What should we think when the art is beautiful but the artist is reprehensible?
Can we judge books — or paintings, or movies, or music — in a vacuum, apart from the creator? Should we?
This question has been prodding us more and more urgently over the years, partly because of movements such as #MeToo, which looks unflinchingly at the way artists, writers, actors and others have treated women.
And partly because we simply know much more than we ever did about the actions and beliefs of famous people.
Many people are no longer comfortable watching the films of Woody Allen, or reading the books of, say, Sherman Alexie, both of whom have been accused of sexual impropriety. Allen has defended himself and continues to make movies; Alexie apologized, refused the Carnegie Medal in 2018 and has since mostly disappeared from public life.
Writer Lionel Shriver has been vilified for her politics — that is, for her publicly stated belief that writers should be free to write the stories of, and in the voice of, anyone they want, including people of other races and cultures. Her comments, writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied wrote, “dripped of racial supremacy.”
All of this is particularly relevant now because the Swedish Academy has awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature to Peter Handke, a far-right Austrian writer who eulogized convicted war criminal Slobodan Miloševic.
Criticisms came immediately after the Nobel announcement on Oct. 10, and they were loud and fierce.
On Facebook, Macalester College professor and Man Booker Prize winner Marlon James wrote: “This just in: genocide defender wins the Nobel Literature prize.” James added in a comment: I knew the Nobel wanted to appeal to more people, but I had no idea that the nationalist far right were the people they were thinking of.
Salman Rushdie reiterated his 1999 comment in which he named Handke runner-up for “international moron of the year” for his “series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Miloševic.”
And PEN America took the unusual step of issuing a statement condemning the choice. Written by PEN America’s president, Jennifer Egan, it said in part, “We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his ‘linguistic ingenuity.’ At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this.”
Literary criticism goes through trends as does anything else, and in the mid-20th century the “New Criticism” was in vogue — the philosophy that books should be judged based on a close reading of the text, apart from any consideration of the writer’s life, actions, or even literary intent.
Do we still have that luxury?
As we know more about a writer’s life and personality, this philosophy — artistically pure as it is meant to be — gets harder to defend. Can you admire a body of work that is “influential … with linguistic ingenuity,” as the Nobel citation says about Handke’s books, while ignoring the fact that the writer of those words was an apologist for ethnic cleansing?
What do you think? Do the actions of the writer color your view of the book? Or can you separate art from artist? Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m hoping we can have a robust conversation in this space.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.