When exploring the works of classic literary icons, it would not be uncommon for the reader to awe at the craftsmanship. It would also not be uncommon for the reader to experience an emotional response, and then to even begin idolizing the author. But then comes the discovery that the author behind the beautiful prose and the emotional resonance was a racist, misogynist, anti-Semite, or a homophobe.
What happens then? Does the reader pretend that the novel, poem, or story she read did not affect her? Does the reader discredit the work that she found impressive because the author is, surprise-surprise, flawed? Possessing an ability to write, to express in ways that others admire, does not mean anything as far as one’s political views, ideology, or world-view.
So, I present the question can we divorce the author from the work?
The opposite would suggest that the reader would be required to know about the author to even enjoy his or her work. However, one does not need to know anything about T. S. Eliot to be engrossed and impacted by its overpowering sense of despair. One does not need to know anything about Roald Dahl to enjoy James and the Giant Peach. The connection to the author is not crucial at all. With that said, knowing about the authors life does offer further insight and a deeper understanding, but is not a requirement.
If you were moved by Ernest Hemingway and admired his work, then what difference does it make that he may or may not have been racist or a misogynist? I understand that people may not like that aspect of his character, but that aspect is only one part of the mind that was responsible for some of the most influential works in the 20th century. People are complicated creatures with multiple layers, and Hemingway is no different. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s human. Enjoying Hemingway’s work give readers a glimpse to only a part of him. It would be foolish of anyone to think that just because someone can write well and inspire millions that they’re somehow flawless or virtuous in character.
My answer to the question is why does it even matter. If it’s not a requirement for me to know the author to enjoy the work, then why would it be a requirement for me to agree with the author’s political views, world view, or ideology? If the work was influential based on its own merits, then why would it even matter? If you say that it does, then what’s the next step with that logic? Ban the work? Burn the books? Pretend that the work doesn’t have value? Sounds like fascism.
The truth is beautiful works can emerge from even the most vile of minds.