Saturday 12 May 2018

Diaz, Trollope and #METOO: Literary safe spaces - by Antonia Senior

The #Metoo movement has claimed its first scalp among male authors, with the disgrace of Pulitzer-prize winning author, Junot Diaz. A bookshop in Maine has pulled all his books. 
The owner of the bookshop is quoted in a local newspaper as saying: "Some people thanked us in person and commented that it can be really triggering for survivors of sexual assault to see those names out there… There have been some people who think we are banning books, and to that, I say it is our choice not to carry products. It’s not the same as a book being banned. We have a ‘safe space’ commitment, and that extends to our shelves.”

 This blog is not yet another meditation on #metoo. But rather, on changing historical attitudes and the terrifying notion of safe space bookshelves. Who would be left upon it?  Look at any book written before about 1976, and bin it. Sexism, racism, thinly veiled paedophilia, homophobia. There's barely a book on my classics-heavy shelf which would pass a safe space test. And that's just the content. Stop to consider the personal failings of the writers and what would be left? A clutch of modern women: safe, yes. Brilliant, yes. But not the whole story. 

I am reading Trollope at the moment. Now, I love Trollope in part because of his nuanced and vivid portraits of women. The man was anti-suffrage and obviously a misogynist - so far, so representative of a man of his class and time. But he was worse than that: consider this passage from the book I am currently reading, The Bertrams. In Jerusalem, our manly, English hero comes across a group of washerwomen: half of them are Jewish and half of them Muslim. He describes the Muslim women's half-veils: '.. they concealed one side of the face and the chin. No one could behold them without wishing the eclipse had been total. No epithet commonly applied to women in this country could adequately describe their want of comeliness.'

In the next paragraph, he describes a beautiful Jewess. "She was very unlike the Jewess that is ordinarily pictured to us. She had no beaky nose, no thin face, no sharp, small, black bright eyes.'

Trollope: Not woke.

Shocking. Uncomfortable to read. Trollope is not woke. Hemingway is not woke. Few of the literary canon are woke. (For those of you unaware of the term "woke"; the Oxford English Dictionary included it for the first time last year and defined it as an adjective meaning “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”)

Children's books of the past don't come out much better. I've been reading Blyton to one of my kids. In the Island of Adventure, the two girls cower on the sidelines while their brothers take the lead on exploring caves and jumping into secret passages. The girls cook a mean bacon and eggs, though, when the boys’ sleuthing makes them hungry. Jack and Philip may be drawn to the Island of Adventure; Dinah and Lucy-Ann are still tethered to the Hob of Crushed Ambitions.

Blyton. Not woke.

Blyton is pretty racist too. And she definitely does not like Romany people. As a person, she was pretty horrible, by her own children's account. Not woke.

Hans Fallada was alleged to have shot at his wife in a drunken row. Hemingway was a violent, mean, racist boor. William Golding's unpublished memoir describes his attempted rape of a fifteen year old girl. JD Salinger dated a 14 year old girl when he was 30. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a penknife, when she said he was not as good as Dostoevsky. Drug-addled William Burroughs shot his wife in the head when pretending to be William Tell. The history of writing is awash with white, middle-aged men with suspect attitudes and wandering hands (Dickens, I'm looking at you). And some of them were damn fine writers. 

Here's the thing. I am an adult. I am an adult reader. I am capable of understanding context. 

As adults, we are equipped to deal with historical attitudes we find unpalatable. We can put sexism, racism and other isms into historical context. We can separate the artist from the art. We should not dismiss Anthony Trollope because of his shocking, causal antisemitism because he lived in an era of shocking, casual antisemitism. 

The historical misdemeanours in fiction can be managed, mediated by our own self-conscious lack of prejudice. We shift the perspective where possible - making Shylock a hero, for example, in spite of the text. We excuse where necessary – forgiving Joseph Conrad his racism because his white characters are as venal as his black characters are crude and two-dimensional.

We re-invent Jane Austen as a feminist icon, on the basis of Lizzie Bennet’s wit, forgiving her women their tendency to contract life-threatening illnesses at the merest spatter of rain. We skate entirely over the insufferable and wet Fanny in Mansfield Park, in our rush to celebrate Austen as a writer of strong women.

We are readers: we bring our own views, prejudices and opinions to the words on the page - and what emerges is a tango between us and the writer. The words do not have to be safe; the writer does not have to be safe.

I have not read the works of Junot Diaz. But I will now, with a bullish two-fingers to those who deem his work unpalatable for my too-sensitive soul. Because unlikeable, criminal, venal, horrible, sexist, racist people can write brilliant books, too. And they frequently have.


Lesley Downer said...

Entirely agree.

Susan Price said...

I agree too. If you find an attitude in a book that you hate, then argue about it, think about it, understand it -- you'd better understand it because all sorts of attitudes exist outside the covers of books, always have existed and always will.

Don't, for god's sake, hide the book and pretend such attitudes don't exist because you're going to need an awareness and understanding of them. Trump is president of the USA. Rees-Mogg may be our next PM.

Deborah Swift said...

Great article.

Ruan Peat said...

I recently decided to revisit some childhood faves reads and started with Ian Fleming's James Bond books, I found that some attitudes were much harder to read now than in the 70's and I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. Having said that I still own them and still have them on my shelves. We can not judge the past with today's values, and unless we learn how things have changed we leave ourselves open to repeat mistakes or knee-jerk reactions to ban things without thought. As a girl, I was expected to put up and shut up esp if a man said something was different to what you said. I would never accept this for my own daughter but that is due to changes in society. You can't change the past so much as learn from it.

catdownunder said...

Well said!

Michelle Ann said...

I do so agree with this article. If you do not like someone's conduct or views, you do not have to read hem, but should not stop others doing so. I must admit I was unfamiliar with Junot Diaz, but now feel I should read him now to see what the fuss is about. I wonder if the bookshop has stopped stocking all other 'offensive' authors?