The Help Desk: Do only terrible men write books about terrible men?

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

With all the harassing men in the media lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this: where does the line between art and real life fall? Woody Allen keeps making movies about older men fucking younger women. Louis CK told hours of jokes about being a shit to women. Bill Cosby joked about giving roofies to women decades ago.

At some point, we have to realize that a writer who writes about treating women horribly is probably pretty likely to treat women horribly, right? I mean, I’m not saying that they should be locked up or anything, but women would be smart to avoid authors who write approvingly about being monstrous harassers, wouldn’t they?

The easy response would be to say that by that logic we should peremptorily jail mystery writers for murder, but that’s not right. Most mystery novels come down on the side of murder being a bad thing. I’ve read books by male authors that straight-up glorify misogyny. I know I would discourage my daughter from taking a class with those authors if the opportunity arose. Am I being alarmist? Do I even have a question or am I just blowing off steam at the horror show that is the news? You decide!

Kristen, Judkins

Dear Kristen,

I'd like to agree with you. It would make life simple if we could pass sweeping moral assumptions about artists based solely on their work. But that's not – or shouldn't be – the role of art.

To me, good art pushes its audience to think about aspects of humanity in ways they have never previously considered, or points out beautiful or horrible trends in our culture that deserve scrutiny or celebration.

Have you read Rabbit, Run? That's a pretty great example of a total shitbag character who peaked in high school and has no respect for women. However, through Rabbit, John Updike explores themes of alienation and the idea that American men aren't socialized with the vocabulary to express their emotions and basic desires (among other things).

It would be a shame if artists shied away from exploring and commenting on the world because they feared retribution. So how do we navigate art that makes us uncomfortable — and how should we approach the people who create that art? Here are two thoughts:

The men you all mentioned had autobiographical or confessional aspects to their work, but those weren't the dog whistles telling the world that they were alleged shitbag predators and perverts. The dog whistles were the scores of women who reported them as predators and perverts and were ignored for years. We seem to be on a path to listening to victims and taking their accusations seriously – investigating and when warranted, prosecuting them. I hope this trend continues, and it should affect their standing as artists.

Here is my second thought: I try not to read books that employ lazy misogyny or treat women as one-dimensional plot devices for men. How? I read book reviews and I take book recommendations from friends. (With movies, I try and consult the Bechdel test. And I avoid most stand up comedy.) Criticism is underappreciated but vital. Good critics evaluate what an artist was trying to do with their work and whether or not they succeeded in it. Great critics will follow an artist's oeuvre and point out weaknesses or troubling trends in their work, such as portraying women as tools rather than human beings. (That still doesn't mean that an artist views all women as tools. It could just mean that the artform they have devoted their lives to, and the mentors they have studied under, are steeped in misogyny that they may have to consciously remove themselves from. Unfortunately, women have been used as little more than narrative tools in most artforms – the archetypal victim who must be saved/avenged, the pure virgin who's a prize to be won, the heartless slut/seductress – for-basically-ever. It will take awhile to dismantle those constricting lady-shaped boxes.)

This is a bummer of a topic that I, along with many people, have struggled with. But it's a good struggle, like the struggle to remove the sweat from your third eye after a particularly intense bout of astral projecting yourself to Bill Cosby's house to take ghost shits on his pillow and chant "soon you will die and the world will be better for it" in his ear all night as he sleeps.