Literary Greatness at the Expense of Female Suffering: On Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop
June 6, 2018 § 24 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
On the morning Junot Diaz’s essay, “The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” was published in the New Yorker, Carmen Maria Machado sent this tweet out to her followers:
Hi! Today, please meditate on how easily we accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery.
— Carmen Maria Machado (@carmenmmachado) April 10, 2018
While she made no mention of Diaz in her replies, many writers knew who she was referring to. That week, article after article would celebrate Diaz for his bravery while literary circles whispered about the possibility that his essay was actually part of a strategy to lessen the eventual blow of being outed, #MeToo style, by the women Diaz claimed to have hurt in the decades following his abuse. In just under three weeks, the same outlets who had originally praised Diaz for his candor would publish new articles reporting that several women, including Machado, had come forward and accused him of misogyny and sexual misconduct.
Machado’s tweet calls attention to the long-held belief that a man’s artistic journey is more important than the women he might hurt along the way, and that abuse is sometimes a necessary evil of the creative process—the basis of “good,” “real,” or “authentic” art.
To cite an older example, David Foster Wallace famously credited his obsession with Mary Karr as the driving force in writing Infinite Jest, stating, somewhat crudely, that the book was “a means to [Mary Karr’s] end, (as it were).” Wallace continues to be taught and celebrated today despite Karr regularly reminding us about the terrifying patterns of abuse she endured in the 1990s, including Wallace stalking Karr and her family members, violently kicking her during an argument, and, once, pushing Karr from a moving vehicle. His behavior is (under) documented in his biography, and well-known among writers contemporary with Wallace and Karr. Unlike in Diaz’s more recent case, Wallace’s abuse is not a revelation to the public, but an example of bad behavior consciously ignored. As readers, how do we reconcile love for our favorite books with the terrible acts of the men who wrote them?
This was the question still fresh in my mind when I went to see Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop at an independent movie theatre. As a composition instructor and a creative writing student, I was excited to see what looked like an excellent addition to the genre of French-language films celebrating the power of classroom community and rising above prejudice through writing—like Cantet’s previous film, The Class or Phillippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar.
**Warning, Spoilers Ahead**
The Workshop stars a writer named Olivia, who mentors a group of teenagers through writing a collaborative novel set in their town, La Ciotat. But one student, a troubled young (white) man named Antoine, continually disrupts the class, penning gratuitous murder scenes and taunting classmates with his willfully racist opinions about the Bataclan and Nice massacres. Despite Antoine’s perceptible lack of redeeming qualities, Olivia seems to have complete faith in him, citing his “potential,” and unsuccessfully attempts to unmask Antoine’s machismo façade, encouraging him to express himself to the group.
Olivia learns that La Ciotat, once defined by its now-defunct shipyard industry, has few opportunities for young people like Antoine who are looking for stable work. In this regard, one could draw parallels between La Ciotat’s empty yards and the small Appalachian towns decimated by the United States’ once thriving coal industry. The same palpable despair, misplaced anger, and directionlessness expressed by some young men in those communities are present in Antoine’s character, which serve as a kind of raison d’être—if not a justification—for his extreme beliefs and aggressive behavior.
At home, Antoine is shown to spend his free time playing computer games, watching military recruitment clips, and listening to the French equivalent of alt-right propaganda videos on his laptop. His other hobby consists of stalking his instructor, taking covert videos of Olivia swimming and reading without her consent or knowledge, and studying them later on his computer alone.
If this alarming behavior weren’t enough, the situation takes a turn for the worse when Olivia asks Antoine for an interview on the pretense of researching for a character in one of her novels, which she uses as an opportunity to grill him on his political leanings. Antoine storms out and returns later with a handgun. He forces Olivia at gunpoint to drive him to a secluded location in the dark, refusing to answer her questions about what his motives are or what he wants from her. At one point she tells him, her voice quavering, “I’m really getting afraid now.”
When they arrive at a cliff overlooking the ocean, Antoine sits on the rocks and tells Olivia, after a tense moment of silence, that she is free to leave. Once she is gone, he throws the gun into the ocean, symbolizing, perhaps, a change of heart. He arrives at the workshop the next morning (Olivia having not called the cops, apparently) and reads a letter to the group stating that even with no job, no friends, and an uncertain future, a man should still consider himself lucky to be alive. He leaves, and the film cuts to a scene some months later where Antoine is working on an ocean barge, a smile on his face.
This last scene makes The Workshop a perfect cultural example of how easily the abuse and terrorization of women becomes redeemable in service of a man’s journey to self-realization and fulfillment. Olivia, though a successful novelist, is largely a flat character, functioning as a female sounding-board for Antoine to bounce his male angst from without any real-world consequences. She always allows him to speak in class and patiently listens to his ideas, no matter how violent or vitriolic his rhetoric. She sometimes calls him out on his more racist statements, but only on the grounds that he is intentionally provoking the class and she finds it “exhausting,” rather than due to any moral objection of their content. Perhaps most pointedly, she disregards her own personal safety as well as that of her other students when she chooses not to call the police and report Antoine’s behavior.
With the support of Olivia’s character, Antoine can evolve from a bored, lonely teenager with no sense of direction to a happy, productive young man working on a boat. This outcome would be wonderful if he hadn’t subjected an entire classroom of peers to his violent outbursts and threatened to murder his teacher in order get there. Just like too many powerful abusive men in our world, the consequences of Antoine’s actions in The Workshop never seem to catch up to him. And we, the audience, are supposed to be okay with this: to excuse Antoine because he’s young, or lonely, or feels hopeless about the future. Who hasn’t felt those things at one time or another, the film seems to suggest; we are all human, and we make mistakes, do things we’re not proud of, hurt other people.
I see this same logic in those who exonerate Junot Diaz for his past behavior on the grounds that he was horrifically abused as a child, or David Foster Wallace because he struggled with mental illness for most of his life. Knowledge of these hardships provide context for the choices these men made, but it certainly does not exempt Diaz and Wallace from the consequences of making them.
Still others excuse these men on the basis of their literary genius. Could such nuanced sexist characters like Yunior and Orin Incandenza have been written if not for the abuse the women in these men’s lives suffered? Maybe not. But what do we lose in the absence of characters like these, borne of somebody else’s hurt? Some might argue that these works contribute to the greater canon of literature, but in the era of #MeToo, how much is “good” art actually worth? One woman’s trauma? Two? At what point does the value we place on the literature these men produced absolve them of the hurt they’ve caused? Of the suffering these women have endured?
We’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about “the artist versus the art,” especially in television and film with Louis C.K., Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and so, so many more. Now the movement has come to literature, and it’s time to make a conscious choice about who we read, and why. Because the truth is that a man isn’t born into literary greatness. Greatness is ascribed by the value we readers choose to place on certain works, and the world is full of art worthy of our attention.
And while writers like Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Sherman Alexie may be some of the first men whose place in the literary canon is challenged on the basis of their character, it is important to anticipate that they will not be the last. To use Carmen Maria Machado’s words, we don’t have to accept women’s pain as collateral damage in men’s self-discovery. As readers, we don’t have to promote the work of abusers, even well-regarded and widely-anthologized ones. We can choose instead to listen to voices whose art does not come at the expense of others’ safety and well-being. To those who have endured hardships and have chosen to rise above their trauma rather than to perpetuate the abuse they suffered. As readers, we can choose this. We should.
Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Works and significant life events can be viewed at zoebossiere.com or @zoebossiere