Discussion: Good Books by Bad People

The last few weeks have been full of unsettling (and often unsurprising) revelations about those in positions of privilege.  It got me to thinking about how we view the relationship between art and its creator.  Does it truly matter what kind of a person wrote a book, acted in a film, sang a song or presented a television series?  Do we have to feel confident in the moral probity of entertainers before we can enjoy their work comfortably?  I am always puzzled by how certain figures prompt an outcry, but we can all still enjoy the music of Chuck Berry, John Lennon got an airport named after him and Steve Jobs is an icon.  At what point does someone’s work become truly beyond the pale?

With various last minute recastings and reshootings required for stars no longer in favour, I cringe to admit that upon hearing that Jeffrey Tambor has also become subject to allegations, I felt a feeling of relief that it had happened after the release of Death of Stalin.  He was really good in that.  It would have been a shame to lose the performance – I don’t think it would have been as good on the reshoot.  I have no idea as to the truth of any of these allegations but in any case, it is not behaviour that I condone or defend.  I just wonder – do we lose out when we boycott the work of the wicked?

Is this the crux of the issue – whether the work actually good?  It is easy enough for liberal parents to withhold the books of Enid Blyton from their children (my own mother did this with me) but little is lost here.  When I finally did look at Malory Towers, I was appalled by how poorly it had been edited.  Twee, repetitive, cliched.  Further investigation has not improved my opinion.  Other books can have disturbing racist themes, but with Blyton, it’s not subtext, it’s just text.  With Blyton, it has never felt like a sacrifice to slam the book shut.

Last year, in the midst of all the hoopla over Johnny Depp’s casting in Fantastic Beasts, I felt unsure.  My first reaction was that Johnny Depp looked nothing like my mental image of Grindelwald (and also not much like the actor who played him in Deathly Hallows).  My second thought though was related to the book which was in my handbag at the time, David Copperfield.  I was really enjoying it, even though I think Charles Dickens was a dreadful human being.  I had similarly enjoyed A Christmas Carol despite the incredible cognitive dissonance he displayed in the views espoused there and the personal conduct he displayed in his daily life.  Until I could stop myself from reading Charles Dickens, I really didn’t feel able to pass judgment on the casting decisions over at Warner Brothers.

A friend pointed out that perhaps the difference is that with Dickens dead for over a century, we feel no obligation to hold him to account.  It can seem wrong that someone who has behaved improperly is able to go on enjoying their success.  Once someone is dead, we find it easier to separate who they were with what they created.  Weirdly though, I still feel guilty for liking Dickens – he was such a total hypocrite and clearly abused his privileged position in society to squash down those he had little use for.

All the same, there are certain authors who I cannot bring myself to go near.  I have heard many positive recommendations regarding Anne Perry but yet I still think that it is truly poor taste for a convicted murderer to be writing crime fiction.  Maybe would it be different if she picked Young Adult or Romance – I wish her no ill but her art steers too near her own life for comfort.  Of course, there are fairly few Anne Perries out there but there are authors whose attitudes are pure poison.  Virginia Woolf had hideous classist prejudice and fairly heavy Anti-Semitism – I don’t like getting into that woman’s mindset.  Then there’s Lynn Shepherd who wrote an essay a few years ago telling JK Rowling to go back to the kiddy table and leave the grown up writing to the grown ups also made me decide to turn her books aside. She revealed something so small-minded and petty about herself there – I never read any of her books again.  Is it terribly inconsistent that I can still enjoy Dickens but that I cannot take to any of these writers?

The image of tortured artist is a powerful one – we imagine that the art is the product of self-torture, that someone who produces a masterpiece is perhaps incapable of a calm domestic life.  Ernest Hemingway and Ted Hughes left shattered homes behind them and yet their work remains still highly prized.  Do we make too many excuses for those we perceive to be talented?  I think that this is probably the bigger question.  How were people allowed to get away with criminal activity?  And how did they escape justice for quite so long?

I realise that, like everyone else, I am hopelessly inconsistent as to how I separate the art from the artist.  It isn’t an easy thing to do and there will always be certain writers who one responds to more than others, meaning that we will be more inclined to hold on to some books more than others, no matter what their creator is guilty of.  The very idea of the ‘we’ is problematic – as if ‘we’ can really formulate a universal collective response to such a complex issue.  It also implies that ‘our’ opinion is significant, that it should matter to others and guide how events unfold.  We all know that this is not how the world works.  It’s not about ‘we’, it’s the ‘I’ that matters – if you don’t want to read it, don’t but if you can still enjoy the book despite the sins of its creator, I think there is no need to beat yourself up on the whys and wherefores.  If you’re looking for a book written by someone wholly without sin, you are destined for empty bookshelves.


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9 thoughts on “Discussion: Good Books by Bad People

  1. This is going to take some thought before I can comment fully (and the topic is taken some thought on occasions over the years.)

    To a point your final sentence sums up the position we are in very well, but your original question spreads in to so many aspects of our society beyond the arts.

  2. Well, I’ve thought but no doubt I will have further ones!

    There is an argument used by some towards the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust who are prosecuted in their eighties and nineties, that bothering to do so is a waste of time and money as their crimes were so long ago and they will die soon anyway. The main weakness of this argument is that this will result in the fact they have committed heinous crimes and got away with it.

    It is a sad reflection on our current society that a similar attitude is taken to those now considered ‘old’ that abused children in the earlier lives.

    In addition we now have those that criticise woman, in the main, who have revealed the abuse they received from those in positions of power or influence – ‘Why didn’t they say at the time?’ Which serves to show the lack of understanding by some onlookers. For me this silence of victims is explained in an article published some years ago on the subject by the journalist Janet Street-Porter. She revealed that as a teenage girl she had been molested by a male hairdresser on her first ever visit to his salon on her own, on returning home she told her mother about what had happened who in response slapped her face for suggesting that the man in question would do such a thing.

    Thankfully, I was never abused by anyone as a child, but I was bullied at school, both primary and secondary. After the first time it happened I told my parents and I realised by their reaction there was no point in telling them (they had been well meaning but actually did nothing, and probably couldn’t, to stop it happening.)

    The other aspect to this whole question is, of course, are any of us totally free of or innocent of unacceptable behaviour at any level?

    When it comes to works of art then I think we can argue that any artist (in the broadest sense) draws upon their own views and experiences in creating their works. But… sometimes a line has to be drawn as to how far we go in accepting their behaviour as we appreciate their work, the difficulty, as always, is where.

    For books the first and second criteria have to be ‘ do I like it’ and ‘is it well written’. This can be further complicated in that sometimes badly written books can be entertaining or just a relaxing diversion from demanding literature.

    The argument put to you about Dickens (that he has now been dead a century) is in his case quite logical and importantly he wrote well, yes he had a complex private life and ‘used’ people but he was not a mass murderer or serial abuser (as far as we know.) Dickens’ fault is that his moral stance in his works was sometimes contradicted by his own behaviour.

    1. I agree – I just find the issue such a minefield. Why do some people get away with things for so long, or have their behaviour excused, while others get slammed straight away? I don’t understand why John Lennon’s domestic violence record is set aside, but then people rise up against Chris Brown. Neither one appear to be particularly good people, but public perception of them is very different. Norman Mailer tried to stab his wife, J D Salinger had immoral relationships with underage girls. Why are these actions ‘ok’?

      But I get that I am guilty of the double standards too – hence why I don’t read Anne Perry but I do read Dickens.

      Thank you for your comments – I agree with you that it is unfair to blame those who did not speak up at the time. In certain situations people do not want to hear what you have to say and it seems that this was the case until recently with many of these famous people. It’s regrettable and I really hope that positive change can be found.

  3. The difference between Dickens and Anne Perry is that if you buy a Dickens novel he`s dead so he doesn`t profit from it. Great post (as ever), I have the same conscience issues, but the problem is that it`s so widespread it`s impossible to draw the line…

    1. I think you’re right – the dead/alive status does seem to make a real difference. And you’re also right, it’s a real murky area. I don’t want to endorse or support someone who has hurt others but there’s only so far you can know what someone is capable of in their private life.
      Thanks for commenting – hope you’re well, big hugs as always 🙂

  4. With the recent news coming out of Hollywood right now, it is so hard not to be affected by it because it involves a producer who has produced amazing movies, some also involve actors. Do you not support them by NOT watching their movies? I’m in a bind here because while they need to be accountable to their actions, there are also a lot of people involved in making a movie, you know?

    But let’s go back to books. I don’t normally read about or follow a lot of authors on social media for this reason. Unless something blows up on the internet, I don’t delve into their personal lives because I don’t really want my reading to be affected by their actions. For example, Anne Rice is horrible to book bloggers and has railed out against negative reviews so I’m never reading any book by her. There was that author a few years back who stalked a reviewer for writing a negative review AND gloated about it in a news article. Not reading her, too. And there are even more. However, it IS easy not to take into account author behaviors when reading a book because you simply don’t know. The examples you gave here are perfect for this. I didn’t know Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf were like that because I never read about their lives so I didn’t know.

    What I’m saying is that it is up to you to decide who you support or not. But it is true, actions of authors do affect your enjoyment of their work.

    1. I know what you mean – I feel really sorry for people getting their first big break, only to hear that the lead has been caught out and the whole project has to be scrapped.
      That’s interesting what you say about Anne Rice – I had read her apologising for previous negative responses to reviews and seeming to do a mea culpa. I had no idea she was mean! I had heard of Stalker Author and yes, that lady was really nuts in the way she went after her reviewer. I got really nervous a few years ago because one guy stalked his reviewer (self-published author) from the South of England up to Scotland and then hit her over the head with a bottle. I won’t say t’s the only reason I don’t take self-published authors any more, but it did get me thinking.
      You’re right – I think that it’s probably safer to just judge authors by their work rather than delving into their private lives. I’m certainly not about to go looking for fault.
      Thank you for your detailed comment – hope you can drop by again soon 🙂

  5. You bring up some really good points here. I think that it’s easier to put aside people’s misbehaviors when they’re already dead and gone, especially when we take into account societal and cultural differences between the current day and the past (not that bad behavior can be explained away this way, but it can be taken into account somewhat). But current day people who are preying on the innocent are a lot harder to excuse because they’re right here in front of us to blame!

    1. I guess – I suppose I do think that people have always had consciences and known the difference between right and wrong and whatever we say about cultural change, I still do think that you know when you are doing a wrong thing. I really can’t stand Dickens on a personal level, but yet I enjoy his writing. It’s irritating. But you’re right, it’s easier to put it to one side when the person has passed away.

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