When Writers Behave Badly

banned_book_with_lockReading is a funny thing. Our love of books is what bonds us at Bas Bleu and beyond into a community of bluestockings. And yet the reading experience is also deeply personal, just you and the book dancing a tango of emotion and thought that is unique to every reader. For though they may be reading the exact same book, no two people experience it in the exact same way. The same can be said for a reader’s relationship with a book’s author, that woman or man whose words have the power to amuse us, frighten us, stir our very souls. 

And for that, we readers will cut those writers a lot of slack. We aren’t surprised when the world in which they lived informs their art. For example, we recognize that the racist language and glaring stereotypes peppering Gone With the Wind don’t mean that Margaret Mitchell was a hateful, soulless woman. Rather her skewed depiction of enslaved Americans is a product of the time and culture in which she was raised, her novel a reflection of how one privileged group of people experienced and chose to remember history. Does that make Scarlett’s struggle less potent or Mellie’s integrity less true?

But at what point are we prepared to call “foul” when a writer’s actions off the page become hard to ignore? Roald Dahl wrote some of the most timeless and beloved children’s stories of the twentieth century: In Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory he championed unpopular, neglected kids in wonderfully imaginative ways, even as he made sure badly behaving adults got their just deserts. But in real life, Dahl was, by many accounts, a misogynistic womanizer, a racist, and an anti-Semite. (You can read more here, but don’t say we didn’t warn you!)

J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye continues to blow the minds of high schoolers year after year…yet recent revelations reveal troubling relationships between the eccentric author and teenaged girls. American literary powerhouse (and serial husband) Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize; he also stabbed his second wife at a party, narrowly missing her heart. Forrest Carter’s autobiography The Education of Little Tree espoused environmentalism and simple living in its account of his childhood with Native American grandparents. But by 1991, the popular memoir not only was debunked as a hoax, it was revealed to be the work of Ku Klux Klansman Asa Earl Carter. And fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s bestselling The Mists of Avalon, a female-centric retelling of the Arthurian legend, were gobsmacked in 2014 by her daughter’s allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of her mother and stepfather.

In situations like these, can—or should—readers separate the book from its writer adequately enough for the book to stand on its own? It’s a question worth asking of all mediums: literature, film, painting, music. Can a piece of art be absorbed and appreciated on its own merit? Or is it inextricably entwined with its artist? And if we are able to separate the two, are we committing some sort of moral infraction against humanity by lending eyes and thought to the work of someone who offends us? Is a vote for the creation a vote for the creator?

We’re not here to give you the answer. Each individual reader much decide, often on a case-by-base basis, at what point he or she is willing to allow the positives to outweigh the negatives. But whatever you do: Don’t stop reading!

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