“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” –William Blake

You can say that again, Will.

A column of mine that ran on Nov. 11, 2014 entitled “Finally, A Series of Very Fortunate Events,” revolved around my enthusiasm for the upcoming television adaption of Daniel Handler’s, aka Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and included my praise for Handler’s unique writing style.

A few days later on Nov. 19 at the annual National Book Awards, Handler made a racist joke after African-American author Jacqueline Woodson won an award for her novel “Brown Girl Dreaming.”

Handler subsequently apologized via Twitter and matched donations to “We Need Diverse Books,” an organization dedicated to addressing the lack of diversity within children’s literature. However, many people, myself included, were still left with a bad taste in our mouths.

While I won’t retract my praise for Handler’s writing ability, I admit I was embarrassed to have so publicly complimented someone who could make such offensive and ignorant comments.

I debated for a while whether to even write on this incident, as it occurred some months ago and largely faded from the public discussion. Nevertheless, I believe it raises age-old questions about our understandings of and interactions with art. Namely, where is the dividing line between art and artist? Does such a line even exist?

Whenever this topic comes up, there are always those who deride thinking too deeply on art as an extension of the artist. They look at works of art as sensory, and thus objective. In this interpretation, authenticity of reaction is based solely on the visceral experience of the viewer. In other words, your enjoyment of a book, movie, album, etc. can be wholly separated from your knowledge of the artist’s character.

Unfortunately, this opinion all too often mutates into a perverse form of hero-worship, in which the memories of pleasure in a viewer are privileged above those whose experiences, and, in fact, very existence are made vulnerable by the artist’s bigotry.

To me, the interaction with art, whether through watching a movie, reading a book or gazing at a painting, is an intimate experience between viewer and artist. It is an encountering of souls, in which both parties give and take, with the actual work serving as a conduit of sorts.

Thus, when a favorite artist, someone we believe to have both known and been known by, disappoints us, the betrayal is that much more intense.

Examples of such betrayals abound, though of a more extreme nature, like the pedophilia and rape allegations against Woody Allen and charges against Roman Polanski, and the current debates over the broadcasting of “The Cosby Show” amid the numerous rape accusations against Bill Cosby.

Focusing again on literature, there is an unhappy excess of cases, both contemporary and historical, in which the prejudices of the author spark conversation around denouncing their work.

Recently, the film “Ender’s Game,” based on a science fiction novel of the same name, was boycotted by many in the LGBTQ and ally community over the overtly homophobic views and remarks of the author Orson Scott Card.

The situation becomes even more convoluted when we look to authors of the past. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia — almost no historical author is left unmarked by these prejudices. Even authors that seemed impressively progressive in some areas are often revealed to have been horrifyingly intolerant in others.

L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” was a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and gender equality. He also condoned the wholesale genocide of Native Americans.

Jack London, author of “The Call of the Wild,” was a passionate advocate for worker’s rights and for the prevention of cruelty to animals. He was also a supporter of violent, racially based colonialism.

As a society, we tend to excuse the humanitarian failings of historical figures. We hem and haw about looking at the orthodoxical context and prevailing social norms of the time. We say they couldn’t have known better.

But what differentiates someone from being labeled a “product of the times” to being recognized as plainly hateful? Is it the depth of their convictions? The amount of divergence from the popular opinion of the time? The quality of their work?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I’m not sure what the correct course of action is when we confront such issues.

I think it is essential to acknowledge and discuss the ethical failings of artists we very often place on pedestals. I do not believe, however, that the ultimate answer is to simply not read authors with problematic views or histories.

I think the solution lies in part in reading the works of the “Others,” those attacked, marginalized groups grappling with the injustices of both the past and present. Through their stories we can encounter their souls, and hopefully we may see the humanity that has too often been denied.

As a literary community, we can also continue to stand up and speak out against harmful remarks like those made by Handler, which seek to belittle and erase those diverse voices fighting to be heard in mainstream publishing.

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