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10 Things I Hate About You, 1991(Film still)

It’s honestly fine to read problematic authors

From Catcher in the Rye to William Shakespeare, social media is filled with denunciations of ‘problematic’ novels and novelists. But these debates are nothing new.

Let’s play a game. I’m going to show you a quote about literature and you have to guess whether it comes from a Victorian novelist or a present-day TikToker:

“The novelist, if he have a conscience, must preach his sermons with the same purpose as the clergyman, and must have his own system of ethics. If he can do this efficiently, if he can make virtue alluring and vice ugly, then [we need not] question whether he be or not the most foolish of existing mortals.”

If you guessed Victorian novelist, then congratulations: you are correct. It’s from an autobiography of Anthony Trollope published in 1883. If there was an ambiguity, it’s indicative of the way in which people are discussing narrative art today. In the past week, one of the internet’s most enduring debates has reared its ugly head once again. Centred on the question of whether art should be morally improving, and whether it’s permissible to enjoy art that is not, the latest round started with the publication of a list of “problematic authors”. This took aim at a bewildering range of targets, including YA authors who “ignore teen audiences” and “glorify toxic relationships”, outright murderers, and William Shakespeare (a sexist, racist and antisemite).

Just as the mockery this inspired was beginning to subside, the discourse was reignited when YouTuber and actress Jakhara Smith denounced Holden Caulfield – the 16-year-old protagonist of JD Salinger’s 1945 novel The Catcher in the Rye for being “toxic” and lacking in social skills. While this is hardly an inaccurate assessment, Holden isn’t being presented as a model for good behaviour. The novel is a portrait of someone in crisis: he is grieving the death of a sibling, implied to be a survivor of childhood sexual abuse; he is depressed, suicidal, and spiralling out of control. You’d be hard pressed to deny that he’s self-absorbed and occasionally insufferable, but understanding this as a failure of the text misses the point. In fairness to Smith, she seems like she was kind of taking the piss, but people have been making similar criticisms in earnest for years.

@wormonstringenthusiast this is NOT a safe space for catcher in the rye enjoyers ❌🙅‍♀️✋ #ihateholdencaulfield #catcherintherye #BookTok #Books #holdencaulfield ♬ original sound - nikolina

Following these incidents (if you can call them that), we saw the resurgence of a number of familiar talking points: young people today are puritanical, dogmatic and censorious. They are shallow readers, who fail to understand the difference between depiction and endorsement, and who believe that writers are culpable for the sins of their characters. There is some truth to this. Author and critic Gretchen Felker-Martin has criticised the current trend of “fans and consumers treating a given work of art as both violent toward them on a personal level and as an explicit endorsement or even enactment of any upsetting content it may contain”. These ideas are everywhere: Twitter, TikTok and Tumblr are awash with denunciations of novelists, and there is a dedicated website that provides an exhaustive, colour-coded list of writers to avoid, where crimes like “queer-coding villains” sit alongside “paedophilia”.

Many of these criticisms are well-founded (it goes without saying that some writers are awful people and some books are racist or transphobic, or whatever it may be.) But often this approach is muddled and reductive, operating on the principle that the purpose of literature is to portray characters engaging in good behaviour and echoing progressive talking points. There is also a consistent failure to consider work within its historical context. It’s legitimate to analyse the role that racism plays in the work of William Shakespeare, for example, and suggesting otherwise puts you at risk of sounding like a Daily Mail columnist. But given he was writing 600 years ago, it doesn’t really make sense to moralise his work. While many writers are “problematic” by any definition, the word itself has been tainted by a priggish and sanctimonious tone.

These criticisms are also nothing new: the idea that art should provide moral instruction has been dominant throughout western history. According to Professor Kate Flint, a historian who researches the way that Victorians thought about culture, “The greater part of all the art criticism that has ever been written has been moralistic in tone or content.” This tendency reached its height during the Victorian era, when art and literature were seen as a vehicle for modelling correct behaviour and inspiring good works in real life. Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic movement rebelled against this attitude, with their rallying cry of ‘art for art’s sake’ and valorisation of beauty as an end in itself. But they were outliers, spurred to reaction precisely because dogmatic moralism was so widespread.

Between the 70s and 90s, the problem of immoral art became, once again, an overriding preoccupation: on the one hand, there was an uptick of conservative movements campaigning against any media they saw as promoting sex, indecency, and perversion (ranging from network sitcoms to Robert Mapplethorpe exhibitions), and on the other, feminists were taking a greater interest in the harms posed by gratuitous depictions of violence against women. In an essay published in 1984, Mary Gaitskill wrote of a prevalent tendency among mainstream critics to assess works of art “in terms of the message they imparted”, which “could be judged on the basis of consensual ideas about what life is”. This approach, she argues, was based on the idea that “stories are supposed to function as instruction manuals”, and that the quality of a film could be determined by whether these instructions were correct. It would be short-sighted to imagine that this set of values, which Gaitskill was critiquing almost 30 years ago, is either unique to our current moment or a damning indictment of young people today. We are generally too quick to ascribe cultural trends to the influence of social media alone. While the internet is clearly capable of shaping culture, it often reflects deeper currents and older concerns: in this case, the long-standing fear that art has the power to corrupt impressionable minds.

But ethical considerations aren’t always irrelevant to the question of whether something is actually good. And while “depiction is not endorsement” is often true, this is always going to be down to interpretation. Regardless of intent, depiction can be lazy, ham-fisted, dishonest, tactless and cruel, and the same cliche has been used to defend some truly reactionary work. For example, the torture scene in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (a 2012 film about the capture of Bin Laden) has been criticised for justifying America’s crimes during the ‘war on terror’. Whether Bigelow intended to endorse torture is irrelevant: what matters is that Zero Dark Thirty, on which the CIA collaborated, portrays it in a misleadingly positive light. Criticising this isn’t the same thing as dragging a YA author for perpetuating stigma against the ADHD community, but perhaps the two things exist on a spectrum. Even if some people exaggerate art’s capacity to cause harm, that doesn’t mean that it’s always without moral cost: films and novels really can dehumanise people and lend weight to violence in the most literal sense. If it were otherwise, the US military probably wouldn’t spend so much money subsidising Hollywood cinema.

Sometimes art can be ‘problematic’, for want of a better word, and acknowledging this isn’t always prudish. But at the same time, we need to reclaim the old cliche that it’s possible to separate the art from the artist – if you don’t want to support a murderer, or someone with a dark history of queer-coding villains, there are secondhand book shops and a number of sites where you can download their work for free. We should also recognise that some films and novels are, at once, ethically despicable and aesthetically brilliant, and that enjoying them doesn’t make you a bad person, just as reading wholesome books doesn’t make you a good one. Media consumption is not a form of activism, and rarely says anything at all about your moral status. If we keep this in mind, we might finally begin to have more interesting conversations.