It's an old story: Great authors are not always great people
The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Sunday, July 14, 2024

It's an old story: Great authors are not always great people
The author and Nobel laureate Alice Munro in the kitchen of her home in Clinton, Ontario, Canada, on June 23, 2013. Weeks after Munro’s death, her daughter Andrea Robin Skinner said her stepfather sexually abused her as a child — and that her mother knew about it, and chose to stay with him anyway. (Ian Willms/The New York Times)

by Pamela Paul

NEW YORK, NY.- Is a single transgression enough to torpedo a writer’s reputation — Virginia Woolf wearing blackface, for example? Or does the full-throated denouncement require a lifetime of racism, antisemitism, homophobia, sexism, Nazism or collaboration, along the lines of Jack London, Henry Miller, Thomas Mann or Jean Rhys?

All are writers who are still read.

But these are different times, and so the question arises anew with regard to recently named transgressors, Neil Gaiman and Alice Munro, both celebrated, even beloved figures.

Let’s go over what we know. With Alice Munro, the facts are straightforward and damning. According to an essay by Munro’s daughter Andrea Skinner in The Toronto Star, Munro stayed married to the man who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing her daughter.

With Neil Gaiman, the issue is knottier. The author was recently accused of sex abuse and rape, allegations he has emphatically denied. We don’t know what happened, but recent history shows that for some audiences, accusations alone are too often sufficient evidence. It doesn’t bode well.

The question of whether you can separate the art and the artist is old and vexing, with no clear answer, though the current cultural consensus holds strongly against. As Jean Luc Godard (alleged to be antisemitic) once said, “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of ‘The Searchers’?”

Even some who argue that, say, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot or Louis-Ferdinand Celine can still be appreciated despite reprehensible views or acts may also insist that artists whose work is closely tied to their personal lives, like Woody Allen or David Foster Wallace, for example, should be held to account.

In these latter-day cases, the verdict, spiked with envy and resentment, seems preordained. Will there be a double standard between Gaiman, who is a prominent and commercially successful online figure, and Munro, who led a humble, quiet existence in Canada and whose stature among the literati has achieved Joan Didion-level worship?

Most people in the literary world know that writers are flawed humans just like everyone else, only a little more so. Even so, most of us do not really know these people; we know them mostly through their writing.

Great writing is about human complexity, not the black-and-white moralizing of the internet mob. In the eyes of the wise reader, whatever our judgments of the authors, their writing only becomes yet more interesting, more telling, more potent.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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