Saturday, 16 June 2018

Dodgy authors

The regular controversy over whether famous books should be withdrawn or boycotted because of the author's question-able behaviour is once more in the news because publishers are increasingly putting morality clauses into their contracts.

Which makes me ask myself if I should be taking the same censorious attitude and weeding from my bookshelves all those authors whose personal lives are or were reprehensible.

Should I throw out anyone guilty of sexual misconduct or violence? Anyone using pornography or prostitutes? Anyone who has made racist or homophobic remarks? Anyone who supports extreme right-wing groups?

It's a difficult question. I wouldn't want famous books with a huge literary reputation to disappear forever simply because the author's personal behaviour is outrageous. I don't see what's wrong with praising the book while at the same time condemning the way they behave.

But then again, isn't that tantamount to saying the author's personal life doesn't really matter because they're a literary genius and their appalling behaviour can be swept under the carpet? That brilliant turns of phrase are more important than a battered wife?

There's a difference of course between living authors who we're judging by current norms and long-dead authors whose behaviour seems dreadful now but was probably less contentious at the time. Why should they be judged against today's more rigorous standards? It would be absurd to banish Dickens or Shakespeare or Tolstoy.

I don't intend to remove books from my bookshelves, books that I greatly enjoyed and may have re-read several times, because of the author's squalid behaviour. How many authors are beyond reproach in their personal lives? Not many, I suspect.

I'm very torn between strict censorship and a more pragmatic approach. Especially as censorship can all too easily escalate.

Pic: Lionel Shriver, who has been criticised for her views on diversity (Shriver herself says she has been "maliciously misinterpreted")
..................................................................................

Was in Cambridge yesterday (Tuesday) for my mum's cremation. Very simple, no service or tributes, just the coffin being dispatched, as my mum wanted. My niece and I were both crying copiously, the first time I've cried for a very long time. The coffin really brings it home that this is the end.

21 comments:

Rummuser said...

I do not see any reason for despondency. You like the books you keep them and keep reading them. What the authors do with their personal lives has got nothing to do with their work which is to entertain their readers one way or another.

It is a different matter altogether however, if the author's ideology differs from your own.

Jenny Woolf said...

Even if we went through our bookshelves like the Stasi, discarding everyone with unacceptable views, I doubt if we could be sure that every book in our bookshelf was written by someone who had no personal vices and we would thoroughly approve of if we knew them!

nick said...

Ramana: I agree, their personal lives have nothing to do with their work. And such scruples don't apply in other areas. We don't boycott promiscuous chefs or philandering plumbers.

Jenny: Exactly, who is untarnished by bad behaviour? And as you say, we might even approve of the behaviour in question.

Joanne Noragon said...

Just don't invite them into your home. Boycotting their work, on some level or another, is optional.

tammy j said...

... " we don't boycott promiscuous chefs or philandering plumbers. "
had to laugh. every one of us is here growing. finding ourselves. the advantages of some are not the advantages of all. and it's enough anymore to simply go about our daily task of living!
and as you say... it's a slippery slope once you start culling for whatever the reason. xo

helen devries said...

And then we start culling films because of the less attractive habits of film moguls...

CheerfulMonk said...

It's not a relevant question for me, I think. Mostly I read nonfiction and get my movies from Netflix, which apparently is weeding out most of the sexual predators.

kylie said...

i find this whole morality thing very difficult. Is there really a case for boycotting any artist? which trangressions will we allow? will shoplifting starlets be out of work? or sexually abusive movie moguls? or manipulative middle managers? are any of us morally beyond reproach?

Let's continue to purchase the work of those who have something to say, those we enjoy, those who make us think, those who have beautiful cinematography. And let the justice system serve justice on those who are criminally guilty

nick said...

Joanne: I certainly wouldn't invite them into my home. But their books are welcome. After all, the books aren't capable of misconduct.

Tammy: Yes, going about our daily lives is quite enough, without monitoring other people's dubious behaviour!

nick said...

Helene: Indeed, where would the culling stop? Half the world's art works could be destroyed. Especially the ones by men. How many men have had a pure and blameless sex life?

Jean: I didn't know Netflix was also weeding out the sexual predators. So do they tell you why a particular film isn't available?

nick said...

Kylie: I totally agree with you. "Are any of us morally beyond reproach?" Not many, I imagine. And yes, let's enjoy those things that are talented, thought-provoking or just beautiful (there are few enough of them, after all) and let crimes or anti-social behaviour be dealt with by those whose job it is.

Joared said...

Does this culling mean we have to research everything before we read, view, etc. what we encounter before partaking of it? How else will we know what is acceptable and what is not? Or is this turned over to some authority to do for us? Somehow I don’t like the sound of that, though I know their are people out there who are all too anxious to give us such direction — even tell us what we should think, believe and feel. I prefer to continue making such a choice on an individual basis and having others do the same. Some instances I might boycott — other times I might not.

Mike said...

Like usual, I agree with Ramana. I read books that I enjoy and don't, generally, have a clue about the life of the author.

nick said...

Joared: I hadn't thought of the practicalities at all. As you say, it could all get absurdly complicated if we have to vet every single potential purchase for the author's morality rating. Would the bookshops put a sticker on each book telling us if the author was a hopeless reprobate or not? And yes, would there be some official body telling us what we should or shouldn't buy? What a scary idea.

nick said...

Mike: Indeed, who knows anything about the author's private life unless they're very well-known and their personal misdemeanours have been widely publicised.

Bijoux said...

Thank you for providing the link, as I was unaware of the various allegations. I guess I don't follow the literary world that closely. Interestingly enough, the two books I've read of Alexie's I found to be offensive in a number of ways, esp. for their insensitivity.

I'm not sure how I feel on the topic at hand. I don't want to put money in the pockets of abusive individuals, that's for sure. However, I suspect it's a small percentage who ever get exposed.

nick said...

Bijoux: I don't want to give money to abusive individuals either, but on the other hand I don't want brilliant novels, films or whatever to vanish because of someone's abhorrent private life. But you could certainly ban them from personal appearances at writers' festivals, book signings etc.

Anonymous said...

Shriver is one of my favorite authors. She is very, very talented. A quick search of the web suggest that her remarks were in support of meritocracy. Publishers should publish the very best books without regard to race, nationality, sexual identity, or religious belief. What's wrong with that?

Over the past few decades, I have noted an increasing number of excellent books by a diverse group of authors. I can't imagine that Shriver would be against publishing Edward P. Jones, Zadie Smith, Junat Diaz, Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri or any of the many others who excel at their craft.

Arlene

nick said...

Arlene: She's one of my favourite authors too. Yes, as I understand it she was talking about meritocracy and prioritising high-quality books rather than books by some particular minority or social group.

Junot Diaz is one of the authors whose personal behaviour is being criticised. But I agree, I'm sure there are plenty of books by black authors that Lionel Shriver would support wholeheartedly on the grounds of quality.

Snowbrush said...

It has never occurred to me to remove books for such a reason. I suppose that my most scandalous author was the one who wrote the book that was made into the movied "Birth of a Nation." I have several of his books, some being quite good and others over the top racist. Because most of my reading is of American books from 1865-1929, racism is commonplace, but I would never remove them from my shelves because of it.

nick said...

Snowbrush: Once you start censoring books, where do you stop? You could find something "unacceptable" or "inappropriate" or "discriminatory" in any book you can think of, if you try hard enough. And all the bookshelves and bookshops would be empty.