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To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. She refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations. She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be “treated kindly” by the handful of reviewers she thought might read it. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.

The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood.

Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley.

Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.

Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!

Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.

As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.

The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.

So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds).

Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!

I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.

I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!

Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press.

Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.

I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:

  • “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
  • “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
  • “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
  • “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
  • “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
  • “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud

10 Classic True Crime Books

Every genre has a few defining books, pillars of the canon that changed the game or played it so perfectly that they achieved icon status. With all of the recent scrutiny of the true crime genre, and new directions in how we report and engage with true crime across all formats, I got to thinking about all the Big(TM) true crime books over the last 50 years or so. It seems like every Murderino has read these – and if they haven’t yet, they really should. Here are ten classic true crime books to tick off your to-read list.

10 Classic True Crime Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote - book laid on wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Truman Capote definitely believed he was changing the game with In Cold Blood. It was an instant classic upon publication in 1965, and has remained popular ever since. Capote was the first to popularise a literary style of true crime, where he used the techniques of fiction to tell the story of the Clutter murders in Kansas. Ethically, it strays to the dark end of the gray area, with Capote getting inappropriately close to the murderers (which undoubtedly coloured his coverage), exploiting witnesses, and barely acknowledging his friend Harper Lee’s extensive work in research and manuscript development – but it’s a cracking good read, all the same. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

The Stranger Beside Me - Ann Rule - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Stranger Beside Me is one of the most captivating classic true crime books, largely due to Ann Rule’s relationship with the subject, notorious serial murderer Ted Bundy. Rule knew Bundy when they worked together at a suicide hotline (of all things), and when she followed the cases of local girls murdered brutally in their homes, she had little idea that it was her good friend Ted who wielded the weapon. The resulting book is unique in that it is both biographical and autobiographical; Rule is able to testify as to what Bundy was like in ‘real life’, and give us access to the psychological effects of learning that your friend is a killer. That Rule is a talented writer and can Bring It on the page makes it all the better. Read my full review of The Stranger Beside Me here.

Columbine by Dave Cullen

It’s hard to find words to describe the tragedy of the Columbine High School massacre. I’m amazed that Dave Cullen was able to delve so deeply into the unspeakable in his definitive true crime book about the shooting, called simply Columbine. In alternating chapters, he describes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s evolution from disgruntled teens to active shooters, and the impact of the school shooting on the community over the following decade. Cullen won dozens of awards for his work, especially in dismantling the mythology and misconceptions that had grown around the massacre in the years since. Be warned, though: even though this one is a classic of the true crime genre, and a worthy read, it is very graphic and explicit in its depictions.

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi

Helter Skelter - Vincent Bugliosi - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If copies sold was the only gauge by which we judged classic true crime books, Helter Skelter would top the list. It is the best-selling true crime book of all time. Vincent Bugliosi had unique access to the case of the Manson Murders, being the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson. He gives a first-hand account of the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of Charles Manson and other members of the Manson Family. Unfortunately, Bugliosi devotes comparatively little time to the lives of the victims or the wider impact of the Manson Family’s crimes, meaning the book falls short of many of the ethical standards we set for true crime today. Still, it is one of the classics of the genre, and an essential read all the same.

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil by John Berendt

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil - John Berendt - Keeping Up With The Penguins

In the footsteps of In Cold Blood followed Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, a classic true crime book about the murder of Danny Hansford by his boss in Savannah, Georgia. Thirty-odd years after Capote topped the best-seller lists, John Berendt revisited the idea of a true crime novel set in the Deep South, with comparable success. Berendt employs the tropes of the Southern Gothic, and casts his net wide for details about the Savannah setting and its eccentric cast of “characters”. It makes for an immersive, if at times overwhelming, read. It’s evocative and detailed, though beware: Berendt took some liberties with the timeline to make the real-life events fit his ‘plot’ structure, so it’s best not to take the story as gospel.

Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss

Fatal Vision - Joe McGinniss - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Fatal Vision became one of the classic true crime books for strange reasons (more on those in a minute below). On its face, it’s a book about Captain Jeffrey R. MacDonald, who was convicted of the 1970 murders of his wife and child. MacDonald maintained his innocence throughout the investigation and trial, claiming that his home had been invaded and his family attacked by ‘hippies’ high on acid. He hired Joe McGinniss to write his story, giving him unparalleled access to privileged conversations and court proceedings, in the believe that McGinniss would write a book proclaiming his innocence. However, McGinniss was quite convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, and published this book saying as much. MacDonald went on to sue McGinniss, and the author was widely criticised for behaving unethically.

The Journalist And The Murderer by Janet Malcolm

Remember how I said Fatal Vision became a classic under unusual circumstances? Well, here they are. Janet Malcolm was so intrigued-slash-infuriated by how McGinniss deceived and betrayed his subject in writing that book that she wrote a whole other book about how fucked up it was – The Journalist And The Murderer. She re-interviewed all of the major players in the case (including lawyers, members of the jury, and witnesses) to reconstruct not only the crime, but the ways in which it was misrepresented in McGinniss’s book. Her book became not only one of the classic true crime books, but also one of the classic books on journalism; it’s still used in academic classrooms to teach journalistic ethics today.

Zodiac by Robert Graysmith

No true crime case haunts the minds and search histories of Murderinos more than that of the Zodiac Killer, a series of unsolved murders in the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Robert Graysmith dissects what we know, and what we think we could know, about the case in Zodiac, his 1986 true crime book. He covers the various investigations across all levels of law enforcement – the LAPD, the FBI, the CIA – that failed to unmask the killer, despite thousands of man hours and tips and evidence logged. He incorporates his own theories, even pointing to two (pseudonymous) suspects that he believes may be responsible. We may never know the truth of the culprit, but at least we got one of the most captivating classic true crime books out of it.

The Innocent Man by John Grisham

John Grisham is unbelievably prolific, and yet his back-catalogue contains only one true crime book: The Innocent Man. And boy, it’s a corker! Unlike many other classic true crime books, Grisham finds the golden goose, a wrongful conviction that he can expose (thus, the title). Ron Keith Williamson was a minor league baseball player wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter. He was sentenced to death, and spent eleven years on Death Row until he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999. Grisham used this, and other cases of wrongful conviction, to expose the capacity of police departments and courts to prosecute on flimsy evidence, and the psychological ramifications for the accused. Williamson’s story is a tragic one, and all the more important to examine, given the recent trend towards trial by media.

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

The Executioner's Song - Norman Mailer - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1979 true crime book, The Executioner’s Song. Mailer used the story of the execution of Gary Gilmore to examine the wider ramifications of the death penalty, reinstated in the United States in 1976. Gilmore actually advocated for the death penalty, insisting that his sentence be carried out “as soon as possible”, with all rehabilitative efforts and judicial recourse exhausted. Mailer’s progressive approach to his subject – extensive and meticulous, interrogating the impact of Gilmore’s crimes and execution on all sides, including that of his victims – was widely lauded and ahead of its time. This is one of the classic true crime books from a most unlikely source.

100 Years Of Good Reads

I came across something fun on Goodreads the other day. They’ve put together a list of “the most popular books published over the past 100 years, as determined by Goodreads members’ digital shelves”. What a great use of the data they’ve collected from us obsessive book loggers!

100 Years Of Good Reads - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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It’s actually pretty fascinating: There are plenty of old-school masterpieces, of course, and a good supply of those books most likely to be found in required school curricula. But you’ll also find gonzo journalism, children’s classics, international literature, Arabic poetry, existentialist dread, and even graphic novels.

Goodreads (100 Years of Popular Books on Goodreads)

Just for fun, I thought I’d go through the list and add a little commentary for you. (Okay, and I also wanted to tally up how many of them I’d already read – sue me!)

1922: Ulysses by James Joyce

I don’t want to be that girl, but I promise you: Ulysses is not the crisis situation you’re imagining! Read my full review of Ulysses here.

1923: The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

1924: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

1925: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

UGH! Why? Why? Why? If I never have to see The Great Gatsby on a best-of book list ever again, I’ll die happy. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.

1926: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

A soldier gets his dick blown off, and remains such a misogynist that he never figures out how to go down on the lady he loves. The Sun Also Rises? More like The Lady Also Deserves To Finish. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.

1927: To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

1928: The Well Of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

1929: Passing by Nella Larsen

1930: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

A truly pleasant surprise! As I Lay Dying is short, weird, and an excellent example of why men can write from a woman’s perspective (occasionally). Read my full review of As I Lay Dying here.

1931: The Joy Of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

1932: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Sex, drugs, and feelies? The “dystopian” future that Huxley imagines in Brave New World doesn’t sound so bad, really. Read my full review of Brave New World here.

1933: In Praise Of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

1934: Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie

1935: Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers

1936: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

1937: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is rich and wonderful and devastating – and Tea Cake is my ride-or-die classic book boyfriend. Read my full review of Their Eyes Were Watching God here.

1938: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Did you know that Rebecca has never been out of print? Never, not once, in the nearly-hundred years it’s been a good read? It’s gothic, it’s spooky, it’s fun, and it’s more than deserving. Read my full review of Rebecca here.

1939: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

When I finished The Grapes Of Wrath, I was angry. Angry that no one had ever told me – warned me! – how damn good it is. I’m still angry! Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

1940: Native Son by Richard Wright

1941: The Library Of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges

1942: The Stranger by Albert Camus

1943: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince works precisely because doesn’t get bogged down in making things “realistic” for the grown-ups. “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves,” de Saint-Exupéry writes on page 6, “and it is exhausting for children always and forever to be giving explanations.” Bring tissues. Read my full review of The Little Prince here.

1944: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

1945: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

1946: The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers

1947: No Exit by Jean Paul-Sartre

1948: I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

1949: 1984 by George Orwell

1950: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

1951: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

1952: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

1953: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Did you know that books don’t actually burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit? Ray Bradbury asked an expert for help naming his novel, but they misunderstood the question. Paper auto-ignites at that temperature, but burns much, much lower. That fun fact is honestly more interesting to me than Fahrenheit 451 was. Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.

1954: The Fellowship Of The Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

1955: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

1956: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

1957: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

1958: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

1959: The Haunting Of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

1960: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Yes, I know, it’s problematic. White saviours are bad, and Atticus Finch is the whitest-saviouriest of them all. But To Kill A Mockingbird is still such a good read! And Harper Lee’s only (true) novel! Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

1961: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 is funny… for the first hundred pages or so. Beyond that, you’re just reading the same joke over and over again. It’s good to know where the idiom came from, though! Read my full review of Catch-22 here.

1962: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

1963: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s infuriating how good The Bell Jar is. Like, seriously, I wanted to throw it down on the floor and just give up. So good. And the Faber editions are so pretty! Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.

1964: Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

1965: Dune by Frank Herbert

1966: Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

1967: One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years Of Solitude has a cracker of an opening line – the famous one about Colonel Buendía facing the firing squad. Beyond that, I didn’t love-love-love it, but I didn’t hate-hate-hate it, either. Read my full review of One Hundred Years Of Solitude here.

1968: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

1969: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I think critic Opal Moor put it well: “Though easily read, [I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings] is no ‘easy read’.” It’s confronting, it’s brilliant, and it’s an enduring classic for a reason. Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.

1970: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Morrison has said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she was “interested in talking about black girlhood”. It seems sadly inevitable that a book on that subject would end up a foundational text about the impact of Euro-centric beauty standards and internalised loathing. Read my full review of The Bluest Eye here.

1971: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

1972: Ways Of Seeing by John Berger

1973: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

1974: Carrie by Stephen King

I’ve got this one on a to-read shelf, that I might get to… some day… probably…

1975: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

1976: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

1977: Song Of Solomon by Toni Morrison

1978: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

1979: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

1980: The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco

1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

1982: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple is still – to this day – being challenged, banned, and removed from high school reading lists. Common reasons for scrapping it from reading lists include the explicit sexual content, language, violence, and lesbianism (the horror! eye roll). Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

1983: The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

1984: The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

1985: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Even though it might feel like “The Handmaid’s Tale is coming true!” with everything going on at the moment, the truth is that Atwood didn’t use a single thing that hasn’t already happened, or isn’t already happening, to create the dystopian world of Gilead. Just a heads up! Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

1986: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

1987: Watchmen by Alan Moore

1988: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist is a beautiful fable, a wonderful read… for hippies. Read my full review of The Alchemist here.

1989: The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

1990: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

1991: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Time travel to 18th century Scotland, marriage of convenience with a Scot in a kilt… but make it horny! It’s not a great work of literature, but Outlander does exactly what it says on the tin. Read my full review of Outlander here.

1992: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

1993: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

1994: The Wind Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

1995: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

1996: A Game Of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

A Game Of Thrones might never have made it onto a list like this, if not for the HBO adaptation that had the whole world glued to their screens for eight seasons. But here we are! Read my full review of A Game Of Thrones here.

1997: Guns, Germs And Steel by Jared Diamond

1998: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

1999: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

2000: House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielwski

2001: The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

2002: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

2003: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

2004: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

2005: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I reckon this one is destined to become a classic. It’s clever, and it’s creepy as heck. Well deserving of its place on this Goodreads list! Read my full review of Never Let Me Go here.

2006: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

2007: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Look, if you’re in the mid- to upper-end of the Young Adult bracket and you’re just starting to understand the significance of WWII, The Book Thief is a brilliant, life-changing read. For the rest of us… well, it’s a good reminder that literacy is important. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.

2008: The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer

2009: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

2010: The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

To call The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks a “biography” is reductive. It’s so much more than the dates and facts of a life. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck! Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

2011: The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

2012: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

If you haven’t read Gone Girl yet, monks could use the rock you’ve been living under as an off-the-grid retreat. You need to hop to it, if for no other reason than it’s miraculous it hasn’t been spoiled for you yet. Read my full review of Gone Girl here.

2013: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

2014: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

It wasn’t quite the blockbuster success that Little Fires Everywhere was, but Everything I Never Told You is still a masterful, gripping domestic drama, fully deserving of its place on any list of good reads. Read my full review of Everything I Never Told You here.

2015: Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

2016: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

2017: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

It’s incredible how timely The Hate U Give was at the time of its release – and it’s incredibly sad that it’s still so timely, even more so, years later. Read my full review of The Hate U Give here.

2018: Educated by Tara Westover

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated would be a fascinating read. Read my full review of Educated here.

2019: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue, unbelievably, lives up to the hype. Of course, it’s targeted at younger readers, but I can vouch for the fact that it resonates for young-at-heart readers, too. I’d especially recommend it for fans of The West Wing and anyone who needs a bit of starry-eyed optimism. Read my full review of Red, White & Royal Blue here.

2020: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Through this multi-generational family saga, Brit Bennett plays out the domino effect of reductive labels. The Vanishing Half is a must-read for your book club; there’s a lot to unpack here. Read my full review of The Vanishing Half here.

2021: Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Alright, I’ve read 33 of these so far, and reviewed most of them, too! Not bad! How about you? Drop your total in the comments! And thank you Goodreads for putting together this list – nice to see you using your powers for good.

18 Pulitzer Prize Winning Books

The Pulitzer Prizes are a set of awards given each year for achievements in American journalism, literature, and composition. You might have noticed that quite a few of the books I’ve read and recommended here on Keeping Up With The Penguins are lauded as Pulitzer Prize-winners – for some reason, I seem to share a literary sensibility with the panel of judges. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (formerly the Pulitzer Prize for Novel) is awarded “for distinguished fiction published in book form during the year by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. Here are eighteen great Pulitzer Prize-winning books from the past 100 years.

18 Pulitzer Prize Winning Books - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
If you purchase one of these Pulitzer Prize winning books through an affiliate link on this page, I’ll earn a small commission.

March by Geraldine Brooks

March - Geraldine Brooks - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2006

In her 2005 novel, March, Geraldine Brooks reimagines Louisa May Alcott’s children’s classic Little Women from the perspective of the mostly-absent March patriarch. The Pulitzer Prize judges commended Brooks for adding “adult resonance to Alcott’s optimistic children’s tale to portray the moral complexity of war, and a marriage tested”. They called March “a lushly written, wholly original tale steeped in the details of another time”.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1940

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath is now widely considered a classic of American working class literature, and a strong contender for the Great American Novel moniker. In the year following its 1939 release, Steinbeck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel, and the National Book Award, for his searing social commentary. It was also the best-selling novel of the year (an astonishing 430,000 copies), and the Armed Services Edition went through two full print runs. Read my full review of The Grapes Of Wrath here.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015

Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See explores the depth and breadth of human nature through a story about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths cross in unlikely circumstances over the course of WWII. According to the Pulitzer Prize judges, Doerr “illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another”. They called this New York Times best-seller “dazzling … a magnificent, deeply moving novel”. Read my full review of All The Light We Cannot See here.

The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemingway - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1953

The Old Man And The Sea was first published in 1952, the last major work of fiction by Hemingway to be published during his lifetime. The deceptively short and simple story revolves around an aging Cuban fisherman, and his struggle to reel in a giant marlin in the Gulf Stream. Hemingway was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the year following its release, and it was also cited specifically in the judges’ comments when he received a Nobel Prize for Literature (which Hemingway, in turn, dedicated to the people of Cuba).

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2003

Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex tells the uniquely intertwined history of Cal, an intersex third-generation Greek American. The Pulitzer Board described it as a “vastly realized, multi-generational novel as highspirited as it is intelligent … Like the masks of Greek drama, Middlesex is equal parts comedy and tragedy, but its real triumph is its emotional abundance, delivered with consummate authority and grace,”. Read my full review of Middlesex here.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory - Richard Powers - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019

Richard Powers’ The Overstory is “a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance”, one that earned him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among several other awards and short-listings in 2019. It contains the stories of nine fictional Americans, each of whom share some special connection to trees, despite their disparate circumstances and eras. The Pulitzer Prize website describes it as “an ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them,”.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone-With-The-Wind-Margaret-Mitchell-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1937

Gone With The Wind is best known these days as the classic film, but back in 1936 it was an astonishingly popular novel by American author Margaret Mitchell. It was an instant best-seller, with hundreds of thousands of copies flying off the shelves long before the 1939 film adaptation. It depicts a questionable coming-of-age story against the backdrop of a horribly white-washed version of Southern plantation life immediately prior to and during the Civil War. It doesn’t stand up to today’s critical scrutiny, but at the time it was a phenomenon, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel the year following its release.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Hours - Michael Cunningham - Keeping Up With The Penguins115

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1999

As the ’90s drew to a close, Michael Cunningham was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, a novel that draws upon the life and work of Virginia Woolf “to tell the story of a group of contemporary characters who are struggling with the conflicting claims of love and inheritance, hope and despair”. It is a “passionate, profound, and deeply moving” novel, one that is still widely recognised as Cunningham’s most remarkable literary achievement. Read my full review of The Hours here.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From The Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2011

A Visit From The Goon Squad is “an inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed”. Egan centres the story on the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker, and his employee, the young and passionate Sasha. Told through a series of creative and innovative formats, this story “captures the undertow of self-destruction that we all must either master or succumb to; the basic human hunger for redemption; and the universal tendency to reach for both”.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved - Toni Morrison - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1988

Toni Morrison was awarded a slew of prizes for her 1987 novel Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction among them. It seems particularly fitting, given that she hoped for the novel to stand in as a memorial testament to the lives lost and damaged beyond recognition by the Atlantic slave trade (“There’s no small bench by the road,” she said, “and because such a place doesn’t exist, that I know of, the book had to.”) In this unique story, of a former slave living a haunted life in Cincinnati, Morrison captures a universal pain and shame. Read my full review of Beloved here.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Less - Andrew Sean Greer - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2018

It’s so rare that a truly funny book wins the Pulitzer Prize – which makes it all the more special when one does! Less got the gong in 2018, and it was very well deserved. The story revolves around Arthur Less, an aging gay man so desperate to avoid the wedding of his ex-lover that he accepts every invitation to every half-baked literary event around the world. Less is “a scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, [and] a bittersweet romance of chances lost”. Read my full review of Less here.

The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age Of Innocence - Edith Wharton - Book Laid Flat on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1921

In 1921, Edith Wharton became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, for The Age Of Innocence. It was a controversial choice, but not (necessarily) because of the author’s gender. The Pulitzer Prize for Novel was originally set to go to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, as per the choice of the Prize’s jury at the time, but the board overruled them and awarded the prize to Wharton instead. The apparent reason for the switch was Lewis’s novel having “offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West”, and Wharton said in a note to Lewis that she “despaired” over the decision. Read my full review of The Age Of Innocence here.

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2008

Junot Diaz has fallen from grace since being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, having been called out for despicable behaviour as part of the #MeToo reckoning. Despite the revelations, however, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao is still sold in editions with a Pulitzer Prize seal embossed on the cover. The story itself is a fascinating window into an aspect of American life – a Dominican-American who dreams of overcoming the challenges of his ghetto home to find love and success – but can we really separate the art from the artist?

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

All The King's Men - Robert Penn Warren - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Novel 1947

Who would’ve thought, when Robert Penn Warren was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Novel in 1947 for his fictionalised account of the troubled term of a populist governor, that it would still be so resonant over seventy years later? All The King’s Men traces the political career of Willie Stark, a cynical Southerner who seems destined for the life (and death) of a messianic figure. The New York Time Book Review called the book “magnificently vital reading, a book so charged with dramatic tension it almost crackles with blue sparks,”. Read my full review of All The King’s Men here.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017

The Underground Railroad is a semi-speculative alternative history of the antebellum South, one that Barack Obama called “terrific” and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017. It “combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America,”. According to the judges, “The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.” Read my full review of The Underground Railroad here.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple - Alice Walker - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1983

Alice Walker became the first ever black woman to win a Pulitzer when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Color Purple in 1983. It has retained its cultural currency across the intervening decades – so much so that it continues to be banned and challenged in schools and libraries, which seems to be a rite of passage for any meaningful work of literature. The story of a young black girl, told through her letters to God, is a challenging read, but a vital and perennially relevant one. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road - Cormac McCarthy - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2007

Cormac McCarthy is a notoriously reclusive contemporary writer, but he granted rare and special insight into his writing process and creative mind after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Road in 2007. He told Oprah that it took him only six weeks to write the haunting post-apocalyptic novel. The idea came to him after a road trip with his son in El Paso, where he found himself wondering what the road might look like in a hundred years’ time. “It is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of,” according to his publisher.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee - Book laid on a wooden table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1961

To Kill A Mockingbird has been widely considered one of the most iconic American novels of all time since its release, so it was hardly a surprise when Harper Lee received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The judges were openly disappointed in the literary offerings from established writers that year, but credited Lee with “revitalising American fiction” and producing a novel of “unusual distinction”. Her friend, Truman Capote, was happy for her – but remained bitter that she had won a Pulitzer, while he hadn’t for In Cold Blood, until his death. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.

Should We Still Read Books By Cancelled Authors?

Every reader and book reviewer I know, at one point or another over the past few years, has faced the inevitable question: should we still read books by cancelled authors? When we find out that an author has abused women, or holds racist views, or has doubled-down on something we find repugnant, is it still okay to read their work? Discuss it? Even, enjoy it?

Should We Still Read Books By Cancelled Authors? Book Discussion - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The biggest issue, as I see it, with even having this conversation is the tendency towards knee-jerk reactions. Just the words “cancel” or “cancel culture” are polarising. Whenever I bring the topic up, regardless of the situation, I find it evokes such strong feelings – in either direction – that it’s hard to get a word in with a fellow reader, let alone have a nuanced conversation.

So, if you’ve just read the headline of this post, and you’re skimming down to tell me exactly why we should or shouldn’t still read books by cancelled authors in the comments, thanks but no thanks.

It’s not often I find myself smack-bang in the middle of a Venn diagram on any issue (don’t worry, I’m not about to pull any “good people on both sides” malarkey), but the question of whether we should still read books by cancelled authors is the exception. I really despise the automatic “CANCEL CULTURE IS RUINING OUR SOCIETY” position, but I despise the “WE SHOULD NEVER SPEAK THEIR NAME IF THERE’S EVEN A WHIFF OF IMPROPRIETY” position, too.

To my mind, the question of whether we should still read books by cancelled authors is one of both ethics and pragmatism, and I can’t see any way around making the decision on a book-by-book basis. There are several things I ask myself when deciding whether to read a book by an author who has been “cancelled”.

Firstly, Why Was The Author Cancelled?

This does matter. It’d be nice if it didn’t – but it does. One off-hand comment caught on tape twenty years ago doesn’t have the same resonance or impact as a think-piece published in The Guardian this week. One anonymous complaint of inappropriate language doesn’t have the same resonance or impact as a decades-long pattern of abuses of power. The nature and magnitude of the author’s wrongdoings matter.

And a follow-up: what was their response to being “cancelled” (assuming they were alive to see it happen)? Did they apologise? Did they make amends? Did they demonstrate in any tangible way that their behaviours and/or beliefs have changed?

Take, for instance, Alex Gino. Gino’s first middle-grade novel was published in 2015. In it, Gino depicts the story of a young transgender girl, a revelatory and important story that won die-hard fans and critics alike (it has appeared in the ALA’s Top 10 Most Banned Books list every year since publication). However, trans readers and advocates repeatedly voiced their dismay at the book’s original title, George. That was the name the protagonist was given at birth, but she chooses the name Melissa for herself. Gino responded to the criticism in, I think, the best possible way – with this apology (including a detailed explanation), and by recommending “Sharpie activism”, whereby readers should feel free to cross out the name George on their copy and give the book a more suitable name: Melissa’s Story. To me, that’s Doing An Apology Right.

What Do The Author’s Victims Say?

The trans community and allies responded with overwhelming positivity to Gino’s apology and call to action. I’m yet to encounter any opinion suggesting that Gino be “cancelled” and their books boycotted on any ongoing basis.

Who gets to decide “how cancelled” an author is, or the “right way” to treat their works, though? I suppose, all things considered, no one is the final word on any such matter. That said, I think it’s important to respect the fact that my own privilege might prevent me from fully understanding the impact of an author’s words or actions, and afford that benefit to the opinions of those who have been directly victimised.

Here’s an unfortunate example that counter-balances Gino’s excellent one (trigger warning, folks): J.K. Rowling has said, and doubled down on, and tripled down on, really awful and shitty transphobic statements. Even when given ample opportunity to retract, reconsider, and apologise, she has steadfastly refused. That leaves lifelong fans of Harry Potter in a tangle: for those of us who loved Rowling’s books, admired her charitable work, and/or adopted her fictional world as part of our own identities, how could we reconcile that love with her reprehensible position(s)?

The trans community have repeatedly and strenuously implored others to stop celebrating and promoting Rowling’s work publicly. Stop putting self-assigned Hogwarts houses in your social media bios, stop buying merchandise from which she profits, stop sharing pictures of her books on #bookstagram. Given that the trans community are the ones most impacted by Rowling’s words and actions, it seems reasonable to me that their wishes should be afforded the most weight. That’s why you won’t see Harry Potter books on this blog or any of the Keeping Up With The Penguins social media anymore.

What’s The Value In Reading The Book In Question?

Alright, this bit might make me sound like a book snob, but I stand by it: if we’re going to consider the question of should we still read books by cancelled authors as a pro/con list, then the value of reading the book must factor in. Of course, all books have inherent value, etc etc, BUT there are some that offer us a quality that is not readily or easily accessed elsewhere.

If the book by a cancelled author is a dime-a-dozen pulp fiction piece, maybe you don’t lose much by deciding not to read it. If it’s a canonical text that has defined a genre, or one that’s central to your area of academic study, or it’s one that informs your understanding of countless other books you’ll read in your life… well, in my view, that changes things.

Take, for instance, The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. It’s a young adult book written by a marginalised author (a Native American who grew up on a reservation, in poverty, living with a disability), that addresses the root causes of that marginalisation. It’s accessible to readers of many ages and levels of reading ability, and offers a lot of fertile ground (for in-class discussions, especially). The value of that book has weight in the decision of whether or not to read it (or assign it), just as Alexie’s wrongdoing does.

(In case you missed it: many women came forward in the wake of the #MeToo movement to report rather disgusting misconduct by Alexie and abuses of power. I give a potted summary in my review.)

Are We Reading This Author To The Exclusion Of Others?

The Alexie revelations give rise to another vital question in considering whether we should still read books by cancelled authors: are we reading this book, this author, to the exclusion of others? After all, publishing is a finite resource. We can only read so many books at a time. If we choose to read a book by an author who has been cancelled, I think we’re obligated to at least consider the space that’s taking up on our shelves and in our reading lives, and ask whose books could be there instead. If we buy a book by an author who has been cancelled, are we taking the opportunity to be published and read away from someone else?

Another example: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. There were some issues with the book’s content, yes, but the major problem that got tongues wagging was the fact that Cummins was paid an enormous advance, and published and promoted to the exclusion of writers who had lived experience of the subject and could speak more accurately and authoritatively to it. (For those of you who haven’t read it, it’s a story about a mother and child who attempt to enter the United States as undocumented migrants.)

Cummins herself said in her afterword that she “wished someone slightly browner than me would write it”. The thing is, they had. What they didn’t have was the cultural capital that Cummins could trade upon to make her book an international best-seller. So, if we’re going to read and discuss American Dirt, surely we should also consider whether there are other books and authors that we could or should be reading (and if not, why not).

How Can The Author’s Cancellation Inform Our Understanding Of The Book?

I’d already read and heard quite a bit about the American Dirt controversy before I read the book, and yes, I’ll freely admit it shaded the way I read it. What I don’t understand is why that has to be such a dirty secret! Why do so many readers insist on pretending that we all come to every book with a completely clean slate, knowing nothing about the author or its contents, and form an entirely unblemished and objective opinion of the text? That’s a straight-up lie.

What’s more, I really don’t see why we have to treat The Discourse around an author’s life outside of their work as a Bad Thing, and why it can’t be discussed alongside their work. In fact, anything we know about an author and the life perspective they bring to the page only serves to inform and stimulate our conversations about their work – and surely that is a Good Thing? Imagine being in a classroom full of eager young minds, ready to discuss In Cold Blood – not only do you have the great contents of the book to cover, but it also presents an amazing opportunity to teach them about the invisibility of women’s labour (Harper Lee having contributed far more to that book than Capote let on) and the ethics of non-fiction writing. You wouldn’t get that opportunity with a writer who hadn’t been a bit of a shit.

To come at it from another perspective, take Jane Austen: we have intimately studied every scrap of paper she ever doodled on, every person she ever met, every toilet she took a shit on, because knowing more about her enriches our understanding and appreciation of her work. Why can’t the same philosophy be applied to authors who have done and said things we disagree with?

Are There Ways To Read And Talk About The Book More Ethically?

This question is kind of a two-parter. The first is sourcing the book itself: is there a way to do that ethically, given the (modest) financial gain that authors get from selling books, cancelled or not? Many readers who still want to read a book by a cancelled author find ways to do so that won’t benefit the author financially (e.g., downloading a pirated version of their book online). I’ll be frank: I don’t do that. No matter how awful someone is, they still have the right to be paid for their work. Stealing it won’t make them less problematic. It’s the ol’ two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right, just like your mother always said.

When it comes to talking about the book, in person and in writing, there’s a bit more wiggle room. As best I can (and it’s not always possible, except with the benefit of hindsight), I avoid talking about any book by a cancelled author without also acknowledging the author’s wrongdoing. To me, that transparency is key. To ignore the reasons the author was cancelled, or to pretend it doesn’t matter, causes many problems.

For starters, any book reviewer (which – with social media and Goodreads – we all are, in a sense) has the power to promote books and encourage others to read them. With that power comes (you guessed it) great responsibility. Is it ethical to encourage someone to buy or read a book without also disclosing that the author has done something notably shitty?

For me, no. I wouldn’t sell a leather jacket to a vegan by pretending that it’s plastic, I wouldn’t stay at a friend’s house without disclosing that I’m a fugitive, and I wouldn’t recommend a book to you without giving you a heads-up that it was written by a known abuser or racist.

What’s more, we are all the standard we walk by. If we don’t call out poor behaviour and offensive remarks, it’s a form of tacit endorsement. I might be able to weigh up my answers to all these questions and find myself justified in reading a book by an author who has been cancelled, but I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I support their actions or agree with their views. To me, that’s the obligation we accept in reviewing a book by a cancelled author. My Keeper Upperers deserve to know that this space is safe, or as safe as I can make it, and I won’t blindly accept authors hurting them.

Should We Still Read Books By Cancelled Authors?

Yes, but the idea that we can separate the art from the artist is bullshit (and it’s an idea that’s only posited when the artist has done something reprehensible – no one suggests that we separate Dolly Parton from her art, do they?).

Ultimately, it’s impossible to avoid reading books by cancelled authors: everyone has a problematic skeleton in their closet, a Tweet you don’t agree with, or a photo that makes them look bad. We cannot demand our authors be unimpeachable, any more than we can demand our plumbers or flight attendants be.

What we can do is think for ourselves about what we choose to read and why, and how we talk about it. Occasionally, you’ll see a review of a book by a cancelled author on this blog – but, hopefully, having read this post, you’ll understand the consideration that went on before deciding to hit Publish.

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