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This item is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

MARINA WARNER, addressing the Royal Society of Literature at a fellowship induction ceremony in early June, lamented the creatively irrelevant yet distracting pressure that many writers are subjected to, how their ‘personal lives are viewed along with their works’, how their ability to perform in public, their deportment and – beyond that – their lifestyles which might include politics, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability, were brought into play, and not only in the process of marketing their works.

Giving an example, the professor of English and creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, explained: ‘A student asked me the other day, “Do writers have to be virtuous?” [Previously] the question would more likely be, “Does the writer have to be an outsider, an outcast, a delinquent, a criminal?” The student has sensed an underlying principle, that writers are expected to bear witness to the age and often address the wrongs that are crowding in, in their books and in their lives… But striving to be good is not the same as good writing. Engaging in fictive truth-telling is not the same as winning gold stars for conduct.

One particular comment struck home with writers from ‘diverse’ backgrounds: ‘[There is] the demand for the human writer to put yourself in the frame,’ she said. ‘Audiences want to see and hear in the flesh, the person behind the pen.’ BAME poets have commented on how marketers present and critics assess their writing as ‘personal narrative’, to the degree that they feel they are not afforded the freedom (the courtesy) to make work that does not acknowledge that condition. Social curiosity and correctness become coercive, determining areas proper for creative engagement. A seeming liberality amounts to a kind of censorship.

The RSL’s chief executive Nicola Solomon amplified Warner’s argument with reference to publishers’ contracts. She is ‘concerned about the increasing stringency of morality clauses’. Last year The Bookseller reported on how publishers’ contracts were gearing up their morality clauses, empowering them to drop books by writers who caused offence. The extreme example of Milo Yiannopoulos’s conduct (which should have been no surprise to his surprised publisher Simon & Schuster) helped pave the way.

#MeToo also impacts on the development of such clauses, Publishers Weekly reported. Breaches of morality clauses do not require judicial review: bad press can be a sufficient catalyst. And the clauses can be invoked at any stage, before a book is delivered, before it is published, or once it is in the market place. It can be recalled like a faulty hairdryer. Solomon said, ‘We are getting into dangerous territory here as such clauses are a real threat to freedom of expression. Why should a publisher be able to determine what constitutes “immoral” behaviour? Authors should be valued for the quality of their writing rather than their personal characteristics, virtuous or otherwise.’ One can think of quite a few poets, past and present, who would not ’scape whipping. Indeed, one can think of very few who would.

Not unrelated to this issue was a candid, difficult article in The American Scholar (4 June) by the poet Sandra M. Gilbert, author of Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions, and – with Susan Gubar – The Madwoman in the Attic and co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Entitled ‘In the Labyrinth of #MeToo’, her essay reviews the progress of feminism in the light and dark of that labyrinth from which she reluctantly and tactfully distances herself. The feminist movement to which she has given such energy and life for decades was and is about something more: #MeToo risks selling it short.

There are analogies with the kinds of ideological opprobrium that affect living poets and the reception of the dead: who is excluded from the syllabus, how Modernism is presented. As an undergraduate, Gilbert recalls, ‘wanting to fight for the erotic, tiptoeing up the stairs of a boyfriend’s rooming house (being caught there would mean instant expulsion!) and sneaking banned copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into the country. Yes, I wanted to be able to just say No, but I also wanted to be able to just say Yes, on terms that the campus authorities definitely forbade. Not to a rapist, not to a Harvey Weinstein, but to a man I had fallen in love with.’ She resists the ‘new puritanism’ because it impoverishes experience and leads to injustices, some of which she details.

‘Please,’ she says wryly, ‘I’m not a Victorian moralist. I’m a twenty-first-century feminist (well, basically, a 1970s feminist) who wants women to make choices and who has fought to make choices myself.’ Women are not yet empowered; the main goals remain: ‘addressing the severe injustices inherent in our sex-gender system. Abortion clinics close, countless women suffer from domestic abuse, women workers endure a significant gender pay gap […], female CEOs fail to break through that glittery glass ceiling […]. And let’s not forget that when Hillary Clinton ran for president, hordes of red-capped Trump supporters enthusiastically chanted Lock Her Up! at all those raucous rallies.’

How, she asks, ‘does the morality of #MeToo intersect with the aesthetic triumphs produced by accused sexual predators?’ She reviews the history of censorship and repression, then considers contemporary concerns with the films of Woody Allen and the recordings of James Levine (whose private lives have been exposed). ‘If films like Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Radio Days don’t have an autonomous existence as works of art – if we must send them to the prison in which we’d like to put their auteur – what must be done with other creations of the sometimes perverse human mind? If the Met can fire James Levine for his sexual misconduct, should we also incinerate his recordings of the Ring, Parsifal, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger? And what about Wagner, anyway? Because he was an anti-Semite, should his operas too be banned?’

In confessing an enthusiasm for Wagner’s music and Allen’s films, she says:

Perhaps, indeed, I find some of these works compelling precisely because they’re problematic: like Lawrence’s novels, and [Henry] Miller’s works, they tell us more than even their creators perhaps intended to tell about the dynamics of human desire, and more specifically the dynamics of gender. They tell us, too, sometimes rather more than we’d like to know about the culture from which they arose. But we need to know those deeply unpleasant things: anti-Semitism, misogyny, sexual predation, and anxiety; we need to know all that if only to save ourselves from them.

This item is taken from PN Review 242, Volume 44 Number 6, July - August 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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