't think so. Cases where an obnoxious view is so strong that it damages the art, I prefer to see that a failure of art on a humanistic level caused by the author's personal failings. But my ultimate criteria is the value of the art not the artist's personal views. Sometimes the connections aren't easy to make, as Chinua Achebe showed with Joseph Conrad, but this being the case, Conrad's unacceptable characterisations of other races does not hinder me from appreciating the value of the core of his works.

Another different example is J.L. Borges. I'd probably get into a fistfight with him if I were his contemporary and had his acquaintance, but his art is a totally different beast. By his own admission he doesn't let his personal & sociopolitical views spill into his fictions, and that's absolutely correct. I rate him as a great writer no matter what.

It's not easy though. It's hard to philosophise at a distance when things we passionately believe in are directly attacked. It could be anything. Antisemitism, misogyny, vilification of religious figures. Closer to home, I know of people who want to appreciate Rushdie's art but still find it hard to get past The Satanic Verses. Or believing Christians who take umbrage at stories in which Jesus is portrayed as a homosexual or the "art piece" which has a cross dipped in urine. And perhaps in this lies the hypocrisy of our times which the future generations might notice. Racism, sexism, classism etc are a big no no but religion is seen as fair game even when it's a fundamental part of a people's identity.

message 40: by Jibran (new)

Jibran (marbles5) | 289 comments And some time ago I came across a post on GR, which I can't find anymore, in which someone said they would not read Marquez because he was a 'friend' of Fidel Castro. No matter what Marquez wrote, the gentleman couldn't bring himself to pick a book by an author who 'supported the Cuban dictator.'

Your loss, son, not Marquez's.

message 41: by Lark (new)

Lark Benobi (larkbenobi) | 432 comments I guess there is an assumption that an author's opinions and/or conduct will spill into his or her writing.

But that just doesn't hold up very well in my experience. Alice Walker is a knotty recent example. She was just interviewed for the New York Times "By the Book" section, which always asks the question: "what book is on your nightstand?" and she mentioned a book that most everyone else who knows about it finds virulently anti-Semitic.

This is very troubling but on the other hand I've never felt the slightest hint of anti-Semitism in her novels. Maybe because there are no Jews in her novels. But also in her defense Alice Walker is single-handedly responsible for rescuing Zora Neale Hurston from obscurity. So I'm troubled by this question of how to separate an author from her work.

Here is a link to the interview:

Here is a link to a Guardian story about the controversy:

message 42: by Claire (new)

Claire  | 44 comments What is wrong with authors reading certain books? If an author has Mein Kampf on his nightstand, I would probably conclude that he wants to know what the book is about or what the enemy says. If someone reads Capital, does that mean he is a communist?
How can we have educated people if they aren’t allowed reading whatever they want? :-)

I can get repulsed by actions of an author. If I hear he beats his wife up or he is an active paedophile, that would colour my reading. But as to what the author reads, I just hope it is a lot.

message 43: by Lark (last edited Jan 13, 2019 01:04PM) (new)

Lark Benobi (larkbenobi) | 432 comments Claire wrote: "What is wrong with authors reading certain books? If an author has Mein Kampf on his nightstand, I would probably conclude that he wants to know what the book is about or what the enemy says...."

I guess I don't know the answer to that, Claire. I suppose if I felt as a reader that this was a book offensive to others I might want to tell people that my purpose in reading it was to educate myself about anti-Semitism, rather than praising the author/book in my response. As everyone's world gets wider and more inclusive it seems there will be a lot of need for patience with one another.

message 44: by Claire (new)

Claire  | 44 comments Lark, you are right. I think I would do that too.
But we don’t know if she did, or maybe she forgot or whatever... anyway, I did not read her answer as praising the book/author.
I cannot judge if his books are antisemitic, cause I haven’t read them. Still I am an advocate of free speech and freedom of thinking. I fear if we start judging people on a book they read or like, we take a dangerous path:-( (The only way to avoid that would be an in depth interview... )

It is by reading a lot of different opinions, ideas- conflicting, mainstream, subversive,,..- that we can judge for ourselves.
As to the complottheories: sometimes people read it as a mental exercise. (I have read Chariots of The Gods and found it amusing, but it does not mean I believe we are descendants of kosmonauts ...)

message 45: by Jibran (last edited Jan 13, 2019 11:31AM) (new)

Jibran (marbles5) | 289 comments Claire wrote: "What is wrong with authors reading certain books? If an author has Mein Kampf on his nightstand, I would probably conclude that he wants to know what the book is about or what the enem..."

Absolutely nothing wrong with reading certain books for the purpose of learning, no matter how awful the views expressed might be. In the case of Alice Walker, I think it became controversial because she apparently 'expressed affinity for the works of David Icke', as the Guardian story says. But that's not enough to condemn her as a hidden antisemite. The reaction to her comments was rather knee-jerk.

I have a partially read copy of Mein Kampf and a translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. No one can fault me for reading those but it'd be a problem if I praised The Protocols (either out of ignorance or bigotry or both) as a true account of the machinations of world Jewry instead of seeing it as a forgery that it is.

Actions of writers:

A lot can be said about that but I'd recount a discussion about Andre Gide that took place a couple of years ago here on GR. I haven't read Gide and don't know about his life and works, but apparently he was by his own admission a 'pederast' and a lover of young boys, perhaps even minors. Apparently he also wrote a novel defending the practice. Now this one gentleman was condemning - even verbally abusing - every other member for daring to even discuss a 'paedophile' like Gide. I was a silent spectator until I asked the group to recommend a book to someone who was new to Gide. I got a keyboard-ful of abuse from that gentleman...because why the heck would I consider reading Gide of all writers?

message 46: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments Alice Walker has quite a few years' history with antisemitism and talking up David Icke's work. I'm not sure I'd heard about it before the recent reports, but after looking at a couple of articles last month, I read a long poem on her website that one had described as antisemitic and it was unquestionably full of tropes.

This is pretty in-depth on the background:

This 2013 article from a Jewish site discusses antisemitic content in a book of hers that was then new:

(I first remember Icke as a young BBC sports presenter, and it's still a bit surreal that his main career has been as a conspiracy theorist.)

Alice Walker and Richard Ford are, for me, examples of authors whom I wasn't that keen on reading (Ford) or reading more of (Walker), but on some level I felt I *should* read them because of their cultural impact. Issues like these go a long way to removing the sense of *should* with authors in that bracket; it means I give their work even lower priority than I was already.

message 47: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments This seems like a good explanation of the way Walker apparently connects antisemitism with the difficulties she had with her (white Jewish) ex husband:

message 48: by Trevor (last edited Jan 13, 2019 12:44PM) (new)

Trevor (mookse) | 1859 comments Mod
I'm really struggling to have a consistent philosophy when it comes to separating the art from the artist. I used to think I had a good handle on this, but I think I was wrong. I think what I did was a form of pick and choose, and maybe that wasn't a terrible philosophy, but I can definitely see its weaknesses more clearly now than I could a few years ago.

I do not agree with the young writer in the New York Times essay. Partly, though, I know it's because Edith Wharton is one of my heroes. Her books are brilliant and, on the social justice side, have opened my eyes to so much. So I think he's wrong. At the same time, had he thrown out a book by Conrad, who was writing at the same time and whose work has not meant much to me, I'd think: That's fine. There's a lot to read out there so go read what you want.

In some ways, though, the young writer is more consistent than me (assuming he throws out all books with any degree of vile seepage). There's something to that. I think that the young writer in the New York Times essay doesn't just represent naive social-justice-against-authors-with-abhorrent-views; he also represents a broader reaction against the very concept of "separating the art from the artist" that is very contemporary. Over the past few years especially, more and more people have shed any tolerance of that concept because that concept has been problematic.

I get where it comes from. Traditionally we as a culture have displayed alarming complacency, allowing truly terrible people to get a pass because we value some aspects of their art and think we can divide the two. This can lead to elevation of those terrible people in our society, which is unfortunate for various reasons that the spectrum of innocuous to dangerous. We also know that this can lead to overlooking and even covering up behavior and allowing it to go on as a kind of open secret. The impulse, then, to throw the work out the door is perhaps not always so impulsive; it arises from a cultivated sense of moral indignation.

I think it can also be just as impulsive as it first appears, though, exerting its own force that is extreme, myopic, and even dangerous. For example, should men who've used their position as a valued, powerful artist to abuse others be taken down? I think so, yes. I'd be okay if many (all?) of them we've been hearing about recently never publish another book. Should Alice Walker receive the same? I don't think so, but I do think there are plenty out there who have a zero tolerance approach that results in the same disdain and desire for repudiation for all who appear to offend. I just saw Anto's NY Mag article, which makes me think there is more basis to interrogate Walker's views than I previously thought.

At the same time, I'm more in line with most of the commenters here. I think the mental gymnastics can be problematic, but I also think they can be valuable to me and to culture (so long as we are aware of them). We can hopefully learn so much about humanity by engaging in art, even art by problematic people, and we can even learn to see our own problems.

Well, I don't know if anything I said above makes a good point. I'm just trying to understand some of this for myself.

message 49: by David (new)

David Trevor wrote: "I get where it comes from. Traditionally we as a culture have displayed alarming complacency, allowing truly terrible people to get a pass because we value some aspects of their art and think we can divide the two."

I would change the end of that sentence to "... because we value some aspects of their art and fail to divide the two." The problem, as I see it, is that great admiration for a work of art need not be accompanied with any admiration at all for the artist who created it as a person in general. When I say that such-and-such is a great book, that does not mean that I think the author is a great human being.

When the work of art neither reflects nor supports the repulsive views of the author, then to have any reservations about the art because of who the artist is is to make a mistake. But even if the art does reflect the repulsive views of the artist, it can still be a great work of art. If a writer who is not racist can accurately and powerfully depict characters who are racist, why should we think that an author who shares the racism of his characters is not also able to do that? Or put another way, if we can read and admire work by people who held deep prejudices because they wrote at a time when those views were the norm, why can't we do the same with a modern writer who shares those prejudices? Why does it matter that the other people around the author share the abhorrent views of the author to make the book acceptable?

A prominent news magazine here is Canada just published essays pointing out some of the major flaws is both the self-identified conservative and liberal political movements. For self-described liberals, one of the major criticisms is that there is too much of an emphasis on ideological purity and too often people look for any evidence they can find that someone is a "heretic" who should be permanently ostracized. I think this sort of thing can happen with books. The sins of the author are often taken to be the sins of the books. We are made to feel we need to make sure others know we are ideologically pure by rejecting the work of people who have problematic views. Refusing to read books because of our view of the author isn't the same thing as burning books, but if we think that people in general should reject those books then it as a practical matter comes to almost the same thing.

I make no excuses for people who hold offensive views because they might be great artists. As musician Little Steven likes to say, the art is always better than the artist. But that someone should think it is to praise a person in some general sense which includes their abhorrent views because we praise their artistic work is to make a mistake. That we might judge ourselves similarly, and so wall ourselves off from the artistic work of problematic people is a mistake, too.

message 50: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2629 comments Great post Trevor. Finding a lot to think about and agree with there.

I like the honesty in admitting when it's an emotional response (based on its being a particular writer) rather than a generalised principle or policy.
(I think in practice this is what most people do, as whilst they may be consistent over a particular issue, there will be things they consider not good, but those issues don't mean as much to them so they disregard them as reasons not to read authors.)

he also represents a broader reaction against the very concept of "separating the art from the artist" that is very contemporary. Over the past few years especially, more and more people have shed any tolerance of that concept because that concept has been problematic.

100% agree on this. That separation that seemed absolutely de riguer in any circles I was familiar with online back in say 2012 now feels like something of another time, and if I'm doing it myself I am conscious of this.

I'd be okay if many (all?) of them we've been hearing about recently never publish another book.

With older, highly acclaimed writers, actors, directors, comedians and so on I'd agree with this. Where people have made their money and had a big slice of the kudos, and especially if they are what most employed professionals would consider retirement age anyway, I would prefer to see them step out of the limelight. They should probably have been making way for others anyway. Those are again the instances in which it's easiest to have a clear opinion.

And I also agree with this, that it could go in worrying directions:
I think it can also be just as impulsive as it first appears, though, exerting its own force that is extreme, myopic, and even dangerous.

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