Some of the most renowned authors have been horribly problematic people. Salinger was an adulterer and has been accused of pedophilia. Anne Perry murdered her mother. T.S. Eliot was a raging anti-Semite – as were Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemingway. So why is it that we study these author’s texts with such fervent admiration in our English classes, fawn over their prose in our book clubs, and read their works on our own time? The simple answer is that bad people sometimes create great art. Yet the problem with putting so much importance on works by problematic people is that the things they’ve done and said become forgotten about or excused.
Last term I took a course on modernism, and on the first day of class our TA asked us all why we decided to take the class. About three quarters of the class responded that they saw that Hemingway was on the reading list, and that he is their favourite writer. Call me PC, but I always cringe a little when I hear someone say that Hemingway is their favourite author. Don’t get me wrong, his texts are incredibly written – The Sun Also Rises and In Our Time certainly have their place in my top ten — but there’s a difference between enjoying an artist’s work and enjoying the artist as an artist. Hemingway was well known not only for his writing style but also for his misogyny, ableism, and anti-Semitism, yet those qualities are often ignored in favour of high praise, or dismissed as being a product of his temporal and societal context. This is a problem because it inadvertently excuses his indiscretions, making him seem like an exemplary author. This is not to say that context is not relevant to an artist’s perceived prejudices – how could it not be? Yet it is as important to examine the oppressive nature of an artist and his work than of the time in which it was written in.
So how do we get around the issue of valuing a bad artists good work? I believe that it’s important to study texts by these authors – and any author – for their inherent “badness” before anything else. As English students we know how important context is to any text, but the issue of an author’s moral codes is rarely discussed in relation to their work (unless the art itself addresses the author’s personal ethical and social views). In order to break down the injustices encompassed by our “favourite” authors we must examine how the author’s biases play a role in influencing their texts. Just as every English class that reads Heart of Darkness discusses whether Conrad was a racist or exposing the racism of his time, the act of examining an author’s values should be applied to most classic texts.
Another important way of breaking down these improprieties is by elevating the perceived importance of texts written by people who actively work to break down prejudices. What Western society perceives as classic literature tends to be written by white heterosexual people – often men – which often have systemic and inherent biases. Yet there are lesser-known equally great classic texts by authors who can speak on diverse experiences that the perceived “greats” cannot. Examples include Passing by Nella Larson, a mixed-race queer modernist writer, The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, and of course any of James Baldwin’s works.
All of this is not to say that classic literature should not be read or studied or even adored, but perhaps we should not only be asking if Conrad is racist, but reading texts by actual black people who speak to the same issues from their own perspective, in their own voices. Placing value on these texts in English courses and in our own lives would help eradicate some of the issues of erasure and dismissal in popular and classic literature, and would also help students discover some new favourite authors, without feeling precarious about it.
Leah Girvitz is a Torontonian poet and topical writer, in her third undergraduate year at UBC. She is an English literature major and creative writing minor. Leah’s interests and aspirations include working in the field of entertainment law, and abolishing the patriarchy.