Due to popular demand (a huge thank you to everyone who responded to my story on trigger warnings, regardless on which platform), I will now continue the conversation I started two weeks ago on the increasing oversensitivity to controversial literary works.
Let’s begin with another classroom anecdote (I currently study Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham): during a heated debate on (in)appropriate literature, someone recalled having to read about women being mistreated, raped, and murdered in every single text assigned as part of a dystopian fiction module. In the end, the female participants had refused to read those “misogynistic” works, deeming them as “anti-feminist”.
While I don’t know which texts were included in the seminar, I, too, took a module titled “Worlds to Come: Dystopian Fiction” when I studied literature in Switzerland. Looking back at the syllabus — The Time Machine, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, and V for Vendetta — I can confirm that all the assigned reading featured female characters who were abused, exploited, violated, tortured, and/or murdered. At the same time, though, it has never even crossed my mind to describe these texts as “misogynistic” or “anti-feminist”.
Our professors trained us in Roland Barthes’s tradition, drilling his “The Death of the Author” into us.
In contrast, some would strike me as exceptionally feminist. Sure, they depicted terrible injustices and brutal violence inflicted upon women; however, the texts did not endorse such abuse but rather condemned it, or at least remained neutral, presenting those violent acts as dry facts inherent to the dystopian world they belonged to. After all, dystopian fiction, by definition, portrays an undesirable future, a future we hope to avoid.
These two contrasting views on dystopian fiction show the cultural differences between Switzerland and the UK when it comes to “politically correct” literature in academia and beyond. While I have never heard of anyone lobbying for trigger warnings on university syllabi in Zurich, in Nottingham my contempt for censored reading — and writing — nearly got me accused of endorsing hate crime. These accusations sprouted after I had raised my hand and stated that I didn’t believe it should be a writer’s responsibility to serve his or her readers as their moral compass.
The Anglo-American cultural landscape increasingly bans works by artists who had faced serious accusations.
Interestingly, this opinion that made me unpopular in the UK would have hardly raised eyebrows in Switzerland. Our professors trained us in Roland Barthes’s tradition, drilling his “The Death of the Author” into us. While here in England some of my classmates hated to read Ron Carlson or Ernest Hemingway because of the (questionable) morals of these writers, it would have never occurred to my colleagues in Switzerland to judge a literary work by its author: the author is dead, long live the art!
However, neutral Switzerland might be an exception. The Anglo-American cultural landscape increasingly bans works by artists who had faced serious accusations, most notably of sexual misconduct, harassment, or abuse. One prominent example that comes to mind is the legal battle between Amazon and Woody Allen, who was accused of sexual assault but never actually convicted. Should we stop watching Allen’s masterpieces because of the things he might or might not have done? While “The Death of the Author” could be an answer in Zurich, I doubt it would suffice in Hollywood — or Nottingham.
What do you think? Is the author and the art one body, or are they two separate entities? Where are the boundaries of (in)appropriate literature? And when should an artwork be banned?