with Nathan Whitlock
The HLR presents a topical exchange between two individuals connected to the Canadian writing, reading, and publishing scene.
Great Writer; Terrible Person
Thanks to social media and exhaustive tell-all biographies, readers have more and more opportunities to discover the fundamental unpleasantness of their favourite writers, living and dead. Should the fact that writers are total jerks affect how you read their work? Are some sins forgivable while others represent deal-breakers? Kerry Clare and Corey Redekop—both writers with utterly spotless personalities—discuss the problem of reading the reprehensible.
Kerry Clare: For some reason, the writers I like usually turn out to be decent-enough people. I don’t know that there is a genuinely horrible person in my library. Sometimes I wonder though if this is because I tend to read more women writers than men. Could being a total a-hole be more of a guy-writer thing? They certainly do have an easier time getting away with it. (By which I mean that none of my favourite writers have a tendency to stab their spouses, for example....)
Corey Redekop: Most of the authors I enjoy are, as far as I know, fairly decent people. But there are a few whose views leave a lingering taint over their work for me. One author (whose name I won’t mention, as I don’t believe the views of that author are common knowledge) has written work that has always been a source of great comfort for me. Yet his political views go to the far right of the right-wing lunatic fringe. The same with Ray Bradbury: his work is beautiful, yet near the end of his life he was, politically speaking, indistinguishable from a Tea Partier. I can still read their work, even enjoy it, but always the magic of their tales is coloured with this future hatred they’d come to exhibit.
As for guys? The a-hole quotient is likely higher for authors with both X and Y chromosomes, but certainly there exists a fair amount of deeply unlikeable double-Xers.
KC: I forgive my beloved Barbara Pym her Nazi sympathies, as disclosed in her autobiography. Because she was young, impressionable, and (as was always the case with Pym) in love with somebody—in this case a soldier. And because if Barbara Pym could have Nazi sympathies, anything is possible of anybody. Misogyny is a red line for me. Racism, too. These tend to be more features belonging to dead guys. In living writers, I find autobiographical novels a bit unforgivable—those in which the protagonist has the same name as the author and is excruciatingly annoying, though we’re not allowed to point this out as a point of criticism, or offer it as the reason such books are unbearable. (I’m thinking that dreadful David Gilmour book, The Perfect Order of Things, for example).
CR: Is there a red line for me? No person is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and very few should be judged solely on the worst thing they’ve ever done. But when a person’s acts are not a one-time thing or a matter of personality, but are instead an ongoing affair, it becomes much more difficult to separate the artist from the work. Orson Scott Card has hardly been quiet on his opposition to homosexuality, going so far as to actively campaign against gay rights; as a result, I just can’t read him. I tell myself it’s not simply a matter of political views; I can read and enjoy, say, Mark Helprin’s work, even though we have vastly differing approaches to society. But it’s this mentality of unrepentant hatred, of willful ignorance, that I cannot get past, no matter how good the work is. It also goes for racism, sexism... a lot of isms.
Yet it does appear that the passage of time may erase certain aspects of a writer’s personality from history. Perhaps that speaks to the strengths of the work, that they may outlive the distasteful memory of their creators. H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tales outlive his propensity for racism. T.S. Eliot’s poetry outruns his anti-Semitism. Charles Dickens’s stories live on, while his horrible treatment of his wife is a little-known thing.
KC: Sometimes the red lines just make it easier to dismiss the writers whose work you can’t stand, anyway.
CR: True, I’m often predisposed to dislike a work based on the character of the person beforehand. I don’t see myself clamouring to read the next Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck, for example, because I find them to be despicable human beings. It wouldn’t matter if Rush Limbaugh wrote the next Phantom Tollbooth, I could never bring myself to touch it.
A reader is perfectly justified in walking away if an author’s acts, comments, or beliefs bother the reader to such an extent. That’s the risk of the world we live in, that the author is far easier to access as a person beyond the art. I’m sure I’ve turned some people off just by writing this sentence. Once it’s out there, in the ether of the cyber, a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions cannot help but tarnish their image. In a lot of ways, it’s up to the artist; if they’re okay with putting their own opinions out there, then they should take their lumps.
I can’t offhand think of anyone I know who reads someone whom I detest. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, only that I’m unaware of it. That’s likely intentional on the part of my friends; they know I’d never let it go.
KC: I would never have let such a reader become a friend in the first place—before I get to know a person, I get to know that person’s bookshelf. And what’s on the shelf determined if the friendship is make or break.
CR: Yes! So much yes!
Kerry Clare is a National Magazine Award-nominated writer, and editor of the essay anthology, The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. She’s editor of 49thShelf.com, writes about books and reading at her own blog, Pickle Me This, and her debut novel, Mitzi Bytes, will be published in early 2017. @KerryReads
Corey Redekop’s debut novel, Shelf Monkey, was named an Essential Novel of the Decade by CBC Canada Reads. His novel Husk, a finalist for the 2013 ReLit Award, was declared a Best Book of 2012 by Amazon.ca and January magazine. Shorter examples of his work may be found in such anthologies as The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir and Licence Expired: The Unauthorized James Bond. Currently he is editing an anthology of Canadian comedy to be published by Exile Editions. @CoreyRedekop