‘Obviously this is a very racist point of view, but let’s look at the text itself and try to put that aside for the moment…’ is a sentence that I have heard, with some degree of variation, surprisingly often during the course of my English degree. Putting controversial observations ‘aside’ during class discussions happens even when students are unaware of it – as Katharine Swindells points out in her article in The Guardian, we gladly study Hemingway, JD Salinger and Ezra Pound without mentioning their sexist or anti-semitic tendencies. Should these flaws be the focus of the study of their works? Or should we, as analytical and critical minds, think of texts as separate from their authors’ questionable behaviour?
In Swindell’s article she raises the issue of looking at works by men who have been accused of sexual misconduct or assault. Should they be taken off the reading list? Should students be warned about an author’s past? Or should these issues be dealt with upfront through class debate? While this line of questioning focuses on writers who are abusers, authors leaning towards racism, fascism and classism also tend to appear on the syllabus. Should their views be seen as historical products of their time or is it, on the contrary, important to question and challenge them from a modern point of view?
Of course, there is no straightforward answer to these questions. Literary works should at times be considered as separate entities from their authors – it is not always necessary to parallel, for example, a Henry James novel to the author’s own biography. Sometimes texts can yield invaluable knowledge just as they are. However, it would be almost impossible not to tie To Kill a Mockingbird, Virginia Woolf’s novels or even Bob Woodward’s recent book ‘Fear’ to the political contexts they were written in. Then avoiding the author becomes an impossible task.
Maybe at the time of writing, colonialism and male domination were integral to society, but in the present of our discussion they are not – therefore it is necessary to talk about these issues and to hold authors, dead or alive, accountable for their opinions. Students are critical enough to distinguish between the form and content of a written work, and its historical and political context. These contexts should therefore not be ‘set aside’ but brought into the discussion in order to be challenged.
Regarding topics of a more sensitive nature – authors using racial slurs or justifying sexual misconduct – students deserve a warning about the course content. As Swindell’s points out, some material might trigger traumatic or uncomfortable memories for some. But while the learning environment should always feel like a ‘safe space’, it also has to remain a challenging one in which we are faced with real opinions, however unethical and unjust they might be.
What about film? Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey… Should their works be studied at all in light of #Metoo? I’ll leave that for a Film student to argue.