When you are a writer who learns a beloved author has a dark side, you experience waves of disillusionment. When you teach that author’s work, you feel an additional stab of concern: What about my syllabus?
Why on earth would you? She goes on to explain why she does that. Excerpts:
I was the student who lost her composure when the famed science-fiction author launched into homophobic vitriol. After the conversation was over, I looked at the hardback edition I had just bought, signed and jacketed in its beautiful cover, and dropped it in the corner of my dorm room. Now, 20 years and four books later, I’ve been adjacent to every range of author behavior. There’s a lot of generosity, and grace, and talent. There’s also more than a few nightmares: arrogant, vindictive or on the prowl.
You’d throw away a book you loved because you found out the writer is a jerk? I don’t get that at all. A friend of mine the other day — a hardcore leftie secularist — was visibly shocked and crestfallen when I told her that J.R.R. Tolkien was a Catholic, and that his Catholic faith informed The Lord of the Rings. She told me that I ruined it for her. That is something I do not understand. In fact, not only do I not understand it, I push back hard against it. If we start judging works of art by the character of the artists, where do we stop?
The Venn diagram of “artists” and “saints” has almost no intersection. I hate the off-the-rack Bohemianism holding that real artists are hedonists. Flannery O’Connor was no hedonist. Wallace Stevens sold insurance. Tom Wolfe, who just passed, dwelled among the acidheads in the 1960s, but he never went native — and his ability to observe closely but not be captured by those he observed was a key to his talent.
On the other hand, it’s equally childish to expect artists to be good people. If I started talking about the seamy private lives of accomplished artists and other creative types, we could be here all day, and exhaust ourselves. As I write this, I’m looking on my bookshelf at a collection of Truman Capote short stories. Capote was immensely talented — a talent he wasted on decadent living, and an early death. Nothing about his private life takes away from his artistic accomplishment. I wouldn’t have to cast my eyes over many titles on my bookshelves to find other authors about whom I could say the same thing. Or musicians.
Or filmmakers. Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite, a philanderer, and a hot mess. He is also a hell of a filmmaker (ever seen Apocalypto?) If Mel Gibson’s personal politics and opinions make it hard for you to watch a Mel Gibson movie, okay. But if you deny your students the opportunity to study a Mel Gibson movie because you find him personally objectionable, the sin is yours, not Mel Gibson’s.
Beasley goes on:
If your love of literature is grounded in erecting a wall between authors and their work, then you have your philosophy. I respect that. I’m a stickler for addressing “the speaker” of a poem, never the poet. But let’s say that it’s my student heading out the door to meet that poet — a jerk whose work I once adored without reservation. I will have an instinct to pull her aside, to say, Hey, just be aware. If there’s still space for that poet on my syllabus, there certainly needs to be space for that conversation, too.
Well, that makes sense. So look, don’t go have a drink with Junot Diaz (who has recently been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct) or Mel Gibson. But don’t cut them from the syllabus.
To put someone on a syllabus is to privilege them with our attention. We’re saying, This is worth your time. Unless we actively complicate the conversation, our students will perceive that as a form of admiration.
I don’t know. That sounds to me like a secular version of the sort of thing one hears from a certain kind of Christian: that whether or not an artist is a Christian matters in how you view that artist and his work. Christians who actually appreciate art complain all the time about how third-rate most consciously Christian art is. I believe it’s important to police the line between artistic merit and the personal characteristics of the artist. Otherwise, you get shlock made by lovely people who believe all the right things.
One last bit from Beasley:
Are we inviting students into a tall tower from which the world is viewed at a distance? Or are we giving them a compass to navigate toward the horizon? We ask readers to analyze the impact of enjambments, and to differentiate third-person limited point of view from omniscience. So let’s trust them to incorporate nuanced, even troubling information about authors into their knowledge of the work.
Or choose other authors. To not allow dynamics of our era to inflect how we teach is to gird the argument that literature is a self-contained and impractical pursuit. If your principal hesitation is that you’ll struggle to come up with replacement authors while remaining inclusive, consider that the diversity you’ve congratulated yourself on is merely tokenism in disguise.
I have a better idea: why not choose authors based not on their biographies, but on the quality of their work? Crazy, right? I think it just might work. Beasley lists some other American Indian and Hispanic writers to substitute on syllabi from which professors have exiled Sherman Alexie and Junot Diaz for being pigs. How is that not tokenism?
Terry Teachout objects to the news that the Metropolitan Opera has decided not to rebroadcast performances conducted by James Levine, because he is a disgusting, abusive lecher. Here’s more info on what the Metropolitan Opera has done:
Performances by former Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine were withdrawn from the company’s Sirius XM satellite and online radio channel, representing a large percentage of the company’s history. Levine, the company’s leading force as music or artistic director from 1976-2016, was fired as music director emeritus on March 12 after an investigation found evidence of sexual abuse and harassment.
He conducted 2,552 performances from 1971 through Dec. 2, the day accounts first appeared in the New York Post and The New York Times of sexual misconduct dating to the 1960s. He was suspended by the company the following day pending the Met’s investigation.
The Met said the last Levine broadcast was a performance of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” on Dec. 10. The company said Levine’s performances “will be reintroduced to the programming at an appropriate time.”
This is insane, and immoral! It’s a kind of blacklisting, except worse, because it goes back in time. James Levine certainly deserves public shaming for his behavior, and he deserved to be fired. But by what kind of Stalinist ethic does all the music produced under his baton become so tainted that no one can listen to it? What about all the musicians and singers who are on those recordings?
This has to stop. It has to. This moral panic.