Between the Lines #93 min read

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As the #MeToo movement has swept across various industries—film, journalism, and now the book world—we are used to talking about it in terms of individuals. We list out the abusers and harassers as they come to light, tallying the number of rotten apples uncovered and ousted. A singular person has his “#MeToo Moment.” They disappear, apologize (or sometimes both), and we move on to the next one. At some spots, we look back on this list and shake our heads. But as the list gets longer and longer, it becomes overwhelming, and we can no longer escape the implications of what the moment as a whole might mean.

We can’t speak for the other industries, but in publishing, the list has reached a point that requires us to treat the situation as more than a set of disparate points. It’s time to grapple with what this moment reveals about the core of our ongoing literary conversations.

Specifically, we’re talking about the nature of literary influence. If you’re a writer, then you most certainly have a set of older (either in age or experience) writers you draw from when creating your work. These are the people who inspired you, who taught you craft inside the classroom and on the couch, who paved the way for your work in the cultural canon. This process is basic and essential, and it’s how literary traditions happen; everyone, in some way, pulls from the things they read that they find to be the most provocative or resonant. As a community of readers, we’ve been pointed towards these older writers as influencers. We’ve been told where to look, and who the “good” writers are.

But what happens when we discover, retroactively, that many of these influential writers are toxic or violent in their personal lives? What happens when we learn that they’ve used their clout as authors to abuse those who haven’t yet risen as far? It’s not a stretch to say that the people who behave in this way must be writing from a personal headspace of misogyny or sexism, however carefully concealed.

But wait, you might think. What about separating the art from the artist? Fiction is fiction, after all. Yes, it is true that not every novel’s hero is a disguised creator, but it also feels disingenuous to apply such understanding to egregious (and often calculated) personal action. All art comes from somewhere.

What this means is that right now, there are plenty of decent and well-meaning writers who have drawn from the bad men of this #MeToo moment for their artistic inspiration. It means that they perhaps encountered these men instead of other writers who were pushed out of critical conversations by the same forces that allowed misogyny to flourish in the first place.

This is how the abuse-and-misogyny cycle reinforces itself. And we’re left with a large literary tradition that features this toxicity as a central trait, where the voices of bad actors are raised up and revered, their actions excused as genius. This is the canon, not simply an aberration that we can prune away by focusing on specific individuals 0n a list.

This situation is dire. Everyone in publishing and writing knows this. If we don’t deal with the issues underlying the literary tradition now, we’re going to be stuck with it for a long, long time. Despite how it sometimes seems, a literary canon is not a force of nature. It’s selected and curated by people and is the product of what we find to be most worth presenting to the next set of artists and critics; it’s what we deem “important.”

We have been handed a canon that is rife with men who have behaved monstrously, full of books and art created from a place that would gladly treat others as collateral in the effort to maintain its own footing.

But in the same way that this toxicity aims to reinforce itself, so, too, do the counterforces. As readers and writers, we need to give more scrutiny to who is given a space and who is afforded a platform.

Let new, diverse voices in, and suddenly the next generation of writers has a different set of influences, a set that has not been steeped in toxicity and abuse. We can disassemble this and put something new together, book by book. We have to. We will.

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