Monday Motivation: Should books we disapprove of be burned, banned or banished?
What prompts this? Well, it was a piece I recently read in the New York Times about some of the greatest of writers and their unfortunate prejudices. The essay is called Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite! by an academic called Brian Morton. It deals with a modern tendency by young people, especially (although not only the young are self-righteous of course) to condemn writers in whose work they discern any of those prejudices that, quite rightly, we criticise in each other.
As the headline of the essay suggests, Virginia Woolf was indeed a “classist” – trapped in the easy assumptions of superiority that were part of the legacy of her upbringing. Edith Wharton, author of House of Mirth, among other memorable novels, was unquestionably anti-semitic.
Ernest Hemingway was proudly sexist.
Joseph Conrad was demonstrably racist.
And so on.
What does one do in the face of these uncomfortable facts?
A student Brian Morton talked to had been reading House of Mirth. “Wharton’s anti-Semitism… filled him with rage. ‘I don’t want anyone like that in my house,’ he said.”
So, should we burn, ban or banish all those books by those authors whose views on race, sex, class, et cetera we abominate?
Let me leave that question hanging for a moment.
I had a conversation more recently with a friend about a mutual acquaintance with whom, years ago, I had a falling out. She, too, had distanced herself from him but now, on a visit to this country, had decided to re-establish contact with him.
“The thing is,” she said, “everyone is bad sometimes. But that’s not a reason to condemn anyone outright.”
Mmm. Well, perhaps I’m not as forgiving of our mutual friend’s transgressions as she is – but I do believe that her wisdom can usefully be applied to books and writers. So, no, when I read E.M. Foster, I am not condoning his snobbishness but I am enjoying the grace of his writing and the lucidity of his observations. When I read Hemingway, I am not condoning his sexism – I am reveling in the sparseness of his prose and the energy of his narrative.
Morton suggests that we think of books as time machines. They transport us back into the age and the moral environment of their authors. There, we are mere observers. The student he was talking to made the mistake of thinking that books are part of our age and our moral environment and subject, therefore, to judgement in terms of our moral and social precepts and rules.
Another way of saying this is that it’s unfair to writers long gone to insist that they share our moral preoccupations. They were the products of their age, and should be judged (if at all) by the standards of that age.
So the answer to my question is, no, of course we don’t burn, ban or banish books that don’t meet our current moral standards. We acknowledge the truth that we’re all bad some of the time – but that’s no reason to lock us away.
The question arises, then, naturally, of what we do about books written today whose morality – or lack of it – we abhor? Take something like American Psycho. I challenge anyone to read it without being tempted to fulminate against its author… Until you realize that you’re making the mistake of confusing the author with his loathsome creation.
But an examination of that distinction must be the subject of another discussion…
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog: ‘Writing Secrets: Characters who hijack the story‘
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