A Moral Dilemma

Jonathan Franzen has a new book coming out, Purity. I know this because a) the internets are in a collective fury and b) an ARC of it is sitting on my desk.

I’ve never read any of Franzen’s work. And I’m not sure that I want to even though this lovely ARC is sitting here waiting for me to.

See, everything I’ve read about Franzen and the stuff that comes out of his mouth makes me think that he’s not a very nice man. I’m not a fan of the things that he says and am often offended by him. This week’s declaration that he had toyed with the idea of adopting an Iraqi orphan so he could study it and his assertion that he can’t do anything about his maleness do nothing to make me like him more.

But it did get me thinking.

Just because an author is a terrible human being, should that stop me from reading and even enjoying their work?

I have a habit of this actually. I can’t cheer for athletes who have proven themselves to be terrible human beings, either by cheating on their spouses, hitting their spouses or being a general d-bag. I’ve never read any work by Ernest Hemingway, again, because I think he was not a great person, even though many people tell me that his work is genius and beautiful and moving etc. I just can’t bring myself to read his work.

That said, I have read Machiavelli’s The Prince, despite the fact that it’s basically a manual on how to be a despicable person. I’ve certainly read a lot about Hitler and his cronies. I’m also kind of a fan of Woody Allen’s work despite that whole mess and I admit I watched 19 Kids and Counting out of a sick kind of curiosity until I really couldn’t stomach them anymore.

Obviously I’m a total hypocrite here, making my own rules. I would say that The Prince and anything Nazi-related are a part of my enjoyment of history. And I’m really working on the Woody Allen thing.

But where do we draw the line? Does a person’s work have anything to do with who they are as people?

I suspect that I would never buy a book of Franzen’s, even if I decide to read one of them. And that seems like a good compromise to me right now – if I’m not actively supporting the vile garbage that comes out of his mouth with my money, I’m not really contributing to his power am I?

What do you think? What are your own boundaries in this regard?

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18 thoughts on “A Moral Dilemma

  1. I can separate the art and the artist. I mean, technically you’re paying for the words he writes, not the ones coming out of his mouth☺ I’m a Franzen apologist though, like, I’m convinced the Iraqi orphan thing was a joke.

  2. I’m kind of with Laura when it comes to Franzen. I think he’s horrible and the stuff he writes can be jaw-dropping, but I can’t deny that it tends to be good and interesting. I’m less forgiving of people who commit real crimes (Woody Allen), but I think it’s definitely a fuzzy line.

    • In many ways, it’s easier with the people that commit real crimes. That’s a clear boundary – no, you are a terrible person, I’m done. I haven’t watched a single episode of the Cosby Show in years for that very reason.
      I’m still undecided about where I land with Franzen but it’s almost a FOMO thing now – I don’t want to be left out of the conversation because I haven’t read the work.

  3. This is what I think – there are probably just as many (or more) jerkish writers out there that we don’t know about but are helping to support, Franzen just happens to be one that we do know about. Your compromise sounds like a good one – read the ARC, but don’t buy his book. And, maybe I’ll get it at the library…

  4. That’s a hard one. I tend to do the same thing with actors and movies…there are some actors I just can’t stand, and it makes me avoid all their movies. Even ones that might be good. If I really didn’t like an author, I probably wouldn’t buy their book. Reading a free copy? Only if the book sounds amazing. (But would a despicable person write an amazing book?) Good luck with your dilemma.

  5. What an interesting discussion! I feel similar .. my big one was Orson Scott Card, who is beloved by so many, and yet he’s so publicly homophobic. To be honest, I’m not even sure where I stand on the subject. I really do want to read Enders Game, but thinking of that as “supporting” him as person makes me really upset. Good food for thought!

  6. I had a friend in school who wouldn’t buy Nestle products because the directions on their foreign shipped products (baby formula) did not have clear instructions and babies would die from it. Or something like that. So she would never use her money to buy products or support the company in any way. But, if I bought her a candy bar, she’d eat it. So, maybe, if the product is free, go for it?

  7. This is a question that I struggle with, too. Should an artist’s work be considered separate from his personal life/actions? Or is it valid to refuse to support an artist whose actions offend you? I have a copy of The Corrections on my shelf, but I’m reluctant to read it because Franzen comes off as such a tool. I’m kind of afraid that if I read it, I’ll love it and then have to deal with the dissonance of respecting the work of a person I do not respect.

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