Recent allegations of sexist misconduct against author Junot Díaz have reignited an old debate: Should we engage the work of artists whose personal conduct or belief systems are reprehensible? At the Washington Post, Sandra Beasly has weighed in on this question; she wonders whether she should “continue to teach the work of people we now suspect of behaving unethically or abusively.” Her answer to the question is nuanced, so I won’t attempt a brief and therefore unsatisfactory summary.
My response, though, is an unequivocal yes: We should read the books of flawed writers who produce great art.
Between artists and the art they produce should be erected a large and nearly impenetrable wall. An author’s personal misconduct should not distract us from questions of literary merit — and neither should the sorts of obscenities that appear within the books themselves. When a novelist writes, he creates a voice, the voice of a narrator who does not exist in the real world. Such a voice must be judged on its own; it must be separated from its authorial creator and be given the freedom to explore even the more monstrous aspects of the human experience.
This insight about separating author from narrator seems to have been forgotten in much of the conversation surrounding Díaz. One writer called his books “sexist and regressive,” suggesting that we should refrain from reading that which our culture has deemed verboten. Having read most of Díaz’s fiction, I can confirm that there is certainly a great amount of misogyny depicted. That does not mean that his oeuvre as such encourages sexism, any more than Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn serves as an apologia for slavery, any more than James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room endorses homophobia, or any more than Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon promotes segregation. Twain, Baldwin, and Morrison are masters of their craft, able to depict bigotry and intolerance in all their vile and irrational glory; the same is true of Díaz. We shouldn’t condemn authors for portraying the truth of life’s brutalities.
Feminist literary critic Roxanne Gay reviewed Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her back in 2012. She got it exactly right: “The influence of [sexism] is plainly apparent throughout This Is How You Lose Her. Women are their bodies and what they can offer men. They are pulled apart for Yunior’s [the protagonist’s] sexual amusement. There’s nothing wrong with that, the fact that Yunior is a misogynist of the highest order . . . that none of the men in this book are very good to women. This is fiction and if people cannot be flawed in fiction there’s no place left for us to be human” (emphasis mine).
So the notion that books which depict evil thoughts or actions should be retired is easily refuted. But what about when authors misbehave in their personal lives, like Díaz, or hold prejudiced views, as in the case of just about every author before the 20th century? Should their work be abandoned then?
No. If writers behave poorly, then it is their misbehavior that merits censure — not their literary output. The two should not be confused.
Every great writer — and especially those of past centuries — probably held at least one view that would today be repugnant to our moral sensibilities. Consider the example of Charles Dickens. Dickens was keenly aware of social inequality, of the plight of the British working class, and his novels are great testaments to these lamentable realities. So concerned was Dickens with the struggles of the poor that Karl Marx once referred to him as having “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” Surely, then, the moralist literary critics of today would recommend that we read Dickens and take his social commentary to heart.
I challenge anyone to find a single writer in history who never voiced a disagreeable view, never mistreated others, never otherwise behaved in unpleasant ways.
Except that Dickens was also grotesquely racist. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “what is to excuse Dickens’s writing to Angela Burdett-Coutts, about the 1857 Indian rebellion, that if he had the power, he would use all ‘merciful swiftness of execution to exterminate [these people from] the face of the Earth’?” Anticipating the counterargument, Hitchens goes on: “Nor will it do to say that such [violently racist] attitudes were common in that period: when Governor Eyre put down a revolt in Jamaica with appalling cruelty in 1865, it was Dickens and Carlyle who warmly applauded his sadism, while John Stuart Mill and Thomas Huxley demanded that Eyre be brought before Parliament.”
Dickens was a writer who cared deeply about the poor of England but was simultaneously contemptuous of the Indian victims of British imperialism. What are we to do with him? Should we read him because of his sympathy for the poor or dismiss him because of his racism? Neither, I argue; instead we should read him because he is a monumental figure in the history of British writing. And, of course, we can read him even as we keep in mind that he was a complex human, capable at the same time of making abominable moral judgments and of producing lasting works of fiction.
In the end, the problem is that if we decide to toss every writer who is morally imperfect then there will be nothing to print. I challenge anyone to find a single writer in history who never voiced a disagreeable view, never mistreated others, never otherwise behaved in unpleasant ways. Inside one of the oldest books in the Western canon is written, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Well — let they who are without sin be our writers, and we will be left without literature.