Ever since Paula Deen’s first cookbook hit the shelves, the Southern celeb’s recipes have been raising blood sugar and cholesterol. Now, her very public problems are raising something else: an interesting question about where to draw the line between an author and her work. Should we judge a book’s merit by its author’s morality?
Deen’s downfall began with a lawsuit by a former employee, Lisa T. Jackson, who was a manager at one of her restaurants. In March 2012, Jackson filed a workplace-discrimination suit that charged Deen with, among other things, having used racist language.
In her deposition, Deen ?admitted to using racist language, and tolerating racist jokes in one of her restaurants,? as The New York Times reports. Several major brands, including Sears, The Food Network, Walmart, and Caesars Entertainment, have since cancelled their contracts with the celebrity chef.
And on June 28, Random House announced that it was cancelling publication of Deen’s latest cookbook–a book that had already become an Amazon number one bestseller thanks to pre-orders. At the same time, the publisher also announced the cancellation of its five-book deal with Deen.
Obviously, racist, sexist, and other offensive language should not be tolerated. It’s understandable that Random House (and the other brands involved) would want to distance themselves from Deen. But would this story play out differently if Deen had written a brilliant piece of literature instead of a cookbook?
Suppose, for instance, that her renown was based on thought-provoking novels that had made their way on to high school curricula instead of kitchen counters. Should an author’s personal views or language affect the value of?and our respect for?their positive artistic contributions?
The question isn’t about how our collective disapproval affects the author. After all, countless public figures, from politicians to sports stars, have been caught with their moral pants down, in everything from sex scandals to thievery in the billions. We shake our collective heads, and the miscreant makes a tearful apology and falls off the radar long enough to get a new PR team, then launches a successful comeback career.
The question is, do an author’s moral failings dilute any virtue that might exist for us in his work? And if so, is there an expiration date of sorts?a period that must elapse before we can extol a book’s virtues while ignoring the real-life failings of its author?
One example that springs to mind is Kingsley Amis. As the New York Review of Books notes], Amis was ?widely regarded as one of the greatest satirical writers of the twentieth century.? He received the Booker Prize in 1986 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990. He was also known as an alcoholic, the author of misogynist books, and a man who spouted openly racist language, both at dinner parties and in interviews.
Plenty of other examples can be found among the authors of revered classics. The Betty Ford Center site notes that, according to one professor of psychiatry, ?over 70 percent of the American writers who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature were alcoholics, including Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O?Neill, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck.?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was addicted to opium. Ayn Rand took amphetamines ?at least once a day for 30-odd years.? William S. Burroughs was a heroin addict.
It would be easy to pass these addictions off as harmless in a modern context, since we’re talking about writers who, in several cases, lived centuries ago. But drugs still do massive harm to society today, from making the lone addict’s life hell to creating violent drug cartels that destroy thousands of innocent lives in their paths. Knowing the addictions these authors had, should we draw a moral line and forbid teaching their now-classic works in high school or university?
None of this earns Paula Deen a pass for her racist comments. Not even close. But her current trials serve to highlight the exceptions we make, and the faults we’ll happily overlook, when there’s something in it for us besides a butter-filled recipe.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).