February 23, 2005

Can Books Make Us Violent?


"I want to be loved. That is even the deep-lying reason why I elected to write. When I was eighteen, I read The Mill on the Floss, and I dreamed that one day I would be loved the way I loved George Eliot then." --Simone de Beauvoir

U of Chicago Professor Wayne C. Booth uses this quote to begin the chapter "Implied Authors as Friends and Pretenders" in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988, U Cal Press). The book takes a sober, sane, non-partisan look at the ethical arguments for and against books like Huck Finn, A Clockwork Orange and Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, among countless others.

I guess the recent suicide of Hunter S. Thompson has got me thinking. What's the proper response to work that is unapologetically a reflection of the author's less-than-saintly lifestyle? What about books that illustrate self-destructive behavior and the degradation of human dignity?

In the last few years I've taught many many young writers in my fiction writing classes who idolize people like Bukowski and Thompson. If Simone de Beauvoir's quote is true--I know it is for me--then should we be worried that these days many young male writer's first literary crushes are on author's whose persona is a sodden, mysogynistic, hedonistic misanthrope? I wish I could reproduce some of the stories I've received from students, but that would be unethical.

I worry that by aspiring to be loved in the same way they love Bukowski or Thompson, young writers will go out of their way to duplicate experiences that they've read about. I know plenty of people, including myself, who are guilty of this.

Is there a way to talk about the morality of the imagination without seriously hindering the essential and wonderful freedom of the imagination?



PS One of my first crushes was John Cheever. Should I be worried?

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