In my last post I wrote about Johann Hari’s book Stolen Focus. The article sparked a really nice discussion over at Hacker News, where a user had this to say:
Ideas should be judged on their merits, but based on previous behavior I wouldn’t necessarily trust Johann Hari’s writing out of hand - ie other things in the book. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Hari
It’s a valid observation, and it got me thinking again about a concept I’ve been mulling over for a long time: Death of the Author. The name comes from the essay with the same title by literary critic Roland Barthes. In short, Barthes argues that the interpretation and analysis of text should be based only on the text itself, and not on what the author intended, or even on who they are. That is, to ask “What does the text mean?” and not “What did the author mean to say?”
It’s an interesting concept that I would have very much liked to know about in high school, when we were made to memorize by rote pre-written analyses on the literary works of Romanian authors, rather than engaging our minds by asking us to come up with our own.
But I digress, because it’s not the concept as Barthes wrote it that I want to write about today, but rather an extension of it, and the broader question: Should you judge a book by its author? It’s a tricky question, to which I don’t think there’s one right answer, but I’ve been asking myself this over and over, so I think it’s finally time to have a go at it.
Let’s get back to Hari for a moment, though this article isn’t really about him either. According to his Wikipedia page, back in 2011 he was, well, a massive jackass. There is no question about that. The question is, should Stolen Focus be judged based on that? In this particular case, my gut says no, but it also immediately says, why not? For me it boils down to three things:
2011 was a pretty long time ago.
He has already “served his time”: As a result of said jackassery, he lost his job at The Independent, had his Orwell Prize revoked, and his Wikipedia page will bear that stain, forever.
None of his offenses are in any way related to the subject of Stolen Focus.
So it’s these three things that I keep coming back to: time, punishment, and relevancy. But as with the main question, they’re not at all cut-and-dry:
Time: What is the timescale on which people meaningfully grow and change? I know for a fact I am not the same person I was twelve years ago, so why should I expect anyone else to be? How much time must pass before we let bygones be bygones? Can we ever?
On the other hand, does the answer also depend on the age at which said offenses took place? Should we forgive a thirty-year-old for something they did ten years ago easier than forgiving a fifty-year-old for the same, on the basis that the former was not a fully grown adult yet?
Punishment: Do we consider the slate cleaned when the author has been punished for their transgressions? After all, even convicted felons get (most of) their rights back when they are released, do they not? I guess this depends a lot on whether we consider the punishment adequate or not. But who gets to decide what is adequate? Each one of us has their own scale of values, and some things might seem worse to some people than others.
Relevancy: Does it matter if what an author writes has anything to do with the stuff they did? Would a cookbook written by a serial killer have his serial-killerness baked in1? On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t trust a book about protecting the environment written by the CEO of an oil company, right? You just wouldn’t be able to get past the obvious agenda and the conflict of interest.
It might sound like I’m in favor of Death of the Author, but I can’t say that I am, or at least, not wholesale. Because some of the criteria above can also be very much used against the concept, especially when it’s not the author’s flaws that are to be considered, but their virtues. Take Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich for example. The book tells a magnificent, gut-wrenching story, made that much more poignant precisely because Solzhenitsyn himself spent a decade in the gulag–a term for which we also have him to thank.
And I’m not done throwing out complications: What if the work predates the revelations? As I write this, it has been reported that Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland is to stand trial for domestic violence. Assuming he’s proven guilty, and based on the abhorrent nature of the crime, does that invalidate his show retroactively? Because I can’t make myself un-enjoy something that I already enjoyed, no matter how hard I try.
It’s tough. If you disagree with J. K. Rowling’s views, should that stop you from enjoying Harry Potter like you’ve done so far? And if you do agree with her, should that make you enjoy even her less-than-stellar works?
In the end, I don’t think anyone can answer the question for us, nor do I think we should let them try. There are just too many variables in each case, and a lot of them are not within the author, but ourselves.
See what I did there? Har har. ↩︎