Literary Greatness at the Expense of Female Suffering: On Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop

June 6, 2018 § 23 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:

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**

zz cantetThe 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

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§ 23 Responses to Literary Greatness at the Expense of Female Suffering: On Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace, and Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop

  • Great essay–thank you.

  • llzranch says:

    This essay is wonderful. It’s time to call out the abusers, regardless of who they are.

  • “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.”

    Thank you! Too often I see this, that we make excuses for people who do not deserve to be excused.

    While reading Alexie’s memoir written immediately after his mother died, I was horrified at the blame he laid at his mother’s feet and upon other women, the cruelty of his actions, and how unexamined his story was. The glowing reviews were a mystery to me, and that was before the revelations of his abuses.

  • clpauwels says:

    Reblogged this on CL Pauwels at Large and commented:
    Such an important discussion:

    “As readers, how do we reconcile love for our favorite books with the terrible acts of the men who wrote them?”

  • norah12 says:

    Thank you. A great essay. Lest we not forget J.D. Salinger.

  • Beautifully written, thoughtful response to what is going on. It makes my head hurt to think about these writers who are deemed so important while they make such lousy choices in their treatment of others; it makes my heart hurt even more.

  • Finn Janning says:

    Thank you for a needed essay.
    Men should not be excused on the basis of their literary genius. Never. I also think the same goes for women. It is not chauvinistic in the slightest to state that all women are not angels, just as all men are not sexual predators. Writing this, however, feels like putting a rope around my neck, because gender issues, especially in the #MeToo era, have become so contentious. Today discussion of the topic is governed by a cowboy mentality, in which everyone shoots first and asks questions later.
    I write this response because of the question on which the blog post ends: “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.”
    Maybe not. But just as easily, maybe.
    Imagination is still a fundamental aspect of literature and art. I find it hard to believe that all the Scandinavian women writing crime literature are murderers. I doubt that Gillian Flynn, author of “Gone Girl,” has killed her old boyfriend, or wants to. Stephen King is probably not wildly evil, or even all that mean. And Han Kang, who wrote “The Vegetarian,” might not be a vegetarian, or like to be painted naked by her sister’s husband, or even have a sister.
    The blog post asks, “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?” That is a good question. I personally feel that it is not worth s–t if someone deliberately suffers in the process. By suffering I do not mean that, say, children might suffer due to parental distraction or absentmindedness. I mean suffering in a violent and abusive way.
    So, yes, it is time we began making more conscious choices not only about who we read, but also how we read.

  • Carol Carson says:

    Eye-opening…

  • Pauline says:

    Thank you. We need more voices to bring this to our attention and awareness.

  • Thank you. Beautifully articulated wisdom. From my perspective I feel one woman living a fulfilled and joyful life is far more valuable than the entire David Foster Wallace literary collection. Honestly, I don’t even like his work and have no idea what all the hype is about. Thank you for opening up a space for me to speak my truth.

  • Beth Peyton says:

    Very well-done, thoughtful piece. Thank you.

  • Powerful writing and clear-eyed truth telling; I was moved, angered, invigorated.

    I do NOT read any writers who have at the center of their work these themes or pivotal points of story, with the attendant, unhealthy (also narrowly developed) characters–no matter how acclaimed they may be in some wider world of literary judgment. I read a lot of women writers anymore, and am careful about even where their truths lead me. I want work that clarifies yet inspires and offers a truth without harming even more humans who have been harmed in this world. Memoir may be one things to reconsider and ponder within context but fiction and poetry–leave me out of any blood letting, the continued preponderance of victimizing.
    Thank you for such a fine essay. I will be sharing it as both a good example of potent language and writing with authenticity.

  • […] the needs and character of men in their live. Zoe Boisierre wrote on the Brevity blog about the recent outing of Junot Díaz as a serial abuser. Given recent revelations about Díaz, Alexie, and other authors, I feel […]

  • Denise Alden says:

    Wonderful and fantastic! For a few years now, I’ve committed to reading almost exclusively work by women and people of color for many of the reasons you write about here. One of the turning points for me in regard to this issue was reading Salma Hayek’s op ed last December in the NYT. To learn that her marvelous film “Frida” was obstructed at every turn, almost didn’t get to us, made me angry and heartbroken: how many more amazing works by women and people of color have we lost out on? I think it’s immeasurable.

  • Ms Bossiere, the article has very good explanations of the case, but I’m afraid I really must disagree with the conclusion. Machado in her “tweet” didn’t ever imply to stop reading Diaz (or anyone). She implied to stop being a selfish psycho and stop hurting people. I think, beyond the material issue of time, it is a very misguided idea to suggest that people stop reading about people who hurt people, even if those people are all men. The commenter above me, Denise Alden, brings up the case of the film Frida, how apparently it was obstructed by machismo and was less visible. As you say, we should be training ourselves to actively search out less-heard voices –that’s what’s going to make us better readers. But then you make rather a jump to say not to read such as Diaz or Wallace (I know … Wallace’s stuff is lame). Diaz and Alexie, thanks to their own efforts or others’ will face the judgment of history as individuals, just like Hemingway or Hitler. But dude, if you try to get people to blind themselves to certain sos and sos on whatever MORAL grounds, you’re ultimately going to end up with self-censorship, and that’s not helping anyone.

    • Sometimes the writing itself contains ugliness that we have long tolerated, even defended. And maybe we shouldn’t. I have read A River Runs Through It and swooned over Maclean’s words and heartbreak and unacknowledged guilt. I also did not fail to recognize its appalling racism and sexism. Only as an individual can I decide if the beauty repays the ugliness, but too many readers are unwilling to admit ugliness exists in many lauded books. I believe it is time we reconsidered what is great and good. That would not be censorship. That would be objectivity. That would be considering the book as it speaks to a wider range of readers. It is justice.

    • Denise Alden says:

      Perhaps I wasn’t clear (or maybe you could read the op ed for yourself) but “Frida” was not “obstructed by machismo:” it was obstructed by the serial sexual abuser Harvey Weinstein. It wasn’t less “visible.” My point is that her op ed made me realize how many other masterpieces by women and people of color have been lost to this false, bullshit, so-called meritocracy we still participate in.

      • “As readers, we don’t have to promote the work of abusers, even well-regarded and widely-anthologized ones.” As you say, we have many other works we might choose.

  • Thought provoking article. I am going out on a limb to the point of ditziness, and query the inherent assumption that suffering is the yellow brick road to redemption. A concept ingrained in Western thought. Most likely this is a carry over from medival Christianity. I am seriously questioning that premise these days.
    “Thank you for the offer, but I decline the honor of being used as the tool of your suffering-take it on the road buddy”

  • kathybjones says:

    Very thought-provoking essay. Thanks for it!

    I’m not sure where I stand on the “don’t read them at all” point. From a commercial point of view, putting money in an abuser’s pockets, perhaps that is convincing as an argument to support non-support of such works. But the whole question of the relationship between the life and the work is much more complicated for me than one solved simply by not reading. Can we perhaps instead read the works against the grain of the life, exposing its blunders, i.e., in the life and the work?

    On the larger question of “cruelty” and art, I am finding Maggie Nelson’s “The Art of Cruelty” instructive on the question of cruelty’s “work,” aesthetically speaking. Apropos one of other commentators here, suffering is not necessarily the road to redemption and its depiction in aesthetic forms, as in “real life,” may not offer salvation but the opposite.

    Finally, I don’t think confessing to prior abuse exonerates the perpetrator of violence from responsibility for those violent acts.

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