Have you ever visited this Tumblr? http://yourfaveisproblematic.tumblr.com/list
It is a dismal corner of the internet. Don’t bother going if you haven’t already, it will only depress the hell out of you. Lots of the complaints aganist the celebrities listed are petty and try-hard, e.g. Rob McElhenny’s “blackface”, taken from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – a satirical show lampooning the very worst aspects of human behaviour. Fuck me, if we’re going to interpret Always Sunny as a serious drama providing a snapshot of regular normal western culture then I don’t want to live on this planet any more.
But what about when your favourites are genuinely problematic?
paideuma means, roughly, the ‘mood’ of an epoch. Tolerance of race, gender, sexuality – just tolerance in general – has generally skyrocketed compared even with our parents’ generation, and is lightyears ahead of attitudes prior to that (despite foul little carbuncles like GamerGate which try their best to convince you otherwise). But the English literary canon alone goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. Chances are, your favourite literary greats are going to be morally problematic in some way and to some extent.
Can we, and should we, separate the artist from the art? Can we justify liking someone’s work if we have an insurmountable issue with their real-life convictions and behaviour? It’s a toughie, for sure. I wish, I WISH, that every book, film, and artwork I’ve ever loved had been created by somebody I loved just as much. It’s wonderful when it happens, but rare.
Lots has been said about Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card. Wrote a series beloved by millions; is thoroughly, openly, actively homophobic. People really struggle with the thought that their book-buying money is lining the pockets of someone with abominable views – who may well use that money to propagate those views. As a relatively modern writer, O.S.C. is thankfully a standout case by comparison with his peers. But pick out works from earlier in the 20th Century or late 19th Century, literally the first author you can think of, and the paideuma of bigotry, parochialism, and chauvanism stacks the odds in favour of them harbouring some kind of unpleasant views. Cue the familiar argument: “it was a different time!” “things were different back then”. Sure, OK, things were different. I still feel weird about it. Ezra Pound, Roald Dahl, T.S. Eliot – all have openly expressed anti-Semitic views. David Foster Wallace, John Updike, Jack Kerouac – god damn misogynists. William Golding even confessed to sexual assault of a 15 year old girl in his autobiography, writing that they went for a walk to the common and he ‘felt sure she wanted heavy sex, as this was visibly written on her pert, ripe and desirable mouth’.
More or less every time I’ve discovered that a favourite of mine is problematic, I’ve done so after reading something they wrote. Does my subsequent discovery mean that the work has suddenly somehow diminished in brilliance? No. It’s not that I like the work any less, I just feel conflicted about my admiration for it. Art and artist are, and will always be, inseparable. When we read a book, look at a piece of art, or hear a piece of music, our reaction to it is unavoidably coloured by all relevant knowledge we have.
Some of the guys I mentioned above have produced work that I couldn’t bear the thought of not having read. Roald Dahl, man! Come on. Knowing what I know now would certainly make me hyper-aware of pertinent/indicative turns of phrase if I were to re-read their books. But I’d still enjoy George’s Marvellous Medicine. I’d still appreciate On The Road as a seminal beat novel. The reason I won’t go back to John Updike’s books is because I hated them, not because I hate him. It gives you mental clarity, in a way. If a work still impresses you or gives you enjoyment despite the negative associations you bring to it, then it is clearly something special.
Rather than drawing a definite black moral line in Sharpie, it’s about judging the potential for a work to give you something versus the likelihood of it draining you. It’s about finding a good balance in what you read. It is ridiculous to demand of ourselves that we treat books as isolated, virgin entities to be approached without knowledge and bias. But it is equally ridiculous to deny ourselves the education and enjoyment that can be found in work by “problematic” authors and artists.
– Follow your heart. If you give a book a chance, and you’re still not comfortable with it by the time you’re half way through, put it down and step away. There is no shame in leaving books unfinished.
– Read counterpoint literature. e.g. if you’ve read something by someone sexist, or with sexist overtones, make the conscious decision to choose something with strong, central female characters and a badass author next time.
– Don’t go digging. I’m not preaching total ignorance, but it is wise to resist the urge to trawl through reams of literary criticism until you find one solitary interpretation which suggests that so-and-so said something racist that one time, and then allow that criticism to disproportionately inform your overall judgement. That kind of behaviour is poisonous.
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Artwork credit: Ben Quilty: Straight White Male: Self Portrait (2014)
Until next time