What should we do with the art of people who are brilliant and yet bad for progress in the world? I don’t know, man. I’m just trying to not be a bad guy and still create art myself. It doesn’t get as much attention, that’s for sure, but at least I can look at myself in the mirror and admit less unpleasant things like, “You’re getting old” or “If that hairline goes any thinner, you’ll have to start giving individual hairs names to track them”. But I digress: this is an important question for our time, since we’re now in the business of pointing out and punishing bad behaviour instead of chuckling at it and rewarding it. But how far back do we punish? The way I look at it is, there’s SO MUCH art out there, why would I spend time on something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth when there’s something equally as good or enlightening by someone who isn’t a douche? Good for discussion, anyway.
When I recently interviewed American author Richard Ford for this paper, one question was bound to come up: his treatment of critics who have given him bad reviews, one of whom was sent a book with a bullet hole in it, another of whom was spat on. Ford’s response was not especially enlightening – he gets asked about this a lot – but it did raise an interesting, secondary question.
On social media and in the interview’s comment section, some readers said they no longer bother with Ford’s books after these actions. Part of this response is likely because what Ford did was so targeted, personal and grotesquely intimate; but writers also lose readers for broader political reasons, and for speech as well as actions.
When Peter Handke won last year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, the commentary in the press was not about the work, but about Handke’s defence of Serbia’s actions in the 1990s Bosnian war. “The Swedish Academy is still an attention-seeking trashfire,” said one British newspaper books editor. Aside from the damage to the Nobel’s reputation – already on shaky ground – there is an additional loss in that many will no longer want to read Handke, whom John Updike called “the finest writer in Germany”.
But can we really separate the writer from the work? If a book is an expression of the author’s psyche, why would we want to rummage through the dregs and peelings from the mind of someone we find repellent?