Vanessa N. Wolosz
There exists a popular and ongoing debate in the art and entertainment industries, one surrounding the nature of creatorship. Can the creator of a public work influence how that work is perceived after initial publicity? Regarding the book industry in particular, how relevant are a writer’s context and reputation to the work they produce? Should the work and its creator remain entirely separate entities for the sake of appreciating it independently? These questions offer enough fodder for academic discourse without my own overzealous attempts at literary criticism. However, assessing the framework in which we integrate writers with their creations is necessary in light of more recent social developments.
Over the past year or so, many high-profile men within the entertainment industry have been accused of inappropriate behaviour and sexual assault through the #MeToo movement. The blowback for these accusations has primarily affected men in the film industries and American politics, but I’ve found it to be extremely disappointing how many of the accused have been absolved of taking responsibility for their actions (i.e. Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States). The book industry is no exception to the onslaught of allegations on behalf of the prominent male figures within it. Two of these men, David Foster Wallace and Junot Díaz, have published objectively fantastic pieces which have contributed majorly to the literary community. Wallace’s abusive tendencies during his former relationship with writer Mary Karr are well-documented; she reminded the public of her experiences in a Twitter post earlier this year. She also claims to have proof of Wallace’s unwanted advances in the form of letters from him within that same tweet. Having died in 2008, Wallace cannot comment on these accusations, but most apologies and defences in the past year have been lacklustre, to say the least.
Díaz, though, has offered a response to accusations against himself. After being accused of inappropriate behaviour—harassment, verbal assault, and unwanted sexual advances—by three women, he first apologised, then completely denied the accusation of predatory behaviour toward Zinzi Clemmons. Unfortunately, Wallace and Díaz are far from the only two authors accused of such abuses. Writers Lemony Snicket, Jay Asher, and Sherman Alexie are also facing similar accusations. This article is not an investigation into whether or not these allegations are true, but instead what to do with the works of these writers.
I am personally a huge fan of Junot Díaz’s books. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and anyone who has read that book can confirm that he certainly deserves it. While I personally find Wallace’s pieces to be somewhat pretentious and officious, Infinite Jest is over a thousand pages and remains a literary phenomenon. No one reads a one-thousand-page novel if they get bored halfway through. It would be much easier to disregard the books of Díaz and Wallace if they were regarded as sans literary merit. But they aren’t. So: is it enough to continue consuming books like these with a grain of salt, constantly re-evaluating how female characters are treated within the pages and how issues of sexual abuse are represented? Or should we just 86 these books, ignoring their social and literary impact?
How we treat these books is largely based on the level of authorial context we rely on when reading. Is it even possible to separate an author from their writing, especially when that piece of writing has contributed to pop culture zeitgeists, especially now that it’s seemingly impossible to outrun the constant slew of information surrounding us from all angles via the internet? Either a book rests as more than the sum of its parts, gaining meaning through the readership, or gaining meaning through authorial intent.
These concepts can get mixed up in contemporary literature because authors have now become larger-than-life figures who can communicate with their audiences via social media and who can continually release new information on already published material. J. K. Rowling’s continuous (and annoying) running commentary on the Harry Potter series is a good example of this. When we watch the identities of male authors obtain a certain level of celebrity, their works become inexplicably tied with how they’re represented in the media and on the internet. At the moment, some of these writers aren’t being portrayed in a pleasant way, directly affecting the way their work is perceived.
Yes, we have lost a lot as a society in the past twenty or so years with the rise of multi-media. Our ability to find value in beautiful literature is not one of these social casualties. Maybe it is impossible to read a book completely independently of the reputation of its writer. In that case, we’ll just have to adapt, as we lack any other choice. In any case, knowing that your favourite author is not a good person is better than spending your life internalising their words and ideas naïvely. When I say that Junot Díaz is a genius, I’m not lying. Nonetheless, I would be lying if I claimed to be awaiting the release of his next book, or article, or short story. As a young woman, I don’t really care what people who commit crimes against other women have to say. When I think about how many works of fantastic literature might be lost because young women like myself reject the musings of abusers, I find myself unable to sympathise with literary tradition as a whole. After all, it’s impossible to quantify the groundbreaking material that’s fallen through the cracks of history solely due to female authorship. Yet, I can guarantee it’s not a negligible amount. Still, we’ve made astounding creative progress in literature since its conception, and we will continue to do so without writers who have been accused of sexual assault.
Oftentimes, book-lovers have the tendency to embrace fictional stories over real ones. When we start looking at stories imagined by writers as more important than the truth told by their accusers, survivors lose their support and we lose our humanity. There comes a time when we must prioritise one another over paper and ink.
Vanessa N Wolosz