Yes, You Can Still Read Alice Munro

By now, we should be used to this story: A beloved artist is undone by their own bad behavior, knocked off their pedestal, their works removed to a remote shelf. Since the #MeToo movement began, publishing, just like film and music, has seen its share of idols abandoned. But the distress over the Nobel Prize–winning author Alice Munro has a different tenor.

The death of Munro, at 92 years old in May, was followed by an outpouring of encomium by her many fans. Her obituary in The New York Times called her the closest thing there was to a “literary saint” in her native Canada. But this week her daughter Andrea Robin Skinner published an op-ed in the Toronto Star revealing that her stepfather, Gerald Fremlin, had molested her when she was a child, and that Munro had remained married to him even after learning the truth. As a young woman, Skinner went to the police and—in part on the strength of letters Fremlin had written to Skinner’s father and her stepmother that graphically described the abuse—he was convicted of indecent assault. But Skinner never spoke publicly about the case, or about her estrangement from her mother, until now. “She was adamant that whatever had happened was between me and my stepfather,” Skinner wrote. “It had nothing to do with her.”

Measuring horrors is an unpleasant business. Although Munro did not herself abuse her daughter, her behavior was unfathomably revolting. In his letters, Fremlin blamed Skinner for what happened, saying the 9-year-old girl had been a “Lolita” who seduced him. The decision to stick by him suggests that Munro may have accepted this disgusting defense. According to Skinner, whose account has been backed up by many sources, the abuse was an open secret not just in their family, but in literary circles. Her mother was protected by her fame and persona, and, Skinner wrote, “I was alone.”

How, many of Munro’s fans are now wondering, can they ever reconcile the saint with this history? Can they still read and admire her stories?

The #MeToo movement has given us one answer to the question of how to manage art we love after it has been recategorized as the output of a morally “bad actor.” We throw it out. We rip the artist from their pedestal and cast the films, music, novels, paintings, clothing that we formerly admired into the nearest cultural refuse bin. We do so with such great public ceremony that even engaging with the contents of the bin thereafter, even trepidatiously approaching it, becomes a violation. There are now scores of films we should not watch, albums we should not stream, and brands we should not wear.

In the beginning this was, I admit, a thrilling act. As woman after woman came forward with long-kept secrets about powerful men, we found catharsis in rising against these protected predators. We were invigorated by seizing our power as consumers of art and devaluing perpetrators with so much wealth and fame and glory.

But this reaction was not only culturally immature; it was also unsustainable. At this rate, we risk throwing away the art and culture that define us. In the gray and nauseating light of the Munro revelations, we can perhaps see a different answer to the question of how to separate the art from the artist: We can exalt the art without deifying the artist.

There is a cascading effect to genius: We think that because someone has all that talent, they must have the virtues to go with it. And because Munro was a woman, that virtue extends to our presumptions of her as a mother (perhaps one of the few benefits of sexism). We seem unable to imagine that someone who was such a good writer could be a bad mother.

But it is our very investment in that cascade of genius, and in the idea of the virtuous artist, that has protected so many predators. Of the many outrages in this story, one of the most upsetting is that the family stayed silent in part because they felt an obligation to preserve Munro’s reputation. This happens all the time, though most members of the protected class of genius have been men, whose misdeeds must be kept behind locked doors because there is—always—“too much at stake.” I wrote about such a man in my most recent book: a character based on the art titan Carl Andre, a sculptor who was accused and acquitted in a trial by a judge of murdering his wife, Ana Mendieta. Though doubt lingered around the acquittal, he largely enjoyed the defense and support of the art establishment up until his own death at 88.

Inevitably, someone is reading this and thinking: If we don’t shun the work, how will we punish the artist? That’s the wrong question to ask. For one thing, Munro is dead and doesn’t care anymore what we think. But even for artists who are alive and well, the more effective response is to stop putting them on pedestals in the first place.

Just as there are terrible, troubled people who are excellent mechanics or stock brokers, there are terrible, troubled people who make excellent art. Perhaps they are even overrepresented. Perhaps, in some cases, it is precisely their troubled terribleness that helped make that art excellent. That, alone, might be reason enough to keep engaging with the art after our idols have fallen. Not blindly, like acolytes. But critically, to see what it was about their work that made it resonate. Art is powerful not because it mirrors only our innate goodness, but rather because it reveals our innate complexity: the delicate balance of love and sin that exists, to varying degrees, within us all.

Munro published a story called “Vandals” in The New Yorker soon after she was first told, in a letter from her daughter, about the abuse. The story is about a woman whose husband molested a much younger neighbor. The woman can’t or won’t admit that she knows, at some level, what happened, and she does nothing. It was the last story in her 1994 collection Open Secrets. It should not only be read again; it should be read again in that gray and nauseating light of what we know now.

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