Modern “cancel culture” has placed many members of our political and celebrity populations under a great deal of scrutiny for their history of misbehaviors. Obvious wrongdoers—such as R. Kelly—are undoubtedly deserving of backlash, while others’ cases are not so clear cut.
This uptick in moral diligence has created an environment where we seem to praise those with exemplary behavior, yet some elements of our content consumption indicate otherwise. Though we are critical of actors and politicians who have done wrong in the past, our society cares little about those they do not see which allows the wrongdoings of lesser-known public figures, like artists and authors, to carry on unrecognized.
Tao Lin, celebrated author of numerous books such as Taipei and Trip, is one artist who should be questioned in his intentions based on the content of his 2010 novel Richard Yates. The book is an autobiographical novel which depicts a semi-fictionalized recollection of 22-year-old Lin’s relationship with a 16-year-old girl.
In the text, Lin, referring to himself as Haley Joel Osment, recounts his toxic relationship with a character who he has given the name Dakota Fanning. The novel begins with their conversations over Gmail chat and moves later to their meeting in person and the start of a serious sexual relationship.
On multiple occasions throughout the narrative, Osment emotionally abuses Fanning under the guise of her own self-improvement—forcing her to type long emails of all the lies she has told him while also frequently insulting her mental health and willingness to improve. Fanning’s struggle with bulimia is revealed midway through the novel and can be seen in moments of emotional crisis, caught between her own unhealthy impulses and Osment’s assiduous critique.
The novel capitalizes on its own deviant nature in order to provide a gritty depiction of what life is really like in our mentally unhealthy digital age, yet it does so at the cost of Lin’s own integrity as an individual.
This is a strategy not unfamiliar to authors of the past, such as Charles Bukowski and Ernest Hemmingway, who used their own flawed characters to communicate greater themes to readers which historically have been appreciated and celebrated. Authors escape the kind of scrutiny that more prevalent figures face because of the nature of their celebrity status as beginning and ending with their work. They are not involved in the process of viewing and therefore aren’t seen by the viewer as anything more than a name. We separate the writing from the writer more easily and automatically than is possible with an actor or a singer because the person responsible for creating those art forms is visually linked to the art itself.
In 2006, an anonymously written Dutch novel entitled Diary of an Oxygen Thief rose quickly to the top of the New York Times’ bestsellers list for reasons akin to the massive popularity of Bukowski, Lin and Jack Kerouac. The novel follows the story of a recovering alcoholic who makes a concerted effort to seek out women as romantic partners in order to emotionally manipulate and abuse them. Though the novel’s content is undeniably objectionable, it too was widely read and celebrated, indicating a demand for this kind of content despite the public’s current motivation against it.
Though our society seems to care deeply about the proper treatment of all people, the popularity of Bukowski, Lin and Diary of an Oxygen Thief tells another story. By considering our actors, politicians and public figures our moral exemplars, “cancel culture” has inadvertently created an exceptionalism wherein only those with massive celebrity status and success are put to the moral test, while authors, whose work is founded upon relatability and representation of actual lived experience, are celebrated for violating our principles of moral righteousness.
Anthony Lyon is an English major freshman who hates mashed potatoes.