Literary Tattoos, Book Quotes, and the Safety of the Classics in Troubled Times
I used to be one of those people who thought the classics were the be-all and end-all of literature. I used to say, "they wouldn't be called classics if they sucked!" If a book had been published within the past 50 years, I had no interest in it, with the notable exception of Harry Potter.
But I don't feel that way anymore. I LOVE modern books!
And I never loved them more than after I graduated college. I was an English major, so a lot of my time was spent reading all sorts of classics, from the popular Shakespeare to books so obscure I can hardly remember them now. By the end of my senior thesis (which was, of course, on a classic) I got exhausted just thinking about reading an old book.
I graduated in 2013 and the number of classics I've read since then can be counted on one hand. Until recently, I had no desire whatsoever to read anything not published in my lifetime.
I'll tell you: the Me Too movement. And my first tattoo.
I've been following the Me Too movement, especially as it pertains to literature. The last thing I want to do is unknowingly support an abusive, predatory author. There are too many good authors out there––good as in talented and good as in character––that there's really no point in giving my time, attention, or dollars to someone who doesn't know how to be a good writer and a good person. I mean, damn. It's not that hard!
I also recently got my first tattoo (more on that in a forthcoming post!) and I see why people get addicted. It's easy to do! I can't help getting a jolt of happiness every time I look at it, so I'm planning to get more.
I decided I want my next tattoo to be a literary quote, but there are lots of literary quotes that I've collected over the years and that speak to me. Several of those quotes are from Sherman Alexie, who, until recently, was one of my favorite authors. I've been championing his books for years––since high school, so for well over a decade.
And now it's come out that he's a sexual predator who has harassed dozens of women. While no allegations of rape have been brought (to my knowledge), he's still harassed, assaulted, and abused women and made them feel safe. He's used his position of power as a famous writer to prey on young female writers.
As a young female writer myself, I find that unsettling. I think of how easily I could find myself in a such a situation. If one of my favorite male authors said he liked my work and wanted to help boost my career, of course, I'd jump at the chance! Writers want to have their words reach the light of publishing day, so why not accept help from someone who knows the ropes? But nothing, especially not willfully volunteered mentorship, should be contingent on sexual abuse.
So strike all of his quotes from my "tattoo potential" quote list.
These days I'm too paranoid to get a living author's words emblazoned on my body. Even without attribution, it would make me sick to know I'd sank an abuser's words into my skin, permanently.
However, with long-dead authors, we probably already know about their misdeeds; their reputations, be they good or bad, are set. I can't imagine someone digging up new information on Alfred Lord Tennyson or William Blake or Dylan Thomas that changed their public perception. If long-dead guys were jackasses, we probably already know about it.
While much of the Me Too movement centers on abusive men, which makes sense because in a patriarchal society they have more power to oppress and abuse, I realize women are not immune and there are some (albeit not nearly as many) problematic women.
Long-dead folks seem like the safest bet these days. Somebody who's been six feet under for decades or centuries isn't going to do harm in the future. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is foolproof, and anything is possible, but I'm finding it harder to justify trusting a living writer in such a permanent way as a tattoo.
I mean, clearly, I don't have the best judgment. If you'd asked me what male authors I thought would be abusers, Sherman Alexie wouldn't have come to mind. It probably didn't for his victims either, which made it easier to trust him––a trust he later broke. Sometimes the people you don't suspect are the ones you have to watch out for because they're hiding in plain sight.
And as much as my first tattoo makes me happy, I never want to look at a future tattoo and hate it––not because of what it says, but because of who said it. There's limited real estate on my body and limited funds in my wallet. I have to be judicious with the art I allow my skin to carry.
So, unsuspectingly, I've found myself retreating to the safety of dead poets for words that cling to my soul and that I might want to cling to my body. I haven't made any decisions yet, but whatever quotes I find will be thoroughly vetted and researched along with their authors.