Good Book, Bad Author

The soon to be released movie, Ender’s Game and the highly public controversy around it’s author Orson Scott Card has raised an ugly dilemma for many Sci-fi fans. How are you supposed to feel when an author writes a great book but they are themselves a rather reprehensible character. Does it affect your judgement of the book?

For those that don’t know what the controversy is about, here is the cliff notes version. Ender’s Game is a futuristic science fiction novel where children are trained from a very young age to fight an alien race. The novel received mostly positive recognition when it was published. The Sci-fi community as a whole is relatively liberal and many see Ender’s Game as a dystopian indictment of the military complex.

Meanwhile Orson Scott Card is active in conservative politics. Most notably is his involvement in NOM and the fight against marriage equality. He doesn’t just want to prevent gays from marrying but has publicly called for laws banning homosexuality and providing stiff penalties for it, making him not just conservative but outright regressive in political views.

There has been a significant outcry in the LGBT community to boycott the release of the movie. Many fans read the book knowing nothing of the author’s political views and are now torn. Do you judge the book on it’s own merits, or do you take the author’s political ideology into account.

Ender’s game is hardly the first or only book to face such a dilemma. In fact Ender’s Game wasn’t the inspiration for this post at all, it was Stranger in a Strange Land. There was a discussion thread on Goodreads about the flagrant sexism in the classic Sci-fi novel. Nor is it only Sci-fi novels. Ken Kesey’s sexist views crop in discussions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and there are frequently discussions of Mark Twain’s portrayal of “Nigger Jim”.

In the end each reader must make his or her peace with the personal shortcomings of their favorite writers. To what extent you allow political views, racism, sexism or homophobia on the part of an author color your view of their work is up to you. I am an analytical person by nature and I like to have thought out reasons for my stances. I present my opinions here more to show my own thinking than to debate it.

As I see it there are three questions I would have about the author and their views. Are they still alive? Are their views typical of their time period or culture? Are there thematic ties to their writing?

1. Are they still alive? Yes it is important. Why? Because there are things I don’t want to support. Orson Scott Card is still very much alive and well. He is still presumably using the money he’s earning to support conservative causes. He is still using his platform as a writer to speak out against LGBT causes.

I have not read Ender’s Game. I am not planning on reading it, nor am I planning on seeing the movie. Whether or not the literary merits of the book out weigh the political views of the author, I can’t say. I just know that I don’t any of the money I earn going to Card, and by default to groups he supports.

What about the movie? What about the producers and actors? They are not rabidly homophobic and yet they will be hurt by a boycott. Is that fair? But probably not but I don’t care. I hope the movie bombs. I hope the producers start every future project with, “let’s look into the author’s ideology before we pay for these rights, remember how bad we got burned on Ender’s Game?” Because that would be the true sign of an effective boycott.

I would treat a deceased author a little differently, since I know they aren’t spending my money. I would judge their faults and failings a little different as well.

 

2. Are they really a product of their time? This is the most common justification for overlooking an author’s flaws. Sure he was a racist/sexist prick, but look at the time period he was from. Sometimes it works for me, sometimes it doesn’t. Fair or not, I hold writers to a higher standard. For one thing, writers are also readers. Readers should be more informed than the general populace. Secondly if you are going to write about a group or an issue, you need to research it. I will not give you a pass on your ignorance.

Mark Twain used the word nigger. It was a common expression in his day. He also spoke out against racism. It seems unfair to judge him by modern views of that one word. All of the female characters in his writing conform to traditional roles, but given that this was long before the feminist movement that hardly seems to qualify him as sexist. Mark Twain was a product of his time.

Orson Scott Card is not a product of his time. His views on homosexuality are based on stereotypes and assumptions. There is a large body of literature, fiction and non-fiction alike, that challenges these stereotypes. It’s not just literature. Gay people are everywhere. Out and proud gay people are easily found in books, movies and in almost every walk of life. The fact that Card has not, apparently, encountered anything in his life that would challenge his ignorance speaks poorly of him. That he passes his ignorance off as an informed opinion destroys any respect I might have had for him or his writing.

Kesey and Heinlein present a more challenging situation. Both men reek of sexism, both in their writings and their public statements and life. Heinlein is the older of the two but both men were raised in a pre women’s liberation period and their writing reflects that. However the argument that we should excuse their sexism because it was a “product of their time” rings hollow to me.

Part of the problem is that a dismissive attitude has often been the primary weapon of the misogynist. Women’s issues are downplayed. The misbehavior of men is played off as “just the way men are” and the damage from such attitudes is minimized and ignored. Writing off the blatant sexism in literature smacks of more dismissal.

Another problematic point is that many writers of their time period were challenging assumptions about women’s roles. As I have said, I hold writers to a higher standard. If either man tried to claim they hadn’t read any feminist literature or hadn’t ever been told that women do not like biased portrayals I would call bullshit on them.

Finally both men did write strong female characters. In Kesey’s case, his most famous female character, Nurse Ratched, wasn’t particularly positive, but she was strong.

It’s a close call but in the end I have read both Kesey and Heinlein. I recommend them both, despite their flaws.

 

3. How do their personal views relate to their writing? Author’s are people, even great authors, and people have flaws. Hemingway was an alcoholic. He drank like a fish for most of his adult life. That didn’t stop him from being a great writer. Poe was a drug addict. Writers are still humans and some really great writers are/were really shitty human beings in one way or another. Discovering that your favorite author was in fact, a jerk, an abusive person, or whatever, is a rude shock. But does it make their books any less great?

To me that depends. Some character flaws have nothing to do with the writers work generally or one book specifically. Kesey took acid while writing, and incidentally while working at a psychiatric hospital, which explains a lot about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It neither detracts from the book or excuse his sexism. Other writers were horrible spouses, cheated, drank, stole money from their publishers and/or fans. None of that really has anything to do with their writing to me. But other character flaws do affect how I judge their writing.

Critics of the Skip Ender’s Game boycott often point out that while Orson Scott Card is definitely a bigot, it doesn’t make the book any less of a novel. My reply is that maybe you should google his views on warfare. Those liberals that believe Ender’s Game is a dystopian indictment of warfare, replete with child soldiers and mass genocide, are wrong.

Suzzane Collins wrote the Hunger Games to tackle how war, extreme poverty and suffering effects children. Joseph Heller wants us to be appalled by his presentation of warfare in Catch 22. But judging from the interviews I have read, Card is pretty comfortable with what is going on in Ender’s Game. To me it would be like discovering that Kesey had actually written One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in an attempt to justify lobotomies.

Which brings us to the Kesey and Heinlein dilemmas again. Does their blatant sexism have anything to do with their works? Again it is a much grayer area.

In the case of Kesey, for me it does. The problem lies not in his portrayal of Nurse Ratched, but in how he minimizes the rather horrific things that his protagonist Murphy does. Murphy is rapist and a criminal with a long history of violence. This is mentioned but downplayed. His harassment and violence is played off as playful antics. There are several point in the book where I was wanting to jam an icepick in the man’s brain myself. (just kidding) The point is I understand Kesey’s point – despite being a pretty worthless sack of you know what, what happens to Murphy is wrong. But Kesey’s unrelenting sexist view of his antagonist takes away from that theme.

Heinlein’s sexism is equally offensive but to me seems less central to the plot. In fact the biggest complaint I have with a lot of Heinlein’s work is this, he creates strong female characters. His men on the other hand are frequently chauvinistic jerks. And his women seem to love that. Jubal Harshaw is the quintessential Heinlein character and one has to wonder if that’s not how the author viewed himself. He surrounds himself with females that somehow find his crotchety and misogynistic behavior endearing rather than offensive. But then again Jubal’s role in the story is mostly to pontificate about things that the main character – the far less offensive Valentine Michael Smith, does. Therefor it offends me at times but doesn’t distract as much from the story.

In the end a lot of it comes down to opinion. What offends me might not offend another reader. By the same token you may stop reading long before I do. Its also not black and white. There are authors that I love for some things but other aspects of their writing really bug me. No author or book is absolutely perfect.

But there is definitely a line. Few books and few authors have truly crossed the line for me, but Orson Scott Card is one of those few. I will not be reading Ender’s Game nor will I be seeing the movie. I don’t care how good it is.

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