Posted inOpinion

When is it right to read? My views on ethical reading

Illustration by Josephine Moir

CW transphobia, antisemitism

This week I had to read The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound. Though a celebrated work, I found it confusing and uncomfortable. Pound was a militant fascist and an infamous antisemite, which at times comes through in his writing. I felt guilty for reading his work and was forced to confront an uncomfortable but important question: can we read ethically?

By that I mean, morally, should I be reading a writer like Pound? Is it right for me to study and analyse his poetry? When hearing his rampant antisemitic radio broadcasts or his idolisation of Mussolini, I want to throw all his poetry out of the window and let history forget him.

But history won’t forget him. He won the Bollingen prize for poetry in 1948 for the very work I previously mentioned, The Cantos. He is a critically acclaimed writer, and an almost inevitable feature of any English Literature degree course, including mine here at Oxford University. 

That is where the issue lies. I can’t avoid him, but by reading, analysing and praising his ‘turn of phrase’ or ‘great use of metaphor’ do I become complicit in his bigotry? It is a question that will haunt me until I confront it. 

A solution may be to separate the work from the writer. We can read a piece of writing ethically if we completely dissociate it from the author, right? However, as Pound’s extremist politics frequently inform his writing, it is not difficult to find antisemitism in the pages of The Cantos. It would be like admiring the artwork of a propaganda poster and not acknowledging that it is a piece of propaganda. 

In my opinion, we can’t solve this problem by ignoring it. If we attempt to study and read his work in isolation, without background and context, then we may be tempted to forget his motivation, and turn a blind eye to his behaviour, so that his poetic legacy lives on without consequences. 

But this problem is not just limited to writers from the past. Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, has famously been caught up in a transphobia twitter scandal. In a tweet in June 2020, Rowling disregards the inclusive wording of ‘people who menstruate’ as an erasure of the gender category of women, in what I believe, is a clear example of her transphobia.

JK Rowling’s views complicate my readings of Harry Potter. Do I disregard the very stories that first ignited my passion for literature? Can I read the series again without indirectly supporting her? Unlike Pound’s bigotry, Rowling’s transphobia does not directly inform Harry Potter, but it’s very association with her and her views is enough to make me pause. I do not want to become complicit. I do not want to actively support her by supporting her work.

Certainly, it is not clear cut. Avoiding these writers’ works will do nothing and refusing to engage with them may even do the opposite, causing their works to become memorialised by untouchability. Censoring books such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has in the past, only served to immortalise them as cherished members of the literary canon.

My solution then is to hold these two conflicting forces in balance – to stop idolising controversial writers, but to still consider their work. By holding their books up as “literary masterpieces” we shout to the world that their beliefs are acceptable, and that with “literary genius” you can get away with any sort of bigotry. Instead, we need to realise and accept that we are reading tainted literature, learning from it and confronting rather than hiding from the problem.

I do think it is possible to read these writers ethically in the right circumstances, but we must stop viewing their work as something to actively praise. Will I read Harry Potter to any children I have? I know I’d like to, but I’ll also take time to talk with them about inclusion and acceptance. I think that is the distinction to make.

I will continue studying Ezra Pound as my course requires, but I will attempt to write about his work honestly, in a way that denies him a position of power and does not put him in a place of intellectual superiority where his bigotry is validated. 

To read ethically is to read consciously, with all the implications and complications that this brings.