Marina Warner is right – gold stars for writers leads to creative death | Rebecca Nicholson

The distinguished novelist and historian is right to deprecate the notion of creative people being ‘virtuous’

The novelist and historian Marina Warner has raised concerns about the increasing pressure on authors to be “virtuous” people and the growing use of “morality clauses” to insist on good behaviour in writers’ contracts with publishers. “Striving to be good is not the same as good writing,” she said in her presidential address at the Royal Society of Literature’s summer party last week. “Engaging in fictive truth-telling is not the same as winning gold stars for conduct.”

Though it has been happening for some time now, #MeToo and Time’s Up have hastened a reckoning for public figures accused of misconduct, be that the debate on whether Woody Allen is “cancelled” or the arguments over continuing to listen to R Kelly in light of the multiple allegations of abuse against him.

Spotify found itself entangled in the thorns when it introduced a “hate content and hateful conduct” policy, which meant not featuring artists accused of wrongdoings, such as Kelly, on its playlists. It rescinded this, however, issuing a statement saying: “Our role is not to regulate artists… We don’t aim to play judge and jury.”

It seemed inevitable that the policy would collapse. The music industry is not known for its squeaky clean image, and I suspect Spotify might lose a good chunk of its catalogue if it started delving into the murky behaviour of some 70s and 80s bands. I’m not sure how helpful it is to conflate #MeToo with more vague concerns over artistic morality – we’re sophisticated enough as viewers, readers and listeners to understand that promoting the work of a convicted rapist, for example, and them profiting from that, is not the same as recognising that Picasso was both a terrible philanderer and good at painting, though a consensus on whether we can or should separate art from the artist is as elusive as the argument is old.

But Warner’s point deserves to be discussed sensibly. Actors often have to sign morality clauses, so as not to get caught blind drunk riding a camel naked down the highway, let’s say, which might jeopardise the project they’re working on. For authors to be asked to do the same seems like denying a fundamental part of experiences that might be necessary to write. That’s not to say that artists should have a free licence to be arseholes, just that if they happen to be arseholes, that doesn’t mean their work is immediately unworthy of attention. Besides, imagine a literary canon created only by lovely people, writing about nice things, with pure and wholesome intentions. I found a load of old Mills & Boons in a holiday cottage recently, so I have seen this future and it is frilly.

Alia Shawkat: Mansplainers have now met their match


The cult sitcom Arrested Development ran for two genius seasons, one very good season and then one season that was so queasily unwatchable that its creator, Mitch Hurwitz, decided to re-edit it, five years on, in the hope of a very belated fix. Given that he seemed to recognise where he’d gone wrong, its comeback in May should have been a return to form. Instead, it launched to the worst kind of fanfare. One of its stars, Jeffrey Tambor, had been fired from Amazon’s Transparent, after accusations of misconduct. Arrested Development stood by him, but this brought up issues within the cast that boiled over in a catastrophic interview with the New York Times, after which all promotional interviews were cancelled.

Alia Shawkat
Alia Shawkat: ‘part of me thinks Shawkat was impressive for getting a word in edgeways’. Photograph: Steve Schofield/The Guardian

It was a car-crash read that seemed to epitomise the worst kind of mansplaining; the male cast members, who apologised afterwards, seemed to diminish the experience of their co-star Jessica Walters and put her complaint about Tambor’s anger down to performers being “difficult”. Alia Shawkat, who plays Maeby in the series, was the one voice of dissent. “That doesn’t mean it’s acceptable,” she added.

In an interview with Broadly last week, Shawkat said she was scared that she hadn’t said enough and upset that she had not stood her ground more. Many women will recognise that feeling of being talked over by men; part of me thinks Shawkat was impressive for getting a word in edgeways. “I hope that the guys on the show – and now all these men of all different ages – start to communicate with the women in their lives, the women they work with,” she said. “And just ask openly with no shame, ‘What can I do to be better?’”

Johnny Depp: Is that humble pie he’s eating?

Johnny Depp, left, and Alice Cooper
Johnny Depp, left, and Alice Cooper on stage at a Hollywood Vampires concert in Sweden on 7 June 2018. Photograph: Michael Campanella/Redferns


New pictures of Johnny Depp, 55 yesterday, currently on tour with his band, the Hollywood Vampires, have “raised concern” among fans, who have expressed worry about the movie star’s gaunt appearance. He claims to be fine, but in these pictures he’s also wearing a baseball cap that says “Fugly” on it and a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Stay humble or be humbled”. There are rumours that he’s preparing for a role; I’m scanning his IMDb page to see if that role will be “Camden Market Clothes Stall”.

In terms of separating art and artist, Depp is a perfect test case. He’s had a rough few years, reputation-wise – some might say less rough than the people who accused him of assaulting them, but let’s not quibble – but has emerged miraculously unscathed, continuing to work at a seemingly solid rate, still adored by those for whom he will always be a beautiful young man with a teardrop tattoo, rather than a raggedy bloke in his 50s in a nonsensical slogan T-shirt.

Still, there’s always a tipping point; imagine if that tipping point is a Fugly baseball cap. Stay humble or be humbled. Makes you think.

• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist

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Rebecca Nicholson

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