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?
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 bios, stop buying merchandise from which she profits, stop sharing pictures of her books on #bookstagram. Given that they 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 deserve 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 would never, ever 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.