Trust Woody Allen, as well known for his wit as his obsession with young women, to name his memoir Apropos of Nothing, a phrase Oxford Dictionary defines as “having no relevance to any previous discussion or situation”.
Is it the controversial US director, writer, actor and comedian’s way of telling fans and detractors that whatever they may think or say, “this is what happened” in his life?
Even the publication of the 400-page Apropos was dogged by controversy. Hachette Book Group announced early in March that it would bring out the autobiography this month. Subsequently, the New York-based company reneged on that plan after Allen’s journalist son Ronan Farrow announced he would stop working with Hachette, whose imprint Little, Brown and Co published his Pulitzer-winning Catch and Kill, which highlights his investigations into Harvey Weinstein and other serial sexual predators.
Subsequently, staff at Hachette’s various divisions walked out to “stand in solidarity with Ronan Farrow, Dylan Farrow and survivors of sexual assault”, according to a statement. Then, on March 23, Arcade Publishing, an imprint of independent US publisher Skyhorse, quietly released Apropos.
Ronan is Allen’s only child with Hollywood actress Mia Farrow, his girlfriend of more than a decade, while Dylan is the daughter they adopted. In 1992, after the pair separated, Dylan, then aged seven, alleged that Allen sexually abused her in Mia’s attic.
He refuted the claims, saying they were instigated by his vengeful ex-partner. Mia had just discovered that Allen, 56 then, was having an affair with 21-year-old Soon-Yi Previn, another daughter she had adopted with musician André Previn. Remarks about the May-December romance have persisted but the couple, who married in 1997, are still together today.
Allen, who writes that “my life is almost half over”, dedicates Apropos to Soon-Yi — “the best. I had her eating out of my hand and then I noticed my arm was missing”.
The book opens with his childhood in Brooklyn, his birthplace, then flows into his career in film, theatre, TV, print and stand-up comedy, the last fed by his penchant for self-mockery. He talks about Mia and Dylan, as well as being considered an intellectual and the origins of his despair.
The “candid and comprehensive personal account” of his life, says an Arcade statement, also explores his relationships with family and friends, among them former lover Diane Keaton, who won the 1978 best actress Academy Award for Annie Hall, which also bagged best director and best original screenplay Oscars for Allen. In 2012, he received best screenplay honours again, for Midnight in Paris.
Love him or hate him, Apropos’ release has received mixed reviews, revisited old scandals surrounding Allen and stirred discussions about censorship. American horror writer Stephen King tweeted that Hachette’s move “makes me very uneasy. It’s not him; I don’t give a damn about Mr Allen. It’s who gets muzzled next that worries me”.
Arcade editor Jeannette Seaver says: “In this strange time, when truth is too often dismissed as ‘fake news’, we as publishers prefer to give voice to a respected artist, rather than bow to those determined to silence him.”
Options approached various writers and people in the book business with this question: Will you read Apropos and why? Below are their comments.
Suffian Hakim, author of The Minorities and Harris bin Potter and the Stoned Philosopher
Firstly, let me just preface that I am a fan of Woody Allen’s work, not so much the man. I attribute Midnight in Paris, along with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, to being the facilitators of my transition from street soccer junkie to author. Allen has a strong love for modern Western art and culture, and when he embellishes his stories with them, that love is palpable and infectious. It is postmodern, but beatific instead of sardonic, joyous even, if self-aware. It is something I have tried to incorporate in my work. It does not influence how I consume media. I am a fan of Michael Jackson’s songs. I enjoyed the first couple of seasons of House of Cards. So, no, it does not influence how I would pick up a book. Conversely, I think Sean Penn is a thoroughly fascinating human being, but I will never buy the Bob Honey series on the mere fact that they are bad books.
So, yes, I separate the man from his art. It might not be a popular stance, but I think one’s ability as an artist and creator is not determined by one’s moral code. As consumers, we have the means to decide who we give platform, popularity and profit to. If you feel a serial sexual abuser should not receive your cash for the lies he writes in his book, don’t buy it. If you are curious as to what he has to say and are okay with him getting some of your hard-earned moolah, go ahead and buy it. If you fall somewhere in between ... get the ebook? But know that we are in a world where Woody Allen has every right to write his thoughts, a publisher has every right to publish them, and we, as consumers, have the right to decide if we want to be exposed to his words and work or not.
That said, I think it is pretty strange how Hachette Book Group agreed to publish Apropos of Nothing (albeit through its Grand Central Publishing subsidiary) after publishing the take-down-Harvey Weinstein book by Ronan Farrow, Allen’s son. I guess Hachette wanted to really behave as a business — take zero moral stance while raking in all of the profits from all sides of the moral spectrum. Reminds me of those big advertising agencies that would take an environmental non-governmental organisation account and an oil company account at the same time.
Bettina Chua Abdullah, founder and director of arts space Hikayat
Oh, the elephants, the elephants. The elephants in this room are very big, and I can’t pretend I don’t see them. What you are really asking me is if I have enough admiration for Woody Allen’s work to separate from my feelings about 1) the erotic nude photos of, and affair with, and eventual marriage to his partner’s adopted 21-year-old daughter Soon-Yi, and 2) the alleged sexual abuse of his seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan, to read his book?
The answer is no, I don’t. I don’t have enough admiration for his work. Precious little, in fact, for the subversion of his sexist and pervy pursuit of women into films, and then calling them art, and then hoodwinking us into believing their maker was some sort of sweet, self-deprecating, nerdy genius.
We often have a blind spot when it comes to an artist’s personal life, and because we feel a connection and resonance with their films, music or art, we seek to divorce that personal life from the work. But this book IS about Woody Allen’s personal life, and if you care to shift your gaze just a bit, you will see all the elephants in the blind spot. And, besides, I have always found him a bit creepy.
Rozlan Mohd Noor, crime writer
I don’t have any comments on Allen’s book for the mere fact that I don’t read biographies or autobiographies. About the only thing I read are thrillers and crime novels.
Incidentally, Skyhorse Publishing contacted Amir [Muhammad] regarding my book, Soulless (Inspector Mislan and the Faceless Girl), the fourth title of the Inspector Mislan series. Amir informed them of my three earlier books — 21 Immortals (Inspector Mislan and the Yee Sang Murders); Duke (Inspector Mislan and the DUKExpressway Murders) and UTube (Inspector Mislan and the UTube Serial Rapes).
They were interested in all of them and asked for a fifth book, which has not been written as yet. We suggested that they start with the first book, 21 Immortals, to which they agreed, and the rest — Duke, UTube and Soulless — will follow every six months after that. 21 Immortals was targeted to be released this summer in New York, but with the current Covid-19 situation, I do not know if Skyhorse will keep to the schedule.
Leon Ngai, owner of Bookalicious!
We understand that Hachette cancelled plans to publish the book on March 6. We agree with Stephen King that the publisher had denied readers the right to find out Allen’s side of his story.
Personally, I am not interested to read the book, especially his “colourful life story”. I had rather enjoyed watching his films. I liked Manhattan because the movie captured New York City so well with its black-and-white cinematography and top-notch acting.
As to whether we will be stocking Apropos, we will do so only if there are requests from customers. And yes, we do stock publications by Skyhorse — mostly adult colouring books.
Amir Muhammad, documentary filmmaker, writer and publisher (Matahari Books and Buku Fixi)
Yes, I would read Apropos of Nothing. Woody Allen is one of my favourite writers, thanks to his essays as well as screenplays.
Examples? So many of his nebbish comic essays, such as The Whore of Mensa and Metterling’s Laundry List. As for screenplays, the “earlier, funnier” films, including Bananas, Zelig, Annie Hall, right up to the last one I watched, which was Blue Jasmine.
Allen is one of the wittiest American writers of his generation. I did not follow any of the controversy surrounding Apropos, but I am glad it has been published by Skyhorse.
Dina Zaman, director of IMAN Research
Gosh, to be honest, I am not a fan of his work. But put that aside, I did read about his affair with his adopted daughter, now wife, years ago and was disgusted by it. I love reading books and some of them are biographies. I read biographies to understand the people in them, their art and so on. But Allen would be trying to justify his actions, I think. So I will pass. There is something not right about a man having relations with his adopted daughter.
Shih-Li Kow, author of Ripples and Other Stories and The Sum of Our Follies, winner of France’s 2018 Prix du Premier Roman étranger (first novel award in a foreign language)
Nope, I am not going to read the book. Firstly, I am not a fan of autobiographies. Secondly, I have never been an admirer of Woody Allen.
This article first appeared on Apr 6, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.