February 10, 2020 at 11:03 pm #7549
Should people praise me and read my stuff even if it’s good? Not saying it is, mind you, I’m just saying ‘what if?’
These thoughts have been prompted by having not enough time on my hands, but an urgent need to use it up – which is (natch) what the interweb is good for. And what I started doing, was reading up on Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, Mr E A Poe, author, poet, died of causes-unknown in Baltimore aged 40. But that list isn’t complete; it should read author, poet, racist, died – yada, yada, yada.
I like (most of) the writing of E.A.P. but I’ve also had it in the back of my mind that he was a horrific racist. It’s not as though he kept it secret. he spoke and wrote about it openly. He even wrote a ‘hollow world’ fantasy, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which features a race of completely black people (including teeth) who are unfamiliar with white – I mean at all for God’s sake. Needless to say they are treacherous and perfidious and one of their number dies of whiteness when encountering a pure white person in a white world.
But, to my shame, I’ve kind of given him a free pass. ‘That’s not the bulk of his work’ I said to my soul, and ‘His work isn’t the same thing as him.’
Then there’s the blessed Roald Dahl, beloved of, well, almost everyone it seems, but who also committed to paper some deeply anti-semitic remarks (whether in response to attacks or otherwise) far removed from the altogether cosier tales of death and farting that hit the book stores.
And the list goes on. Jack London, darling of the left and advocate of genocide against the Chinese.
Arguably the most influential horror fantasist of all time, H. P. Lovecraft was also openly racist and probably a candidate for ‘Most Racist Man of the Century’ every year from his birth in 1890 to his death in 1937 . A white supremacist, he incorporated his horrible views into his work and was said to become physically unwell in the presence of members of what he regarded as lesser races.
So what do we do folks? I know I’m looking at what I read and who I support. I don’t think I’ll boycott Hemmingway for blasting away at wildlife or his C19th views on women (although, come to think of it…) or Daphne du Maurier on the back of plagiarism allegations and poor parenting. But plenty of authors have little bits and bobs in their lives that they’d probably rather not see in the sidebar of shame, and to be clear, I think there are better reasons to not read Mein Kampf than that Hitler was a poor writer.February 11, 2020 at 10:12 am #7558RichardBParticipant
It wasn’t just white supremacy with H P Lovecraft. It was worse than that. About the only people he didn’t despise were those of what he defined as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ descent – whatever that means. He was a raging snob as well, both intellectual and social. His disgust at the ‘degenerate’ hillbillies in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ comes steaming off the page. It isn’t even as if (let’s face it) he was a very good writer.
But yes, it’s an inescapable fact of life that those who produce great and/or well-loved art are often not actually very nice people. I can think of several examples from music. Ike Turner is notorious for the appalling way he treated his wife, but very few people know that seventy years or so ago he was a primary architect of rock and roll. Chuck Berry was a less than charming person in several ways.
I still like Chuck Berry’s classic songs, but there is one example of my being put right off a musician by his views. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s passionate anti-war protest ‘The Universal Soldier’ is known over here from Donovan’s version, but in the USA it was a hit for Glen Campbell. When asked if he agreed with the song’s sentiments he replied, ‘Certainly not. If you won’t go and fight for your country you’re not a man.’ Yet he had no objection to making money out of the song. My disgust at his hypocrisy has tainted everything I’ve heard by him ever since.February 11, 2020 at 10:31 am #7559John S AltyParticipant
There are also examples in art – Paul Gauguin, Picasso and Freud, for example, were not particularly nice folk, it seems.
If a writer’s work doesn’t reflect his obnoxious views, does that make it OK? Or if his views are expressed in a work of fiction and not an educational piece?
Some very good people write fiction that contains extreme views, but they are those of the character and separate from the writer’s own views. Or are they?
Interesting debate.February 11, 2020 at 5:11 pm #7578
I know I’m a bad human being, but still. I admit the Roald Dahl thing caused me a great deal of distress – not least because some of the articles circulating about him in the last few years contain a whole lot of horrible smears as well as the couple of horrible facts. But it’s difficult to come out and say ‘well yes, he did say a couple of horribly antisemitic things late in life as a spiteful overreaction to a campaign of abuse against him for his pro-Palestinian views, but I believe it’s an exaggeration to call him a pro-Nazi lifelong racist’ IYSWIM. He’s one of those authors whose works did not just bring joy to many, many children but helped them cope with bullying, loneliness etc. So I tend to react fairly strongly against the idea of cancelling him altogether. But then I’m not one of the people who were the target of his comments, so it’s not really up to me.February 11, 2020 at 8:11 pm #7580
You are not A BAD HUMAN BEING in spite of your assertion, and I have to point out that I am never wrong about these things. I note what you say, and that I have no evidence other than a few sensational articles to confirm the smears, and most of all that he has been forgiven by Michael Rosen* He stays in my blog but with an amended text. I would love to hear how you feel about the general issues though.
*No wish to bring the Twitter nonsense into the Den, but surely Michael Rosen is a man who has had FAR more than his fair share of smears to deal with.February 11, 2020 at 9:37 pm #7581
I wouldn’t put up with a thousandth of the crap Michael Rosen gets every single day for all the tea in China. The man is.. I was going to say saint, but you know what I mean. I didn’t mean you to alter or amend the original blog by the way, it’s at the very least a widespread view of Dahl and I wouldn’t say it was any less valid than mine (and I think however you cut it, he was a human being of very mixed virtues). I suppose it’s rather more complicated than in other cases, but still.
In terms of the general issues – I am hopelessly conflicted. I feel it’s a bit of a cop out to separate the artist from the art, but at the same time there is undeniably great and important art that has been made by horrible people. I fear my opinion would be coloured by my attitude to the work. So I don’t particularly care for Lovecraft and therefore have less of a problem with suggestions that he shouldn’t be so revered. But at the same time I know people who love his work and hate his views. I have studiously avoided coming to a definite conclusion on this issue.February 12, 2020 at 9:13 am #7591RichardBParticipant
I have to agree with Ath, Daeds: you are not a bad human being.
Since antisemitism has been mentioned, I’d like to highlight another problem of distinction (or lack of it). I’ve long suspected that the apparently endless fuss about antisemitism in the Labour party is due (apart, of course, from people finding any excuse they can to vilify Labour) to confusion between hostility to the state of Israel and hostility to all Jews. Like the idiot I saw a picture of during the election campaign carrying a placard saying, ‘If you’re anti-Zionist, you’re antisemitic.’ This is, of course, complete bollocks.
I would be a terminally conflicted person if I were antisemitic, seeing that I married a half-Jewish girl, but I am very distinctly underwhelmed by the treatment of the Palestinian Arabs by the Israelis. And I see that (since he’s also been mentioned) Michael Rosen is of the same mind. Does this make him a Jewish antisemite?February 12, 2020 at 2:34 pm #7603
One of the more bizarre aspects of Social Media is that Michael Rosen has indeed been labeled as an antisemite, and the ‘wrong kind’ of Jew. In fact, just a couple of months after the publication of his book The Missing: The True Story of My Family in World War II, which investigates the loss of family members in the holocaust, Rachel Riley lumped him together with other holocaust deniers in one of her well thought out tweets. You couldn’t (as they say) make this stuff up.
As for the book thing, I don’t have the answers. It isn’t only books. I know that some fans of the Smiths are bitterly disappointed by Morrissey’s antics, and I can’t see many fans of the Lostprophets singing along to the iPod these days. And does time along with talent make a difference? We all love A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations and the whole vast and vivid range of characters in Dickens’ writing. But does it make a difference that he was an all-round bastard to his wife once he’d got bored of her and their ten children who were, it seems, all her fault? Instead of the publicly passionate social reformer, defender of homeless women and advocate of compassionate mental care, he emerges as a hypocrite and shit of the first order with his vicious attempts to get his wife committed, separating from her and forcing her out of the home, so that he could pursue alternative liaisons.February 12, 2020 at 4:46 pm #7610LibbyParticipant
An author’s hypocrisy, offensiveness, crassness or general liverish misanthropy doesn’t normally put me off reading them. It depends what the benefits might be. Good writing, insights I might otherwise not acquire, my own curiosity – all are reasons to go ahead. There are some blocks, and adding money to the Roald Dahl estate is one of them. Supporting the finances of certain politicians is another. And I won’t be buying a copy of American Dirt but that’s more because I don’t want to support the publisher, who should have known better what the risks were and after the furore perhaps now does!
Personally, once this sort of thing is dealt with I decide whether it’s too irritating to give an author more of my time. This can seem an illogical category. Mid 20th century American white men and their sexism/somewhat underdeveloped views: John Updike no thanks, Philip Roth OK sometimes, James Salter, will read anything he’s written.
British Graham Greene, also no thanks. Greene seemed very uptight about disability, and when he included it in Dr Fischer of Geneva and the Bomb Party and decided a successful man with a bent spine must want to kill himself just because of the spine, as someone disabled myself I was troubled by the influence such a well known author could have on the perceptions I had to grow up with. In the same vein, Beware of Pity by Stephan Zweig is the only book I’ve ever wanted to throw out of the window. The novel itself is a melodrama but was made into a Hollywood film. These things have influence.
But I wouldn’t advise anyone else against reading them. In fact with Beware of Pity I’d like to know what people nowadays think of it. Zweig’s writing style is oddly seductive. It’s Jeffrey Archer’s favourite book – take from that what you will! I keep meaning to give it another go myself and give it more analysis.
There’s a different argument about contemporary authors dealing with whatever topic they want to address. For me it depends how much awareness they bring to it and, if necessary, how much research – which might include whose toes they could be treading on. And perhaps how sensitive their publisher is. But making authors nervous isn’t helpful.February 13, 2020 at 9:09 am #7630JulesParticipant
This is something that I end up discussing a lot with my co-dragon on Dissecting Dragons. Ultimately, I think it’s fine to read and enjoy problematic art by problematic artists. The important thing is that you are questioning both within your own mind. I’ve boycotted certain YA authors because they’ve been involved in horrific online bullyimg campaigns against other authors and even readers. But I’ll still occasionally pick up a Ryder Haggerd even if the sexism, classism and racism makes me wince. I have no illusions about his work.
I think it also depends where your hard line is and, even more importantly, is the art (film, book etc) asking you to be complicit in the artist’s views and even in the damage that art may be doing to someone affected by those views? I liked Ender’s Game for example but I won’t but I won’t buy Orson Scott Card’s work because he funds anti LGBTQ+ movements with his money. It’s not always practical to say to a writer ‘hey, I know you’re a raging homophobe, but if I buy your book am I funding your bigotted hobbies?’ But many of the truly bad eggs are pretty open about what they do which makes weeding easier.
The more insidious request of complicity comes in the form of an author benefitting in terms of writing ability via the suffering of others. Let’s talk about Marion Zimmer Bradley – who is absolutely my hard line. She was a childhood hero of mine. A massive mover and shaker in terms of getting women writers a seat at the SFF table when white male writers were (even more) reluctant to make space for anyone who was female, queer or poc. Her worlds were rich, complex, diversely casted and she had a real knack of writing women who were powerful characters. She was also a massive paedophile. She procured 11 year old boys for her husband’s use, arguing chillingly in court that sex with an adult was a necessary childhood experience. She also participated in the sexual abuse of several children including that of her own daughter.
Since she had always managed to portray gritty, believable and sympathetic portrayals of rape and child sex abuse in her books, and was lauded for this difficult ability, it caused a huge amount of cognitive dissonance when the truth came out. Because, you see, she had written from personal experience but she had been the perpetrator. Her writing and thus her career had benefitted. And in every one of her books which touched on such issues, and many did, the reader was being asked to be complicit.
So no, you’re not a horrible person if you read and enjoy work by someone whose views are anathema to yours – in some instances it’s even useful to know where these peole are. But imo you should always question what you’re reading regardless and maybe steer clear of art that is asking you to indirectly take part in views and actions damaging to others. Ultimately as writers, we’re the sum total of our life experiences plus the media we comsume whether that’s books, music, films, plays or whatever. Hence the importance of reading widely, I think.February 13, 2020 at 2:10 pm #7633RaineParticipant
I guess the line I draw with this is slightly different – it kind of depends if the work is current or not (or still within copyright, I guess). Partly because I don’t want to financially benefit anyone whose beliefs I find harmful (and that includes Roald Dahl’s estate). It feels like a condoning of their views to say ‘yeah you are hateful to x group of people, but being as I’ll still give you my money, you can obviously carry on being hateful’. Like John Boyne, or Lionel Shriver – I will not be buying them. Also take Michael Jackson – so many people argued (and argue) that the art should be viewed separately from the crimes, but I totally disagree. How can the art *not* be tainted by the crime? The money earned from his art *enabled* his assaults on children, so anyone who gave him money was part of that enabling. Why does talent absolve you?
It’s a line so often used to forgive sexual predators whilst conveniently forgetting all the talent that may have been silenced by that ‘flawed genius’, and by the societal condoning of that genius’ acts.
The other way I view it is about the time/society in which the book was written. Was it writing simply the perceived knowledge, societal state or mores of the day, however wrong they are in today’s understanding? Was it even, for its time, positive? To Kill A Mockingbird is a perfect example of this, I think. At the time of writing, the approach to race was way ahead of its time, and radically influenced people’s views on racism. We’ve now moved further along the road of understanding racism so that her stance now appears backward and harmful. I think it’s still okay to love and respect the book, whilst being aware of the lens through which it was written.
…. So I have no real issue with reading classical lit that has issues as long as those issues were a fault of society at the time, and not the writer being a particular shite. But current (or more recent) writing, when society and the writer *should* know better? No. I can’t and won’t fund those authors’ bigotries.
That gets messy when you dont *know* about their views/behaviours, but once you do know, then that choice is on you, imo.February 13, 2020 at 2:25 pm #7634JulesParticipant
I agree with what you say, Raine. I should have clarified what I meant by problematic. For instance there are readers who boycott writers just on someone else’s sayso – I think you should always do your due dillifence and try to find out the whole story in as far as you can. Three independant sources of verification and I won’t boycott a book because someone who hasn’t read it says it’s problematic. Thre’s also a lot of books with mild problematic areas. Usually this happens because society and progress is speeding up. Authors might have used words that are considered offensive which weren’t considered ofensive ten years ago. But once ge book is published, it’s out. If all else is by and large ok, I can over look the odd unintentional slur. Then there’s the fact that most prejudice is internalised with everyone to sone extent and writing is really good at drawing that out without the writer realising it. I’m not going to boycott someobe who has a book published without realising that what they’ve done is potentially harmful. Or at least not if they don’t keep knowingly doing it again and again!
But out and out declared racists, misogynists etc? Yeah I will not be supporting them with my hard earned money.February 14, 2020 at 8:51 am #7644
Just seen an interesting twist on this. A bookshop is making a donation to a charity supporting trans kids every time they sell a book by JK RowlingFebruary 14, 2020 at 1:52 pm #7647
Of course, I hadn’t fully considered how many cases there are until I started this. For instance, I read We Need to Talk About Kevin long before I knew anything about Lionel Shriver – possibly before she had begun the process of disseminating her curious bag of libertarian views* across the media and the web. I still consider it a beautifully written book.
I hadn’t expected the answer to emerge, because circumstances vary and the issues are sometimes more complicated than at first glance. I think there are some similarities to the last century’s “intentional fallacy” debate, although that doesn’t have the same ethical dimension, in that we are looking outside of the work in order to make a judgement.
*and it is an odd bag of views.
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