Between Mr. Coates and Me

canstockphoto3093097I enjoy listening to interviews of one of my current favorite writers, Ta-Nehisi Coates. He frequently answers I don’t know to questions. I think the nature of being a writer should be one of perpetual curiosity and not, as some would have us believe, endless fonts of wisdom. This pet theory of mine ran into a wall when Coates said Kevin Williamson can write his ass off and that he’d read him because he’s good.

If a writer like Coates is so curious and willing to read Williamson, why aren’t I? Is it my unwillingness to show deference to the mighty gods of ART? Kevin Williamson has been in the news because The Atlantic just hired him as a writer. It’s a short hop and a skip on a search engine to find this guy’s most egregious public statements, which involve transphobia, racism, and misogyny. While these tags have become nearly ubiquitous and synonymous with politics, they bear the larger mark of being cruel, arrogant, and rather incurious.

Lately I’ve been having conversations with my daughter about writers, artists, and musicians. It’s the old Wagner argument – do you listen to the music of an anti-Semite? Do you separate the art from the artist? How do you separate Salinger from his Roy Moore-like predilections for teenagers? Or Hemingway from the shit father and husband he was? Or Picasso for the way he treated women?

canstockphoto17242096These are difficult, subjective questions. But when the content of your art is your opinion, how much easier does that question get? As I’ve gotten older, read more, and developed an awareness of the vast landscape of art beyond the traditional literary canons, I have begun to draw my own lines in the sand. I have choices. There are skilled writers who don’t advocate for the harm of others. There are eloquent writers who can make their points absent deliberately provocative statements.

Maybe this is my coming of age with writing. I don’t revere art the way I have in the past. I don’t see artists and writers as being above the basic expectations of civility or decency or compassion because of their art. The hyperbolic clarion call of the classics or geniuses or brilliant writers no longer beckons me nor defines my reading list. I don’t feel the pull of must-read blurbs or the anxiety that I might be missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime compilation of words.

My husband often gets annoyed with modern music because of the vocal gymnastics – those long notes that warble on forever, only because they can. I feel something similar about writing. I don’t give a damn if a writer does the verbal equivalent of two quadruple Lutz jumps. If those jumps involve rationalizing their hatred or fear or contempt of others, then they are still a purveyor of dumpster-writing, no matter how eloquent.

canstockphoto8705409I’m sure part of this subjective reckoning in my reading list is due to the era. Provocateurs are a dime a dozen these days – just tarted up versions of reality shows. They might be writers or actors or politicians or that guy in the grocery store with a t-shirt that says No fat chicks. We’re a nation being led by a gold-plated, thin-skinned provocateur. Outrage is addictive. Two sides of a very easy equation. It keeps us off-balance and unfocused.

While exposing oneself to a range of ideas is admirable, the range of ideas seems to be limiting itself to one extreme or the other. It is moderation that has suffered most in this country, while the vendors of extremist one-liners and memes and impulsive Tweets are put on rotation in the media. That some writers need a sledgehammer to make a point, rather than using skilled reasoning, is a reflection of the times, not of literary merit.

I took some time to read a few of Mr. Williamson’s articles, because I am a curious person and I think it would be wrong to dismiss someone out of hand.  This is where Mr. Coates and I part ways. The writing of Kevin Williamson was no better or worse than any other national columnist. That is to say, there was nothing about it that convinced me to look past this writer’s uglier sentiments, nothing that makes me want to provide material support to his career by continuing my subscription.

Perhaps it is that I hunger for the restoration of civility and dignity to the public sphere or that in those magical reading hours, I do not want the tight, angry politics of extremism. It may be that I have the unrealistic expectation that art and writing should endeavor to make the world better, not just angrier.

Update 04.05.18: The Atlantic fired Kevin Williamson when his views on hanging a large percentage of American women for abortions proved to be more than an errant Tweet. Lesson #1: Due diligence should be part of any hiring decision. Lesson #2: Don’t advocate violent shit ideas.

20 thoughts on “Between Mr. Coates and Me

    1. I won’t be surprised if one day this whole movement of writing provocateurs gets called something and then is taught about in writing classes. There have always been writers who write less out of substance and more for effect, but we seem neck-deep in them these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. “There are skilled writers who don’t advocate for the harm of others.”
    This!!! You are right and I agree. You can be skilled, talented, or another adjective and not rely on being “provocative” for the sake of or to promote the destruction and hatred of another group.

    So glad you’re back to blogging, I missed you and your rationale opinions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been reading essays by Baldwin and Didion lately. They cast giant shadows on some of the people given a platform these days. When Swift wrote “A Modest Proposal” it was recognized as satire. With provocateurs of the Trump era, they’re being sincere and sound batshit crazy.

      So nice to put a name to a fellow blogger and reader, Elizabeth. I like the change!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You raise such an interesting question, Michelle. While there may be artists whose work is sublime, if they or their work promote ideas or positions that are destructive, divisive, or cruel, should they be given a pass simply because they promote their hatred or anger with a higher degree of talent? It could be argued that this makes them more dangerous. Each of us needs to evaluate and decide for ourselves. I tend to fall on the side of not wanting to fuel hatred or bigotry by giving it any legitimacy. I kind of look at it the same way I look at the internet and commercial media. I don’t click on negative or salacious-sounding links; I don’t watch programs that are mean or denigrating. What we feed grows. What we don’t feed withers.


    1. I have to re-argue this issue with myself frequently, because part of me wants to be like Mr. Coates and have it be only about the writing. After these last couple of years, though, it’s no secret that there are hateful factions in our society who gather strength as they gather clicks and platforms. Reading about them, reading their viewpoints, no longer adds to my knowledge base and expends my mental and emotional energy in nonproductive ways.


  3. Coates is a great thinker and speaks his mind. I don’t know who Williamson is, but I agree that we need less provocation and more civility. The problems of the world that require us to work together just keep growing–refugee crisis, global climate change, etc.–and the entire world seems to be shrinking back to tribalism in response. Nationalist movements are growing all over the globe. Those of us who believe that we should all pull together are characterized as weak, but really, how much emotional fortitude does it take to bully and blame and shame people who are struggling? It’s childish and I keep wondering where the adults are.


    1. The adults are apparently arriving in the form of impassioned teenagers in this country. I think you make a valid and striking point when talking about the ease of being a provocateur – there does seem to be an element of laziness and low-hanging fruit to it all.
      Mr. Coates said that he thought writers should write angry and to a point, I agree with him. What I don’t agree with is the lack of circumspection and reason when some people write angry. Then all they are is a long form troll seeking attention.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a very interesting post, Michelle. I do also have my limits and inner stopping point with what and where I will go with my reading. I need to be especially careful with Twitter. Holy cow. The flinging of every sort of mud is so easy there. Usually, I am able to read well-written perspectives from views that differ from mine. We would miss so much if we just threw out whole swaths of writing because they don’t line up perfectly with our beliefs, ideologies, or whatnot. However, you bring up a good point, in that, do we have time for all of this? At some point, we have to just choose to spend our time wisely.


    1. I purposefully read outside of my ideological bubble, but I draw the line where the writer I’m referring to, Kevin Williamson, doesn’t – that of advocating all women who have had an abortion and their providers be hung, using derogatory terms when referring to people of color, and in his less inflammatory work, relying on stereotypes to make his point. And all on a national, esteemed platform.

      That’s fine, but we, as readers, have choices. We all have our own lines in the sand. Maybe part of this is me giving myself permission to not read “great” writers who are just humans with shitty ideas.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I didn’t know who he was, either, except that I had a subscription to The Atlantic. I was starting to become less enchanted with the magazine, so this particular hire was the final straw. I think the question of who or what I need to read to get perspective on the world and politics is rapidly shifting these days!

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Amen, sister. (And I mean that with all the sincerity an agnostic can muster.) Bring on the return to an age of civility and humanistic standards. I felt all proud and self-righteous writing that and then, stopped pondering whether that word meant what I thought it meant. I had to Google the definition of Humanistic to make sure it was saying what I thought I was saying. It was and I did. All hail accidental deep meaning.


  6. “Provocateurs are a dime a dozen these days – just tarted up versions of reality shows.”

    Well said. I don’t know where any of this [what I call] rage first writing is taking us, but I’m not liking what I see ahead. I’m all about deliberation, then expression. Not reaction, reaction, reaction. What’s the point of having a brain if you don’t use it?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I missed this comment the first time around – sorry for the delay. The whole point about reaction being the current mode of operation is a good one. Whenever I read something and find myself getting angry, part of it is directed towards the topic, but part of it is anger for allowing myself to be manipulated. I’m trying to unlearn that whip-quick outrage response. I just don’t think it’s healthy.

      Liked by 1 person

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