She said she wouldn’t read Hemingway, because of his treatment of women.
‘Okay,’ I said, and recommended some other writers. I’m no Hemmingway expert, I just like the way he wrote, and we were in a general writing class, so it was not a good time to begin a discussion about the attitude of an author that many of us were not familiar with. I had plenty of other suggestions to provide so we moved on.
I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot since though. I did once put a novel on the fire rather than pass it on, because it ended with the heroine falling in love with the man who had abducted and raped her. That was a couple of decades ago, but I can remember the feeling of satisfaction as I stirred up the charring pages with the poker. Books, I thought, were a kind of model that showed people how to think and act. I think I even went so far as to begin a letter to the publisher.
But yesterday, when I recommended Hemingway’s short stories to a group, I found myself qualifying the suggestion. ‘He was a writer of his time,’ I said. ‘You may not always like the way he portrays women.’
I didn’t feel it necessary to caution a reading group about text content when we read ‘Tom Jones’, or ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’. I don’t issue a warning alongside Katherine Mansfield, though some of her characters and situations are just as questionable as Hemingway’s when measured against today’s ideas on roles and expectations.
There are books I have chosen not to read, and others I wish I hadn’t, but I’ve not been tempted to burn any of them. My favourite copy of Wuthering Heights is held together with a large elastic band. I have a new copy, but cannot bring myself to lose that old one. You might see that as sentimental attachment, and I would agree that’s a small part.
What I would ask though, is, ‘Should I have burned that book?’