Over at BookRiot they’ve posted a sort of point/counterpoint issue centered around the question of: what do you do when you find out an author, even one you may have previously considered a favorite of yours, is a monster?
Kit Steinkellner takes the position that she stops reading the offending author’s work while Rachel Smalter asserts that she continues to read the work, regardless of how offensive she finds the writer’s personal life to be. Both give perfectly good reasons for their positions, and they each may echo your own particular feelings about the matter, depending on where you come down on the question. I hope you’ll click the links above and read both of their posts before continuing. I’ll wait here for you.
Back? Ok, here are my thoughts on the question. And to be clear, I’m talking about fictional books you purchase (and thus, support) where an author is telling a story, not a non-fiction book where a writer is openly laying out their personal belief system. In other words a book by Stephen King or J. K. Rowling as opposed to a book by Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin.
It turns out that I’ve actually been giving this question some thought for a while, and the BookRiot question acted as a sort of catalyst to put those thoughts into words and write this post.
Let me further clarify that Kit uses the term “monster” in her examples of Woody Allen, J. D. Salinger, Orson Scott Card and Ronald Dahl. If indeed Allen molested his 7 year old adopted daughter, he IS a monster. However, Allen was never proven to have done so and the judge in his trial ruled the allegations to be inconclusive and the accusations to be less credible. As far as J.D. Salinger; I’ve never seen the documentary she references so I don’t know about his “skeevy relationships with teenage girls” though in reading Joyce Maynard’s book about him I was aware of his seeing young women as young as 19. That is still, technically, “teenage” but not what you bring to mind when you hear the term, which makes you think of someone younger. I know nothing about Dahl, and so will not comment. Card I’ll cover later.
Let’s face it, most of us see a book that looks interesting or hear about a book that we think we would like and we read it, sometimes never knowing anything personal about the writer. Sometimes we’ve read the author’s previous work and liked it so we are pretty sure we’ll like their new work, never knowing more about the author than what we read on the “About the Author” section on the back page of the book cover. In those situations, for me, if the work is good, I like it and if it’s not I don’t. The writer may be an asshole in person, but I don’t know about the writer being an asshole so I base my judgment on the work. That’s all I have. That’s what happens most of the time.
But, BUT, sometimes we find out some personal things about the writer that DO shade our interpretation of their work or even cause us to stop reading any future work. It may be nothing more than a philosophical difference; it may be a political difference; or it may be a deeply held belief system difference, but as I said it may run the gamut from influencing our “read” of their work to causing us to decide we cannot in good conscience continue to read them at all.
I have no problem reading a writer’s work who may hold different beliefs from mine about a variety of subjects. They prefer vanilla to my preference of chocolate or their favorite color is green while mine is blue or they would rather spend time at the beach when I would rather hike a mountain. None of that REALLY affects my reading of their work.
However, sometimes a writer holds a belief system that may be diametrically opposed to mine in more serious areas of distinction. It could be religious, political or personal in nature. And they may never overtly include their belief system in their fictional story. I may never know they hold a certain belief or philosophy by reading their work. (Although once you DO know you may see the subtle inclusion or exclusion you missed before you knew) If they are not publicly stating their belief system that is diametrically opposed to mine, then again all I have is the story on which to base my opinion of them. This is where I am in agreement with the “love the art” position. Because it is the art alone that you have.
But if they are publicly stating this diametrically opposed belief system, in a sort of chest thumping, “This is who I am” declaration for all to see, then they have essentially said that I am no longer to base my opinion of them by their “art” alone, but that I am to also to base it on their religious, political or personal belief. And if it is diametrically opposed to mine then I am going to have a difficult time justifying to myself why I should purchase (and thus, support) their work.
Here is where I think Rachel left the argument. I am in full agreement with her question, “…how will you ever know what you don’t know?” I’m a firm believer in looking at all sides of an argument and all sides of an issue. Even “Know your enemy” and such. But where she left the issue was in not acknowledging Kit’s (and mine) position that you cannot begin or continue to support someone’s work with whom you have this direct contention of belief.
For many years I kept meaning to buy and read Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” but for some reason never did. It was always that I either didn’t have the money when I saw it or I was going to wait for the series to end and read it all at once or some other reasons but it boils down to I never did manage to buy it and read it.
Then, a little more than a year ago, I was reading a comic book forum and there was a huge outpouring of disgust against DC Comics because they had hired Card to be a guest writer on one of their Superman comic books. It was there that I discovered the reason for the disgust; that Card was actively campaigning against marriage equality (gay marriage) and that many, based on his public associations and statements, regarded him as a homophobe who did not represent the ideals that Superman stood for. When the artist on the book left because he refused to be attached to it if Card was writing and retailers began letting DC Comics know they would not be ordering the book when it was published, DC Comics put the book on “hold” and it is still unpublished as of this date.
This was the first I had heard of this issue with Card so I took to the Internet to see if the disgust was valid or if things had been blown out of proportion. My research led me to the conclusion that it was valid, what with Card’s statement in a 2008 essay opposing same-sex marriage that he regarded any government that would attempt to recognize same-sex marriage as a “mortal enemy” that he would act to destroy, and his sitting on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage, a non-profit political organization established in 2007 to work against legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States.
Since I’m a proponent of and believer in marriage equality, I lost all interest in ever reading “Ender’s Game” or seeing the 2013 movie of the same name (which did a dismal box office of $62 million domestically and even less than that in the international market) or doing anything that would support Card financially.
What’s your take on this question? If you find out an author is a “monster”, as Kit describes them do you refuse to support them by buying or reading their works, or do you take the position of Rachel and enjoy their work regardless of whether you find their personal lives or beliefs to be absolutely contrary to yours? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here, just each individual’s preference, and I’d love to hear yours.