In this week’s mailbag, I want to talk about loving a book but hating an author. Is it possible to fully divorce the work from its creator? Can we forgive authors their sins? Should we? Many of you had something to say on this issue in my post “Can We Love the Books of Authors We Despise?“. So let’s see what you all had to say.
Michael Washburn said:
I know that when recapitulating comments one finds deeply offensive, one doesn’t always err on the side of accuracy. But according to the account in The Guardian, Naipaul said he couldn’t think of a woman who was his literary equal. The last sentence of your first paragraph suggests something quite different — that Naipaul believes “that women writers are always inferior” to male writers. I doubt that Naipaul or any educated person would take such a position.
Thanks for keeping me honest, Michael. Perhaps Naipaul’s stunning arrogance is reserved for his own personal egotism, rather than a more general comment about gender. However, I think the point still stands about the implication of his remarks. He did not single out white writers who were not his equal, or Jewish writers, for example; he selected women writers as fundamentally failing to meet his supposed high standard. That sort of comment happens surprisingly often in the literary world today, and it is deeply damaging.
Jackie Rose said:
Knowing the author’s bad character would probably have precluded my picking up the book in the first place. Since he devalues women, I could only conclude that he had nothing of consequence to say to me in the first place.
Thanks, Jackie. There is always that approach to take — to refuse to entertain the argument of a misogynist. I’m tempted toward that approach with some writers, such as Henry Miller, but with others I still feel it’s my duty to appreciate form and technique, to understand how a well-put-together novel works. If I have to grit my teeth while I’m reading, I’ll still do it on the whole.
Don’t writers’ beliefs, biases and prejudices almost always seep into the work? If that is so, then I would think that his work might reflect those beliefs.
Great point, Eva! In large part, misogyny or racism in writing will always make the writing suffer, because it will limit that writer’s ability to make real characters and to look beyond stereotypes. Sometimes, however, the writing is still unmistakably good. What’s to be done then? Should we hold our noses and read? In most cases, I completely agree with you — limited viewpoints create limited novels.
And Michael Washburn has another comment:
A very interesting discussion. Incidentally, I just finished reading a critical study by Julie Ellam of Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel Atonement. The final sentence of Professor Ellam’s work states: “…bear in mind that it is not necessary for the readers to like or admire the narrator (or the author) to be compelled by the writing.”
Excellent point, Michael; I have no trouble enjoying a book with a repugnant narrator. I would even argue that most great books have a character who does things we would never do in our own lives, or who treats the people around him or her in extreme ways. Fiction must amplify life to a certain degree.
But as another commenter put it, do we choose to support (with our book-buying dollars) the writing of a repugnant person who exists in reality? When in his New Yorker profile, we learn that V.S. Naipaul beat a lover so savagely that she had to hide her face for weeks afterward, can we think of his writing in the same way ever again? I still wonder.
I’ll wrap up with a final thought: one of my teachers was bold enough to say that while women are able to write men well, it is very difficult for men to do the reverse. In his opinion, it was because of the dominating position of power men have. Because they are in control, it’s difficult to see the world from the subjugated perspective. This teacher said the same was true for whites and other races. It’s also true that women are forced to read books that are deeply offensive and that tell them repeatedly how worthless they are throughout their academic careers, and if they kick up too much of a fuss over this, they’re labelled as “humorless” or “sticks in the mud” or “whiny.” Should we be ashamed for questioning the onslaught of abuse we are expected to read? I think I’ll continue to read books by troubling authors, but I’ll loudly comment about what’s so troubling about them.