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.