#whalerape and the undeath of the author: separating the art from the artist

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

It’s a perennial problem: artists and writers, just like everyone else, can be appalling buttheads with deeply unpleasant ideas and attitudes. But do those attitudes poison their creations by association?

It’s all down to personal responses, of course. Here’s a post at ThisRecording that takes a look at the misogyny, racism and antiSemitism of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl; I was raised on Dahl’s books and loved them dearly, and I’m pretty sure my mother and my aunt – the main vectors by which Dahl’s output arrived in my world – would be just as appalled by Dahl-the-man as I am after reading that piece. But because I knew the work before I knew the man (and possibly because the work was edited to remove some of the more unpleasant subtexts), I find myself still able to draw a line between the two… though I suspect were I to re-read Dahl now, in light of the above, I’d be looking out for clues and signs of his sublimated nastiness. It’s hard to read with clean-slate innocence with that sort of knowledge hanging at the back of your brain.

Interestingly, though, this doesn’t seem to work the other way. Regular readers will know of my antipathy to archbigot and homophobe Orson Scott Card. I discovered Card’s reputation before ever reading any of his books, and as a result have read none of them (though I have read a few short stories since, which seemed only to confirm my opinions). And speaking of Mormons, habitués of the genre fandom Twittersphere may have noticed the #whalerape hashtag over the weekend, as a bunch of people (re)read this year’s Nebula winning novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. As the body and comments of the Locus Roundtable blog post about it demonstrate, opinions differ wildly as to its merits (or lack thereof), and the point of fracture seems to be along lines of attitude to religious missionary work in general, and Mormon proselytising in particular. Having seen the running commentary – not to mention discovering that Stone’s attitudes to homosexuality are in the same retrograde camp as Card’s – I’m finding myself deeply prejudiced against the guy’s work.

To be clear, I don’t think this sort of prejudice is dependent on the nature of the offence caused: I imagine that a conservative reader might be just as shocked and put off an artist by finding out they were a closet Troskyite, for instance. But I do wonder if the problem isn’t exacerbated by the new-found publicness (?) of the artist lifestyle. With writers in particular, the old model – communicating with your public primarily through one’s work, and the occasional public appearance or bit of journalism if one were of sufficient stature to get the gigs – has given way to a much more performative presence: the author as celebrity, as pundit. It’s never been easier to find out what the most minor of authors thinks about sports, politics or other ethical quandaries… though, to be fair, the same applies to people in all walks of life. We’re all celebrities now; it’s merely a matter of audience magnitude.

This all ties in with my ongoing fascination with what literature critics call the intentional fallacy, which suggests you can only judge a text on its own merits; critiquing a text on the basis of knowledge about the author’s philosophies and actions beyond those admitted of in the text itself is an act of biography rather than criticism. Part of me finds the poststructuralist undertones of the intentional fallacy appealing – the author is dead, and we can find whatever meanings we like in every text! – but I’m increasingly convinced that, as noble and high-minded a critical ideal as it may be, it simply isn’t compatible with the world we now live in. Call it “the undeath of the author”, maybe; they may not be alive within the text itself, but something of them shambles around outside its perimeter fences. Perhaps in the post-war years it was easy to assume a text could be hermetically sealed off from the world in which it was created and in which it will be read; in the hyperlinked and searchable world we now live in, the outer membrane of every text has become permeable to a lesser or greater degree – no firewall is completely hack-proof, right? – and one of the first and easiest conflations to make is that of the author’s publicly-held opinions and the meaning of their text.

All of which may seem like academic noodling (guilty as charged), but I think there’s a real issue here, too. In light of recent discussions about the comparative invisibility of women or people of colour in anthology TOCs, best-of-the-genre lists and prize nominations, this difficulty in separating art from artist becomes a more problematic thing, and damages the credibility of editors or anthologists who claim to be colour-, creed- or gender-blind when reading submissions. To flip the issue around (and demostrate the prejudices do point both ways): say I was editing an anthology, and an Eric James Stone story came over the submissions transom; I like to think I’d read it and give it as fair a chance to succeed on its own merits as anyone else’s, but I can’t in all honesty say I’d truly manage to do so. And that’s an example of a conscious prejudice, one of which I am aware and can – to a lesser or greater extent – work to minimise; what about the subconscious culturally-encoded prejudices against women, LGBTQ people and people of colour, the ones that we almost all believe we don’t have, but which we almost all do have?

(I fully count myself among that “almost all”, by the way; I’m not entirely sure I believe any of us can entirely free ourselves from culturally-encoded prejudices, but we can at least work to mitigate them once we’ve become aware of them, a process which becomes – albeit very gradually – easier over time. Much as in AA’s twelve-step program, the first step is to admit that you have a problem; that’s also the hardest step of all.)

As is probably plain (and certainly in keeping with local tradition) I don’t have any answers to this dilemma; I’m just throwing out a collection of ideas to see what other folk think about them. So, whatcha got, huh?

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7 Responses to “#whalerape and the undeath of the author: separating the art from the artist”

  1. kev mcveigh says:

    Not entirely sure how ‘new found’ this publicness is. Sure the internet globalises and exaggerates but Byron benefited greatly by his notoriety, and Percy Shelley’s preface to the Anonymous first edition of Frankenstein was enough for Jeffreys and others to condemn it as immoral. The result, in Mary’s words: ‘I awoke and found myself famous’ (often misattributed to Byron).
    Wordsworth and Southey famously denounced Hazlitt’s writing unread because of a personal incident a decade earlier.
    It’s not new. But if its used in conjunction with textual analysis what’s the problem?

  2. Sterling Camden says:

    I don’t think it’s a fallacy to consider the author as part of the artwork. At the same time, to preemptively reject a work of art because of its author is foolish. One should be able to appreciate, for instance, the sublimity of some of Wagner’s music while at the same time being fully conscious of his many failings and detestable ideas. We need to know that people aren’t all good or evil, that both treasures and filth can proceed from the same source.

  3. Sarah Ennals says:

    Thanks for mentioning Wagner – I was going to bring him up in order to suggest that it’s a slightly different, and perhaps simpler, issue, when the horrible-but-talented person is long dead – it’s now possible to enjoy Wagner’s music while repudiating his ideas, since it’s now fairly certain any money you spend on tickets/recordings/downloads isn’t going to him.

    With current artists there’s the worry that even if their work is apolitical, paying them for it will give them money to donate to political causes you oppose – but that’s a slippery area – should I refrain from listening to artists suspected of substance abuse, because they might spend their royalties on drugs?

  4. Paul Raven says:

    Thanks for the input, folks.

    Kev: agree that publicness of views is not exactly new as such, but my point is that, in Byron and Shelley’s day, someone with as minor a published career as EJS would not have had many platforms other than his published work to speak from. B & S were superstars; the flattening of the cultural landscape means there are less huge peaks, and valleys of obscurity are more easily travelled to. Even a mere decade ago, we might very well never have stumbled across Stone’s comments about “correcting” homosexuality, as they’d have appeared in a print publication with a predominantly (if not universally) Mormon readership, who – I think it’s safe to assume – would have felt no need to publicise such comments among people who would have found them repugnant. The sword cuts two ways, of course; some writers probably gain audience by sharing their views on non-fictional matters on the internet… and in such cases one can assume that, even if the writer isn’t deliberately seeding their fiction with their politics, there may be an expectation of them doing so among the readership attracted by said politics. Hence my theory that the art and the artist are increasingly conflated with each other; the cult of celebrity/personality is an additional factor, as personality is far more performative and public than ever before. So it might be fairer and clearer for me to say that publicness isn’t a new thing, but that its influence is increasingly ubiquitous.

    Sterling, Sarah: Wagner is indeed an interesting data point here, because as a writer of operas he can’t be handwaved away as someone making apolitical works (which is an excuse that could be made, whether accurately or otherwise, for a lot of composers). I’m only familiar with Wagner’s work at one remove; as such, I’m aware of his enduring popularity and influence as well as his personal politics, though I don’t really know his work at all.

    For clarity, I’m certainly not saying we should ban or censor the work of artists whose views we find unpleasant – indeed, I don’t think we should censor them even when the work in question is a transparent vehicle for said views. I think what I’m driving at is that the way we “read” a “text” is changing, because – as I suggest in my response to Kev above – even the most minor artist is more visible than ever before, and because art – like everything else – is not getting any less politicised. In fact, I think you could make an argument that art is becoming the dominant ideological battleground… which makes for a lot of shitty slapfights on the internet, but might (if we’re lucky) lead to less people being shot, gassed, blown to bits or whatever. (Well, in the name of ideology at least; economic wars will probably still be all too physical.)

    With current artists there’s the worry that even if their work is apolitical, paying them for it will give them money to donate to political causes you oppose – but that’s a slippery area – should I refrain from listening to artists suspected of substance abuse, because they might spend their royalties on drugs?

    I suspect that this risk has always been there, actually; it’s only now – with that aforementioned heightened visibility and politicisation – that it occurs to us to think in those terms. Buying a book has always been a political act in some respects, but the chain of influence is clearer to us now; we understand the world as a system far more thoroughly than we did in Wagner’s day, for instance.

    (And as for avoiding buying music by musicians who might spend the money on drugs, unless you’re willing to subsist on an audio diet of “all Bieber, all the time”, I’d hazard that’s a step too far! 😉 )

    But all the above concerns artists whose work is already published or performed or exhibited. One of my concerns is how a priori knowledge of an artist’s politics (or sex, or race, or gender) might prevent them from getting published in the first place; this has always been a problem (cf. the invisibility of female authors), but will it become more of one? Or will the flattening of the art marketplaces (musicians on Bandcamp, writers in the Kindle Store etc.) end up making that visibility an advantage, a way to attract consumers interested in the same ideological niches? And if the latter is the case, will that lead to a spiralling intensity in the politicisation of art?

  5. Stephen J. says:

    Speaking as a conservative reader, I think I can safely say most of us are *never* (or at best very, *very* rarely) shocked by finding out an artist or author is a closet Trotskyite. Mostly because there is next to *no* such thing as a “closet” Trotskyite. 🙂

    As far as an artist’s politics or identity may prevent them being published or distributed, certainly I think the flattening of the market place will help; but I would quote a remark whose attribution I have unfortunately lost: “Martin Luther King dreamed of a world where his children would be judged not on the colour of their skin, but on the content of their character. But he never dreamed of a world where any criticism of their character, no matter how valid, could be dismissed as mere bigotry about their skin.”

    It is always a temptation to justify our predilections about others by claiming them to be mere objective assessment — but it is an equal temptation to dismiss others’ unfavourable assessments of ourselves as mere subjective predilection. Admitting one has a problem is a big step, but inferring that anyone who hasn’t yet made such an admission must have one is the worst kind of invisible-cat logic.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I’m in this camp: I thought the story was awful, and I would’ve thought that regardless of whether or not I abhor missionaries. As it happens, I abhor missionaries, but that has nothing to do with my assessment of the story. JeffV

  7. Sterling Camden says:

    @Sarah,Paul: I think that trying to avoid remunerating artists who will, in one’s opinion, misuse those funds will likely be as successful as trying to stay healthy by avoiding bacteria.