When We Can’t Separate a Person from his Work
Today’s Blog Post comes from Brenda Peynado.
Every week, the Kenyon Review features a story and poem of the week in a mass email. I normally look forward to reading the work curated from KR’s archives and celebrated, and some of my favorite writing I first discovered in those emails. Last week, however, the story was a Woody Allen story. Immediately, I felt betrayed. I felt angry. After my emotional gut reaction, I tried to have a logical one. Was I justified for my feelings? What was the KR’s intention? Knowing how much attention the controversy surrounding Allen has gotten, it seems unimaginable that the editors at KR were unaware of it. Which means that they made the decision to celebrate Woody Allen for a story he wrote over 30 years ago in their archives, knowing full well they were doing something many people question and others have called for a stop to. Maybe they did it specifically to celebrate Allen and show some solidarity to his case, maybe to demonstrate that they believe he is innocent of molesting Dylan Farrow, or at least that he hasn’t been convicted in a court of law. (I’ll leave it for others to argue the unfortunate state of how few sexual crimes are convicted in courts of law, and how quickly we wash our hands of victims’ testimonies.) Maybe they did it because of the controversy, hoping to get some attention and traffic on their website in the aftermath that would follow. The best possible scenario is that they think the story merited more attention, they thought republishing a story they’d already published was a neutral action; that they don’t have to take a side in the public debate, that they could separate anything said about the man in public opinion from the value of his work.
But this is not a neutral action. Especially considering the story had to be dug up from thirty years back to celebrate it. This is a tricky business, entangling and disentangling a person’s life versus their work. Where do we draw the line? What responsibility do we have to do it?
How much can we actually separate a person and their work? Can we exclude questionable morals in the art itself from impinging on an artist’s self? By and large, most artists would say, yes. Art’s purpose is to stir powerful emotion and thought, not to give pat morals. When people burn or censor books, most writers scoff at the simplistic motivations behind such actions. Nabokov’s Lolita, by any moral account, would be censored, and has been censored, but writers agree that it was an intentionally provocative book, intended to question rather than preach. We writers certainly don’t want anyone censoring it. We write flawed characters with questionable motivations all the time. We celebrate Humbert Humbert not for his morals but for the technique employed to write him, the epitome of unreliable narrators. We celebrate Fuckhead in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son because he moves us. Would we assume that Nabokov’s morals were that of Humbert Humbert’s? Of course not. As writers we recognize that the narrators of fiction and speakers of poems can be separate, and if they are tangled, they are so in ways we cannot easily put our finger on. So we do, in some cases, separate the writer’s life from his work.
A few weeks ago, Seth Abramson wrote a poem using Isla Vista killer Elliott Rodger’s final words before he went on a killing spree. His poem, in my opinion, was abysmal, and the promptness of the poem’s publication seemed to point more to attention-grabbing than the thoughtfulness and gravity we normally lend to art. Maybe Abramson always writes his poems that quickly, and maybe none of his poems are to my taste. Either way, I was still surprised at the intensity of the backlash. A few days after the poem was published, Omnidawn sent out an email to their mailing list, beginning, “Because silence is often understood as tacit agreement or acceptance… we feel it is our responsibility to say that his actions in this matter are not in alignment with our principles.” They then continued to say, ambiguously, that they would no longer be publishing the Best American Experimental Writing series, co-edited by Seth Abramson. Here is a case in contrast to the Kenyon Review’s actions in celebrating Woody Allen, an organization that is hyper-attentive to the consequences of supporting someone’s work. They were unable to compartmentalize what they judged to be a questionable action from other seemingly unrelated works of Abramson’s. It is worth noting that it was Abramson’s work itself that people objected to, so it’s harder to disentangle, for example, this poem from that poem. The poem was in his professional sphere, perhaps it is appropriate that any consequences would be professional. His defenders say that his only fault was writing a bad poem. For those that disagree, it really isn’t the poem itself, and how bad it was, that people object to. It was how the poem led to their imagined intentions of the man behind the poem. Fame? Exploitation of unfortunate events? Thoughtlessness? people wondered. While Allen’s lack of judgment is on a completely different level than Abramson’s, it is relevant how quickly some were willing to wash their hands of Abramson’s work.
Then we had Maya Angelou’s death within the same week. The obituaries were often beautiful and moving, describing her accomplishments. Then people got upset that they were ignoring other parts of her life, namely, that she was a sex worker. But then eulogies started mentioning her time as a sex worker and people had a problem with that representation too. Many people said we should separate the woman of words from her messy life. Above all, we should not reduce her by it. Her career should stand on its own merits. Wholeheartedly, I agree. But that puts me in a sticky situation when it comes to how I feel about Woody Allen, which is exactly the opposite.
Maybe it’s a matter of ethics I feel are forgivable versus those that are not. I am currently living in a country (the Dominican Republic) where prostitution is legal, although frowned upon, and many women in poverty end up in sex work out of sheer economics. That someone once was put in a situation where they may have been harming themselves is forgivable to me. That someone preyed on children repeatedly–or even just once–is not. Perhaps it’s that Maya Angelou never hid her messy life from anyone. Perhaps it’s that I imagine Maya Angelou pushed into that situation by economics and lack of privilege, and that Abramson and Allen are men at the height of their privilege, with successful careers, with no reason for their actions except for their own shortcomings. Perhaps it’s that molestation has victims.
But repeatedly, we as artists forgive people for their crimes. Countless programs of writers in the jails, teaching convicts how to write, anthologies celebrating the words poured out from behind bars, even this very blog has its Literature on Lockdown series. Maybe it’s because we feel they are already punished for their crimes—due justice already served—and we feel that Allen has not faced appropriate justice like these other people. Maybe it’s because we believe that people are ultimately good and can be redeemed, no matter how horrible their crime, once they have faced the consequences. Maybe we feel the penal system is unjust, that these people were pushed into their cells and their crimes by a grander system, and we are trying to make a difference by listening to words of people trapped there. Or maybe we would feel differently if we knew exactly what these convicts did. Was such and such poem written by a rapist or a murderer, or did they only commit a victim-less crime, or did they have “good” but not legal reasons for what they did? Would that make a difference to how we listen? Or is the fact that they have been through extremes of life we cannot imagine—that they have that much to show us—enough to justify our spectatorship? I do believe in second chances; given the right circumstances. Of course, as spectators we have no right to forgive them; we are not the victims of their crimes, if they had victims. We are only ears.
But can we stand by the accused in our silence which is really a tacit agreement, like the wives or families of those accused of rape who tell them victim, “Well, he didn’t rape me. He didn’t do it to me. He did it to you. This is not our problem nor our responsibility”? Or even “Are you sure you’re not making that up? After all, in a dark room alone, it’s just your word against his.” Or even “Are you doing this for attention? Why are you even bringing this up now?” I’ve seen each of these situations with some of my own friends who accused their rapist, sometimes in their own family, and their own family turned them away. Sexual violence seems to be a particular sort of crime—one that is discouraged from being reported, when reported the victim is discouraged from pressing charges, and when charges are pressed, they are so often dismissed because of lack of evidence beyond the victim’s word. A crime that our culture perpetuates by our silence.
I accept that people are multi-faceted. That they can kill one person and love another. That they can honor one son and ignore another. That they can love their family but rob a stranger on the street. That our identities are multiplicitous and full of change. That anyone can have moments they are ashamed of and swear never to do again. I also believe in second chances given the right circumstances. And I also admit that justice in these cases is complicated and even justice has its innocent victims. The families and friends of the people we punish, they suffer too. As a writer, someone trained to imagine myself in any situation and have that perspective be a moving story, I understand all this. But does that mean that we should live in anarchy, justice-less, lawless? Absolutely no. That would make a society in which people can behave as they want without consideration for the harms caused to others. Maybe that is exactly the point: we should reframe the issue to be not one of justice for a single person, but one of culture activism and changing the society in which we live.
The issue is not the individual, the one man, this one small story of Woody Allen in a weekly email from the Kenyon Review. After all, not being a story of the week in a literary journal is hardly what I would call justice. The issue with all these silent ears giving tacit acceptance is that they create a culture in which someone can molest a child with impunity, that it sends a message to other rapists and molesters that we will tolerate what they’ve done, that we will ignore their accusers, that crimes of sexual violence are no big deal, a matter to be solved behind closed doors. And I don’t want to live in that culture, the very one we’re in right now. Digging up a story of Woody Allen from thirty years ago in order to celebrate it may seem like such a small, neutral action, but it’s so much larger than just one man and one short story. It’s really about changing the culture that we want to live in, where rapists and molesters will not be supported, they will not have a safety net, they will not be celebrated.
Brenda Peynado has work appearing or forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, 3rd Place in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Contest, Cimarron Review, and others. She received her MFA from Florida State University. She is currently on a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic.