The cancel culture crowd is gunning for Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro, one of Canada’s most distinguished authors. It’s been open season since her daughter, Andrea Robin Skinner, published the gut-wrenching account of her mother’s betrayal on learning she’d been sexually abused by her stepfather. Social media posts show Munro’s books being tossed in the garbage. Western University is re-evaluating its ties to its famous graduate. Her publishers are not coming to her defence.

Gerald Fremlin abused Skinner when she was nine years hold. She told her mother years later. Munro left her husband briefly, apparently not because of his child abuse, but because of what she perceived as his infidelity. Munro refused to discuss the matter further, insisting that what happened in Skinner’s childhood was between her and her stepfather.

In 2005, Skinner gave the police letters Fremlin had written that acknowledged what he’d done but shifted the blame to her. He was charged, convicted and given a suspended sentence and two years of probation. Still, Munro stayed with him. Skinner wrote that Munro said that she had been “told too late” about the abuse, that she loved him too much to leave him and that she couldn’t be expected to “deny her own needs.”

Munro has long been a secular saint in CanLit and feminist circles: a small-town wife and mother, she made bestsellers of short stories about mothers and daughters. But there is no sugarcoating the selfishness and grotesquerie of this horror. Munro’s cozy, down-home image, which is so at odds with the grit and ferocity of her stories, is no more.

That is a good thing. Halos sit uncomfortably on human beings. The more we know about the lives of our leading lights, the better. Knowledge adds context to our understanding of their achievements and their failures. This is especially true when it touches areas that polite society prefers to keep secret. Child abuse is one of the worst crimes imaginable, and one of its worst effects is the shame felt by the victims. To know that it happens at all levels of society helps break the silence that creates that shame.

But the moral posturing that has followed these revelations is stunning. Under the headline, Alice Munro Betrayed Us, And Her Legacy, arts columnist Marsha Lederman wrote in the Globe and Mail: “Now what are we to do? How can we read her again, ever? Her work will be viewed through a new lens — if further viewing can even be tolerated. Syllabuses, publishers’ plans, bookstore shelves — so much rearranging to do.” Similarly, Constance Grady in Vox writes, “What do we do about Alice Munro now?”

Let’s be clear: Munro betrayed her daughter; she didn’t betray us. To pretend that readers are in any way Munro’s victims is self-aggrandizement. These revelations will justly result in a re-evaluation of Munro’s character and judgment and will be of interest to literary scholars searching for the personal inspirations behind her stories. But writers owe readers their words, not their lives. If books are trashed because we are appalled by the moral choices of their authors, there won’t be a library left standing.

It is commonly asked whether it’s possible to separate the artist from the work. Of course it is. We know little about the lives of Euripides, Aristotle and Plato, and nothing about the writers of “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” “The Mahabharata” or the Bible. That has never interfered with our full engagement with these texts. Similarly, not a single word that Munro wrote has changed since these revelations were made public. The question is whether we can separate our prejudices about her behaviour from our appreciation of her work.

It is fair to attack Munro’s reaction to her daughter’s abuse, but those trying to cancel her work are contemporary Lord High Sparrows. They licence themselves as moral superiors authorized to identify sinners and to ask us what we’re going to do about them. They suggest that coming to the defence of reading or teaching Munro identifies oneself as implicitly immoral. This is bullying, pure and simple.

The truth is, like Charles Dickens, Tolstoy and Alice Walker, Munro is a great writer, in part because of her personal failings. They gave her a keen understanding of human frailty. These include the lies we tell ourselves about our cruelties, our rationalizations for our behaviour and the behaviour of those we love. Writers are told to write what they know. Munro did exactly that. She had the courage to put on paper the excuses and betrayals she recognized in her own daily life.

As she wrote in her final book “Dear Life”: “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do — we do it all the time.” All of us have the unearned confidence that we will do the right thing. Munro knew from personal experience that this is a lie.

Munro’s awareness of these human failings informs her understanding of the need for grace and forgiveness — rare qualities in a world that’s keen to race to judgment. Her compassion for the unloved and unlovable is something we might wish for ourselves as we contemplate her literary achievements while acknowledging the horrors of her life.

As Shakespeare, that great family betrayer, wrote: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”

National Post

Allan Stratton is the internationally award-winning author of “Chanda’s Secrets” and “The Dogs.”