Bad Writers, Good Books

The invaluable Arts and Letters Daily alerted me to an essay by Sam Schulman at In Character (“A Journal of Everyday Virtues”–really?) on the topic “Good Writers. Bad Men. Does It Matter?” Schulman’s interest is in the relationship between our knowledge of a writer’s life and character, as revealed, for instance, through literary biography, and our estimation of their works:

What does it matter that Larkin sneered in his letters and conversation (fearfully and fretfully, it seems to me) about foreigners and women, that Naipaul made selfish use of people from the beginning of his life, and no doubt continues to do so now?  What does it matter that Dickens knew what it was like to be dependent and abandoned as a boy, but made sure that his wife would suffer the same fate?  It is this.  The weakness of character of Dickens, Larkin and Naipaul comes from the same source that drives their art (in contrast to Cheever’s alcoholism and priapism does not).   What drove the three writers to punish – to hurt quite a few people who were close to Dickens and (if French and Naipaul are right) virtually everyone who came within reach of Naipaul – drove them to their desk every day.  Without Naipaul’s ruthlessness about using others as means not ends, there would be no Naipaul.  And Dickens?  He gave an interview in 1862 to a young Russian journalist named Fyodor Dostoevsky which Slater guesses Dickens thought would never see the light of day:

“He told me that all the good simple people in his novels [like Little Nell] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to live, being used up in what he wrote.  There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite.  From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.”

This self-knowledge does not excuse Dickens – or Naipaul – for how they seem to have treated others.   But if we can’t be good – and it seems that we can’t – then it’s not a bad thing to try to make something out of what is missing in us, or at least to see how others do it.  And if we readers are complicitous – well, that’s not a bad thing either.  So I intend to read Naipaul’s “Mimic Men” next, as an exercise in shedding my own more superfluous illusions.

I don’t want to fall into a pattern of excessive self-quotation here, but this topic has been around the lit-blogosphere before, via shocked responses to Dickens’s genocidal response to the Indian Mutiny. I wrote at some (and somewhat rambling) length about the issues raised, in my post “Dickens and ‘The Limitations of Anguished Humanism.'” Here are the main parts of my own answer to Schulman’s question “Does it matter?”

There are a number of issues mingling in these discussions, probably the least interesting of which (from a literary standpoint) is the biographical question of Dickens’s racist / imperialist views. One question is how far admiration of writers’ work commits someone to admiration of the writers personally–or, coming at it from the other direction, whether distaste for a writer’s character (personality, values, politics, etc.) ought to affect our estimation of his or her work. (Do we also wonder whether whole-hearted endorsement of writers’ values or politics ought to motivate us to value their literary productions especially highly? I think we allow, in such cases, for plenty of “yes, but…” responses.) A further question is whether writers’ work inevitably (if not explicitly) reflects or reproduces their stated values, so that if we learn something distasteful about a writer, we should re-examine our understanding of their work expecting to find traces of that quality. If Dickens was racist, is it inevitable that his works are, in some way, also racist? Do we–must we–read them differently once this biographical aspect is known? Does an indictment of Dickens’s ideology lead us towards an indictment of his fiction? The initial Sharp Side post suggests that the answer is yes: that the stance of “anguished humanism” attributed to his novels is inevitably a flawed or inadequate attitude, as we should expect from someone who could express “genocidal” sentiments. So the biographical criticism is meant to affect our literary criticism (at least insofar as that criticism is political). . . .

. . .  I think it would be worth working through [these questions] more patiently with reference to some of the thoughtful contributions made by those working at the intersection of literature and ethics or moral philosophy. . . . In Philosophy and Literature a few years back, for instance, there was a piece by Richard Posner called “Against Ethical Criticism” (21:1, 1997); it was followed by responses from Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and then Posner’s reply (22:2, 1998). Among the topics they debated were the relevance of an “author’s moral qualities or opinions” to our “valuations of their works” (they basically agree that no, it should not . . . ). Here’s Booth, right on topic:

Should the moral qualities of the flesh-and-blood author affect our evaluation of any work? For example, should a brilliant story celebrating the triumph of compassion be dismissed when we discover that the author actually beats his wife? Should my judgment of the literary worth of the novels by the Marquis de Sade be determined by learning that he committed atrociously sadistic acts, or, in the opposite direction, that Sade could behave generously, however rarely?I hope we would all answer “no.” Moralistic criticism that answers “yes” is dangerous. Authors whose daily behavior is scandalous can compose stories of wondrous moral richness, sometimes actually realizing, as Samuel Johnson liked to insist, their own genuine ethical aspirations better than they ever do in “real life.” As he says, “a man writes much better than he lives.” I love living with the Tolstoy I meet in his novels. But I would certainly not want to live with the man that his mistreated wife had to live with. Does this view of the man change my judgments of War and Peace? Absolutely not. On the other hand, a perfect angel might write a tale exhibiting every conceivable fault, including a lot of ethical balderdash. (“Why Banning Ethical Criticism is a Serious Mistake”)

Readers who can’t reconcile their readerly experience of Dickens via his novels with revelations about his personal prejudices can be helped out with Booth’s idea of the “implied author”: “the full engagement is with the chooser, the molder, the shaper” of the story–”it is that chooser who constitutes the full ethos of any work” and Booth argues (persuasively, I think) that it is “that chooser” with whose ethics we must engage. Of course, the question of whether Dickens’s novels are morally admirable or objectionable begins, not ends, here. Both Booth and Nussbaum provide extensive examples of how we might pursue such an ethical inquiry through attentive reading of literary form, while Posner defends a version of aestheticism according to which “the moral content and consequences of a work of literature are irrelevant to its value as literature” (“Against Ethical Criticism”). (Interested readers will find Booth’s The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction a particularly rich and engaging source of ideas and questions.)

3 thoughts on “Bad Writers, Good Books

  1. Sam April 15, 2010 / 5:33 pm

    This subject seems to have become a ‘meme’, as they say. Christopher Hitchens has an essay on the very same subject in The Atlantic.

  2. Rohan April 15, 2010 / 7:51 pm

    More proof of Steve’s oft-repeated claim that OLM and its contributors are always a step or two in front of the ‘penny press’! Maybe one of Hitchens’s buddies is saying to him right now, “Hey, you know that piece of yours in The Atlantic? There’s this interesting related post over at Open Letters.” Maybe.

  3. Sam April 17, 2010 / 5:43 pm

    Very possible, I think, although the remark would certainly be followed by a tremendous brandy-soaked belch.

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