I feel like the word “problematic” has become…well…problematic.
When I first heard it being used in reference to content or its creators, I took it to mean something along the lines of “complicated.” For example, liking Game of Thrones was “problematic” because the series is seriously steeped in sexual violence towards women. On the one hand, this seems accurate to the world of the story (and the history that inspired the story). On the other hand, it could really be a lot to watch for some folks, and it was more that reasonable to question if some of it was gratuitous, pushing boundaries merely for the sake of pushing boundaries. If someone said that they couldn’t watch the show because of it or that it tarnished the quality of the show, you’d hear no argument from me, even if I disagreed, which I don’t, really.
Though, also, I watched the show to the very end, so while I agreed that the show had problematic elements, they clearly weren’t enough to make me stop watching.
Recently online a list of “problematic” books and authors was circulated by a young person that was long, comprehensive, and not particularly well thought out. The specifics are not important, so I’m not going to link to any of the discussion surrounding it, but this person did much equating of the actions and beliefs of characters with the authors themselves, even when those characters were clearly portrayed as “bad” in the course of the narrative itself.
Catcher in the Rye was involved, as it often is when these controversies flare.
Needless to say this kind of critique misses the mark of the core purpose of narrative art, and this young person came in for a lot of mockery and abuse - along with support - on social media.
As someone who has spent many years interacting with early career college students, I’m anti mocking young people who are trying out new ideas, and as I approach curmudgeon age, I sometimes wish that the social media channels that bring these trial ideas under mass scrutiny didn’t exist, but that’s not the world we live in.
I think the whole “cancel culture” thing is largely B.S., and the vast majority of incidents that people seeking to push this moral panic wail over are complicated, and to lump them together under some kind of umbrella is, to use the word of the day, problematic.
Often these discussions are about fights over status and power, where a charge of something being bad - racist, sexist, what have you - devolves into bad faith arguments that really are a struggle over power, rather than a desire to add a little illumination to complicated questions.
I think it’s not great that problematic has now come to be a synonym for “bad,” with some people advocating for “objectively bad.”
I’m here to try to make sure that problematic stays problematic, a word that signals we have some decisions to make, decisions rooted in values, decisions that recognize that we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people, decisions that also recognize that sometimes rejection and sanction can be deserved, and that not everyone will agree where those lines are drawn.
The 2nd most hate mailI’ve ever received for a column at the Chicago Tribune was when I made a joke about the last pages of Pete Souza’s photographic biography of the Obama administration Obama: An Intimate Portrait which I gave one of my Biblioracle Books of the Year Awards in the category “Best Book with a Terrible Ending,” saying:
“Intimate” is exactly the right word as we see glimpses of what it is like to assume the burdens of the office. Fantastic until the end, when the human president is replaced by an orange monster.
I thought there was no audience so sensitive as an aggrieved Trump supporter, that is until I met the Woody Allen stans.
Hachette announced in short order that first they were going to publish Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, before announcing that the weren’t going to publish it following resistance organized by Ronan Farrow - journalist, author of Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Preditors (a Hachette book), and estranged son of Woody Allen - and joined by Hachette editorial staffers.
After some irritating commentary about the events came out, including Stephen King saying, “The Hachette decision to drop the Woody Allen book makes me very uneasy. It’s not him; I don’t give a damn about Mr. Allen. It’s who gets muzzled next that worried me,” I took advantage of the fact that I’m afforded 600 words in a Sunday newspaper on a weekly basis, and put in my two cents.
I said that Stephen King was missing the point, that Woody Allen wasn’t being “muzzled,” that there is no right to publication by a specific publisher. If there is, I’ve been muzzled by hundreds of publishers across America. Hachette made a business decision based on a quasi boycott by one of their best selling authors (Farrow), and discontent among their employees. Hachette was free to plow through those barriers and publish Allen’s book, but they decided it was smarter to cut the book loose.
Turns out I was right and Stephen King was wrong, as Allen’s book was picked up by another publisher within days of Hachette’s decision.
Woody Allen is problematic. The evidence I’ve seen convinces me that the accusations of Dylan Farrow, his adopted daughter with Mia Farrow, that Woody Allen sexually assaulted her when she was a minor are true. Knowing this, I have made a conscious decision to stop consuming Woody Allen’s art. When I was maybe 16, 17, 18, and a pretentious little turd who watched Sleeper on VHS with his buddies in his friend’s rec room, and read Allen’s short humor pieces in Without Feathers and Side Effects, I would’ve said Allen was a comedic genius, partly because it’s probably true, and partly because I thought it made me look sophisticated.
Allen’s short humor pieces pretty much taught me how the form worked, and introduced me to other writers working in that tradition, both those who came before Allen (Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber), and those who came after, like Steve Martin and Ian Frazier.
But whatever. Now that I know what I know about Woody Allen, I can’t separate the experience of his work from that knowledge, so I don’t read him or watch his movies anymore and I don’t rend my garments when he has to find a different publisher for his memoir.
I also don’t advocate that he be deprived of his liberty. Woody Allen is problematic. Harvey Weinstein is a criminal. I don’t argue that Woody Allen be deplatformed or silenced - neither do Ronan and Dylan Farrow, for that matter - and yet after publishing the piece on Hachette cancelling the book, I was flooded with messages from people whose initial gambits were to try to convince me that my opinion was wrong - that Dylan Farrow was lying - and then when that didn’t work, to accuse me of being a modern day censor, depriving the world of an important voice.
I wanted no such thing! It’s like these folks couldn’t countenance the fact that some people were now turned off by Woody Allen.
It was honestly, quite strange how invested these people were, considering it was just one person’s opinion.
In truth, my stance that there are, at times, reasons to eschew the work of people you believe tip over the line in terms of their degree of problematic-ness is hideously inconsistent.
For example, I am also convinced that Michael Jackson had inappropriate sexual relationships with minors, and yet when “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” pops up on my shuffle, my toes start tapping and my head starts bobbing.
Now, I could draw some distinctions on the difference between Michael Jackson and Woody Allen. Jackson’s actions don’t seem to have informed his art, whereas Allen’s predilection for young women is the central plot of Manhattan, and shows up often in his work, but that’s an ex post facto rationale meant to justify that I’m wired to respond to some of Michael Jackson’s music and knowing what I know hasn’t seemed to change that wiring.
R. Kelly is currently on trial again in Chicago, this time on federal charges after being previously convicted of sex trafficking and racketeering charges in a state court last year. The man is a criminal, a sexual predator, and I would never give him a cent of my money for his music, but also, the truth is, I don’t have any affinity for R. Kelly’s music like I do Michael Jackson’s.
There are lines and grey areas. If someone else finds R. Kelly’s music meaningful and wants to still consume it, so be it. If others still revere Woody Allen’s films, that’s fine. What was weirdest about the reaction from the Allen fans to my column was how they wanted to be absolved of the complications of their fandom by insisting he was innocent, and that anyone who was okay with him being harmed because of the accusations (meaning me), was perpetrating an injustice.
Living in a problematic world filled with problematic texts and problematic artists, we have to figure out how to grapple with the complexity of finding value in the art of a problematic person.
Writing at The New Yorker in 2020, Paul Elie asked, “How Racist was Flannery O’Connor,” and the answer is “very racist.”
Flannery O’Connor is absolutely one of my favorite writers of all-time. Her novel, Wise Blood is one of my “desert island” books. I’ve read some of her short stories forty or fifty times and can still be astounded by their power. It is not surprising that a white woman from Georgia born in the 1920s held racist attitudes, but there was also no shortage of white women of her generation who were supporters of Civil Rights, including her friend Maryat Lee, a playwright who had moved to New York.
She wrote to Lee about her attitudes towards various figures in the Civil Rights movement:
James Baldwin is another writer I would put on my personal Mount Rushmore of 20th century artists for both his fiction and his essays. O’Connor’s dismissal of him makes me cringe - for both of them really - but it also makes me distrust O’Connor’s judgement and her character. Baldwin saw the country they shared far more clearly than anyone, and his prophesies are dismayingly accurate. His speech to the Cambridge Union as part of a debate with William F. Buckley Jr. is one of the great feats of rhetoric of the Civil Rights or any other era.
(I highly recommend, Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America as a history of both men and the context of the debate at the time.)
The character of Flannery O’Connor as revealed in the writings released well after her death, and well after I was first captured by her art, disappoints me, and a certain amount of reverence I felt for the person that I thought must exist given the amazing impact of her art is gone, forever.
But it’s worth asking why I thought it was important to invent a reverence for the artist when I had the art. Some of it was probably because I aspired to write something as impactful as O’Connor’s classic short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
But it isn’t necessary to revere the person. It also isn’t necessary to defend the person in order to continue to revere the art. These two things can exist in tension.
The other thing I’ve been thinking about is how problematic attitudes may change over time, or how things that were not necessarily problematic when we once enjoyed them have not aged particularly well.
In his musical comedy special, Inside, (highly recommended) Bo Burnham has a song titled “Problematic” in which he takes aim at his younger self.
I grew up as your usual suburbanite
A tiny town in Massachusetts
I went to church on Sundays in a suit and a tie
Then spent my free time watching Family Guy
I started doing comedy when I was just a sheltered kid
I wrote offensive shit and I said it
Father, please forgive me
For I did not realize what I did
Or that I'd live to regret it
Burnham became an online sensation doing comedy songs from his bedroom that went viral on YouTube. At the time of Inside, he was a thirty-year-old adult looking back on the insensitive stuff and finding fault with it. The message of the song is actually somewhat complicated, Burnham saying that he both (to some degree) deserves to be condemned for his past behavior, but also that he’s sorry, and there’s nothing much to do at this point but say so.
There was a time when I could’ve quoted huge swaths of Eddie Murphy’s stand-up special Delirious. The special was released when I was thirteen years old, and I thought it was hilarious. Murphy was profane and edgy, and came in for criticism from clean comedians like Bill Cosby for his use of profanity (How’s that for irony?) but within the mainstream, his comedy was in bounds.
The special is filled with material that is deeply homophobic and offensive, and I can’t imagine watching it today with anything but horror. It is tempting to say that times change, blah blah blah, but Delirious was also undeniably homophobic at the time of its release. It’s just that in 1983 the gay community did not have sufficient power and recognition to make the rest of us care.
I wish I was aware of the harm that that kind of prejudice did when I was thirteen as I am now, but I wasn’t. Thirteen-year-old me had no animosity towards gay people, but thirteen-year-old me was also not sufficiently aware at how comedy like Murphy’s was harmful and stigmatizing. I could not see how my reaction to the work was actually inconsistent with my developing views about values and morality.
I can’t erase my own past, but fortunately, I’ve been around long enough, and been open enough to changing my views that I now live in ways much closer to my values, and when I do compromise those values - perhaps by still enjoying the work of a problematic artist - I can wrestle with that tension, rather than living in ignorance or denying such a tension exists.
In terms of who deserves to be “cancelled,” Eddie Murphy (who apologized for the homophobic material in 1996) or Bill Cosby (monstrous sexual predator), it isn’t a close call.
Though, as I wrote in an earlier newsletter about W. Kamau Bell’s brilliant documentary, We Need to Talk About Cosby, even that is complicated.
Flannery O’Connor died relatively young at the age of 39 in 1964. She was obviously a fully-formed adult, but I still wonder how or if she might have changed had she lived to see the events in the Civil Rights struggle in America that unfolded after her death.
I would like to think that she might’ve come around to a more evolved point-of-view, but it could easily have been the opposite.
What a disappointment that would have been.
This week at the Chicago Tribune I discuss Victor Ray’s new book, On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care, and how I think it provides a valuable lens to help those looking to understand the country more clearly.
Great news for book lovers and lovers of good book coverage. The Washington Post is reestablishing their stand-alone book section. I wish I held out hope that the Tribune was contemplating the same, but I do not hold that hope.
Yet another explainer on the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster anti-trust trial, this one from Constance Grady at Vox. Seems like there’s an increasing sentiment that this thing may be blocked by the judge.
Speaking of Catcher in the Rye, this piece from Isle McElroy exploring whey people have a hard time recognizing that Holden Caufield is a fictional character, rather than a stand-in for the author or a person to be either condemned or celebrated, is fantastic.
All books linked below and above are part of The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Bookshop.org. Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago.
Affiliate income is up to $186.70 for the year.
1. The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell
2. Fellowship Point by Alice Elliot Dark
3. Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession
4. Search by Michelle Huneven
5. Adult Assembly Required by Abbi Waxman
Pauline B. - Skokie, IL
For Pauline, I’m picking a family drama that also has moments of a light touch, and book that I always thought deserved more attention, Model Home by Eric Puchner.
1. These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
2. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
3. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
4. A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins
5. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Kathleen F. - Asheville, NC
Whenever I see someone reading a contemporary thriller/suspense novel (like A Slow Fire Burning), I think that if they haven’t read The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, they should read that instead, so if that’s the case with Kathleen, that’s my recommendation.
Once again, I have (enjoyably) whiled away a good chunk of my Saturday and Sunday mornings noodling away on this newsletter, so now it’s time for me to prevent the further spread of my ass in my chair and do something outside.
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Yours in complications,
When I say “mail” I mean email and tweets, but
Your newsletter is always so very interesting. I love it!
John, WE (Feral House) have often been labeled problematic. You get the right of it, though. We published books that in the vision of Now times versus the Then times, we would not publish today. Ideas that were dangerously on the margins we felt should be understood because of their dangerous intentions have, in some cases, become mainstream. Yet we still get castigated by media and young activists because of books we published 30 years ago no longer fit into cultural norms and acceptability.
As a society, we need to relearn how to discern the difference between problematic creators and reprehensible persons. For the lit community, we need to better educate readers that exploring terrible ideas and people is not a de facto endorsement of those terrible ideas.
Thanks for taking the time to present the issue so clearly!