I 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?
These 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.
I’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.