Mailbag: Can We Love the Books of Authors We Despise?

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.

Eva said:

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.


4 comments

  1. mary brady says:

    Around 1972, I took my very first–& only–‘women’s studies” class at Berkeley. I was stunned to learn that EVERY woman had been told the same lines I’d been told by the men in the lives.

    Perhaps the #1 line all of the class had heard was this: “You’re just NOT like any other girl I’ve met! You’re DIFFERENT…you’re so funny/intelligent/easy-going/practical/sensible, etc.”

    In other words, you, the beloved, were an Honorary Guy.

    The instructor said men needed to explain to themselves how they could be attracted to a member of the inferior female species. Thus, the female that a man found attractive HAD to be ‘different’ somehow from the general female population.

    How else could the male lower himself to want to spend his time with this female–even time when they were NOT having sex?

    So, that’s what men told themselves: that the female they’d come across was ‘different’ from all others.

    This attitude has lessened with the years, but I’d say your teacher is correct. I find few male writers who capture their women characters authentically. But I have read female writers who can write male characters well.

    Has anyone seen the comedy troupe, “Kids In The Hall?” They were on TV in the early 90s. They were 5 guys from Canada &, I swear, they HAD to have put transmitters into their girlfriends’ apartments or something. They had women down to the nit. It was scary–& sidesplittingly funny.

    L&K, MaryB

  2. Michael Washburn says:

    There exists, in this country, a class of women with a level of education, wealth, freedom, and opportunity with few parallels in human history. They have economic power and a standard of living that men throughout much of the world (including large numbers of white men) would envy. And yet they believe arguments predicated on the notion that “Men have power and prilivege and women are subjugated.”

    I hope you do not find this comment offensive, but I also hope that someone with an expensive college education could be sophisticated enough to see through the politically correct, story-book account of race and gender.

    • mary brady says:

      Hey, Michael!

      No, I am not at all offended by your comment. However, if my original comment seemed to imply that I, myself, felt subjugated by men, then I did not make myself clear. I do not feel this way at all! I was commenting only about: 1) my own surprise at age 20 to learn I was NOT different from all other women, as men had been telling me, & 2) that, in my opinion ONLY, fewer men write good women characters than vice verse.

      I got into UC Berkeley entirely on scholarships–my family was dirt poor. Spam & powdered milk poor. Still, I thought I was middle class. When I got to UCB & learned my classmates had received NEW cars of their own on their 16th birthday, I was stunned. I once blurted, “Wow! Your family is really rich!” after one such admission & the classmate reared back & yelled, “No, no! We’re middle-class!!” Bull–these kids were RICH in my eyes.

      Of course, in that era, everyone wanted to be part of the proletariat, if you know what I mean…It’s probably still the same today. But it opened my eyes to this country’s class structure. My first long-term boyfriend (we spent 10 years together) was from a very rich family & I once embarrassed him terribly by asking what ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’ was in front of another rich friend of his. We were all dressed like hippies but my boyfriend just cringed when I asked the question.

      But I digress somewhat–I just wanted to establish that I never was or will be ‘well-off.’ Currently, I’m disabled & live on a fixed income & worry about the future a lot.

      As for subjugation by males, it has never been an issue in my life. I am 60 & still refuse to marry, not even Mark, my partner of 22 years. I do not believe in the institution–why register your love life with the state? I had my own CPA sole proprietorship for many years & employed Mark, who was disabled when we met. I did not mind being the primary breadwinner.

      (I became disabled some years later–it only adds to our compatibility, though the house is a bigger mess now.)

      Mark is 16 years my junior. I freely admit that I chose him partly because he was much more accustomed to ‘forthright’ women than many of the males in my own age group. I ran into sexist baloney during the few years I had a straight job, but mostly I used it to my own advantage. Plus, I’m 6’2″ in normal high heels.

      I think the ultimate statement of female liberation is simply letting the guy carry the damn groceries if the bag is heavy.
      And if a man opens the door for you, just say, “Thank you.” Then it has become a simple ‘human to human’ act of kindness for which gratitude is expressed.

      I AM very glad the Ledbetter Equal Pay legislation was passed. It is a real rip not to pay women the same amount as men for the same work. I’m certain you agree with that–it supports your premise. And I imagine you are appalled that the GOP is attempting to undo abortion/birth control rights that we’d thought were settled 40 years ago.

      As for those states calling for mandatory vaginal ultra-sound probes, this amounts to nothing less than state-mandated rape with a foreign object. The fetus cannot even be SEEN in such an ultra-sound, so what other purpose is there?

      Now that I mention this current crop of putrid & salacious legislation that SOME men are trying to push on ALL females in the US, perhaps not all the talk of women’s ‘subjugation’ to men is in the nature of a ‘story book.’ Nonetheless, some women are among the supporters of these wretched laws, & many men are among the opponents. Nothing is black & white.

      ( I was encouraged by one female senator who suggested that, if these draconian laws were passed for women, then all males desiring an erectile dysfunction drug must undergo a rectal exam first. And anytime they needed a refill, too…)

      The far scarier division than that between the genders, I think, is the division between the uber-wealthy &/or the corporations vs. the rest of humanity (corporations are people, my friend…). I’ll bet I’m preaching to the choir by saying this to you.

      Still, as a CPA who follows tax law changes & financial news closely, I’m very scared. How do you turn this puppy around? We’re like the Titanic–there is no way to maneuver quickly enough even if everyone agreed. Add climate chaos to the brew & it’s really depressing.

      My own master plan for avoiding these problems–die before they really hit the fan–seems to failing. I had not factored in the speed of the positive feedback loops, dammit! And while I knew about derivatives, I did not know AIG was SO stupid as to sell insurance to everybody on everything.

      I could go on & on, Michael, except I already have. Now I’ve run out of stuff to say. Well, at least this reply has a happy ending. We are all happy it is over.

      L&K, MaryB

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