Q&A

How Should We Approach Problematic Authors?

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I was listening to old podcasts of Mythcreants and caught “The author is dead.” I’ve heard that a lot before, but what about when you love a work from a living problematic author or value their writing advice? You can’t really pretend the author is dead because buying, reviewing, spreading the love of the story/advice still feeds the author machine. What do you do/suggest? Been noodling on this question for a while.

-Danita

Hey Danita, great to hear from you again!

The question of how to handle authors who are bigoted or otherwise harmful is a tricky one, especially if the author is still alive. Fortunately, it’s also something we think about a lot!

From a purely technical perspective, an artist’s work is separate from their views. Ender’s Game is not a homophobic story simply because the author, Orson Scott Card, is a major homophobe. However, buying a new copy of Ender’s Game still gives Card money, allowing him to boost his homophobia even further.

At some point, we need to decide when it is no longer acceptable to support a problematic author. For us at Mythcreants, Card is way over that line, which is why we will never buy a new copy of Ender’s Game, and we try not to even talk about it unless it’s really relevant, like right now. Of course, people could always buy used copies since that money doesn’t go to Card, but it still adds to the strength of his brand.

Sometimes this decision is easy; sometimes it’s more difficult. There are lots of great novels out there, and as much as I enjoyed Ender’s Game growing up, I have lots of other options. On the other hand, Card’s book on the craft of writing is legitimately one of if not the best currently available. There aren’t a lot of other options there. That’s actually one of the reasons we started Mythcreants, so we could provide an alternative.

My personal recommendation is that Card’s book on writing is useful enough that it justifies buying a used copy, so he at least doesn’t benefit directly. However, other people might not feel that way. We can also disagree on which authors have actually crossed this moral line. Card obviously has, but what about JK Rowling? Her appropriation of Native American culture and transphobic Twitter habits are certainly bad, but are they bad enough that we should stop reading Harry Potter?

Different people will have different answers to that question, which is only to be expected. For my money, the critical thing is to make sure we all acknowledge the facts of the situation and then recognize that we may have different views on the best course of action. We might disagree on whether Harry Potter is still worth reading given the author’s problematic actions and views, but we should all acknowledge what those problems are. Then we can at least have an honest conversation about it.

I hope that helps answer your question!

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    For me, apart from what makes an author problematic, it’s also a major question whether I’m dealing with an author who is dead already (and, maybe, has been for a while) or whether they’re still alive.

    With a dead author, I ask myself ‘were they especially … for the time?’ If they weren’t more homophobic, sexist, or racist than the general populace, I give them lenience, because the society you live in will always influence your own view. Therefore, I’m pretty okay with Bram Stoker’s work (despite some racist stuff, especially in “Lair of the White Worm”), but less okay with H.P. Lovecraft, because he was even especially racist for his time. Yet, I have no problem with someone else expanding Lovecraft’s mythology, as many have done very successfully.
    Living authors are more of a problem, because you never know which way things may go. An author you always thought had good or okay world views might suddenly deliver a major whopper. On the other hand, living authors can still change their views, so I’m prepared not to hold their past views against them, if their current behaviour shows that they’ve learned from past mistakes.

  2. LeeEsq

    We aren’t going to get authors that are morally perfect beings because the definition of morality is going to differ widely across people, especially when politics are involved, and historical eras and societies. Artists often try to cultivate an appearance of not adhering to conventional morality, although this is much more common in visual artists than authors. I think the key question should focus more on whether the author did something grossly immoral more than having bad beliefs. So Marion Bradley Zimmer, who committed sexual assault on her children, is worse than somebody who might not adhere to certain modern beliefs because of religion.

    The current debate over what do we do with problematic authors always struck me as more than a little Stalinist in nature, where all art had to exist to advance the party line. While modern fans obviously don’t have and will never have the political power of the Communist Party in the USSR, they are still advocating or at least seem to be advocating that literature only exists to advance their political positions or should at least reflect their orthodoxy. I find that disturbing. There also seems to be a belief that by increasing the diversity in authors, we will get more books that advance the proper political positions. Based on stories how LGBT or minority authors got slammed by YA Twitter for minor or great violations of orthodoxy, that seems unlikely to.

    • Bubbles

      I certainly see your point. Therefore, I think the main issue should be dealing with *living* authors specifically. The reason is, for living authors, it is possible for the proceeds from buying their work to go to a morally wrong cause that is occurring now (such as, in the example used, organizations directly advocating against LGBT rights), causing genuine real-life harm. For dead authors, this generally doesn’t happen. Also, I have heard about the instances you were talking about LGBT and minority authors being attacked on YA Twitter. That does seem to be a serious problem (and no, I’m definitely not saying minority authors are exempt from criticism, but there are some just plain wrong things out there, such as, I’ve heard, one author basing her fantasy book off events in Russia rather than American slavery but still getting criticism for portraying *American* slavery incorrectly).

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, it’s more of a problem when it comes to living authors. The dead are unlikely to change their ideas and they can’t still get money (their estate might, but it might be under the control of people with a completely different worldview).

        Criticism has become harsher since the internet has been on the rise, because these days, everyone can do it. That’s a two-edged sword – on one side, you’re getting a lot of different views, which is good, but on the other side, in the anonymity of the internet people tend to be a lot more rude and aggressive than when having to face you.

        • LeeEsq

          Plus, with more critics you are going to get more people operating on impulse and passion and without all the necessary facts. For instance, not understanding the difference between Russian serfdom and American slavery as referenced above.

          • Cay Reet

            That, too. In the times before the internet, critics were supposed to be knowledgeable, so they would have taken a closer look before saying ‘you’re doing it wrong’ and would have realized that the author was doing it right and they’d not recognized things correctly at first.

  3. Dave L

    This may be a failing on my part, but when I read an author I know to be problematic, I can’t help seeing that problem in their work. For instance, when I read Lovecraft, I notice evidence of racism I might not notice if I wee not aware of his leanings. Is the racism there, or am I projecting?

    About Card… In one of his books on craft he discusses POV. One section he discusses is about a gay man who is admiring some men in bathing suits. Card was impressed at how thoroughly the author had brought us into the gay man’s mindset. There was not a HINT of homophobia there. I wonder if he developed his views later, then

    • LeeEsq

      You are definitely not projecting onto Lovecraft. The man did not try to hide his beliefs at all. Most authors of low to medium level quality don’t.

    • AJ

      I’d say let’s wait until Card presents a passage from an author who is showing a gay man suffering the ignominy of being cast out for his orientation, or the pain and misery and suicidal ideations that can result from being taunted on the schoolyard, etc. and for Card to still say “Look how well the author put us into the gay character’s POV”. That would show empathy on his part at least.

    • Chris Winkle

      Is this Card’s Characters & Viewpoint book? That one’s actually pretty sexist, though it takes a while to notice because it’s mostly in his examples. But it includes a domestic violence victim that perhaps wants to be beaten and a guy who totally didn’t sexually harass a women because he didn’t think it was harassment.

      It’s been longer since I read his Fantasy & Science fiction craft book, but I don’t remember problems in that one. It was written later than the POV book, so if it’s better, it might be due to the efforts of some heroic editor.

    • Robert

      There was a definite racism in “The Call of Cthulhu” (one of Lovecraft’s more famous works), particularly in the second act which had Inspector Legrasse’s story about the Cthulhu cultists, in which he painted the people worshipping the idol in much the same language as that of the actual eldritch horrors, which was very, very, very problematic.

  4. Leon

    It may be worth letting those people have a little bit of fame and money if it gains us insight into how they think.

    Know your enemy.

    • Cay Reet

      Well, you can also borrow their books from a library or buy them used, which doesn’t put money into their pockets. Harder with movies or TV series sometimes (as I’m not a big fan of pirating). Waiting until they’re on TV in my country is a valid strategy, of course.

      • Leon

        Sorry, i thought it was obvious that i meant; if you can’t get it second hand or for free.

        As to pirating, there are no ethical problems with stealing something from somebody who has publicly declared themselves to be your enemy.

  5. Meredith

    I’m with the money argument, as well as the position that some things have become such large cultural touchstones that it would be disingenuous to purposefully ignore them. For example, I may not support OSC because of his views on homosexuality, but I can respect the place of “Ender’s Game” in speculative fiction. I won’t buy OSC’s books or submit stories to his magazine, but I can check books out of the library and at least have a foundational knowledge of this thing that is so well-known in my community.

  6. Sedivak

    My opinion is that the author and the work must be considered strictly separately.

    No real person is one-dimensional and even a bigoted or otherwise flawed individual can still be master storyteller – a creator of a culturally valuable work. It follows that if we were to boycott certain works based on the ideological qualities of the authors, we (as a society) would risk severally limiting our culture by omitting otherwise valuable works.

    Also while I certainly do not support homophoby or other forms of bigotry, I am aware that ideologies change, sometimes very drastically. Our ideological criteria might turn out to be irrelevant for future generations, while a good story might still retain its value. Think of it like this – if Homer was found to be an ardent slave owner and a murderer (entirely possible for the time), would you want to disregard the Illiad as a valuable work?

    • Austin

      I completely support your opinion Sedivak! As you pointed out, the question on whether to support an artist’s work is way more complex than considering it’s artists viewpoints of the world.

      By trying to ignore that certain ideologies don’t exist is condemning ourselves to repeat mistakes endorsed by these.

      Actually, if the same author have both works that express problematic views and works that have nothing to do with these, by supporting the works that align more to our ideas can send a message to the author and her/his audience.

  7. Sam Victors

    Can the same be said for Philip Pullman? over his twitter post on Transgender people last year.

    And I thought he was better than that.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Those tweets were certainly pretty transphobic, even if it was unintentional. Again, the question of whether this means not buying his books is something people will have to answer for themselves, so long as we can all understand the underlying issue.

  8. Michael

    I think this should be taken on individual bases. Card has funded an anti-LGBT group and is quite vocal in promoting his opinions (not just about that-he has many other right-wing ones, often pretty bizarre). Others though don’t do this, so I think that less incentive exists to boycott them. I have never read any books by Card except for Empire (which showed his politics), and that was enough, so there is no sacrifice for me to make. However, with Rowling that is different. I’m very unhappy to learn of her anti-trans support. Even prior to this however I’d become aware increasingly of things that are pretty problematic in the original Harry Potter books (mostly how the house elves are portrayed as happy slaves overall). I understand she intended for that to be against activists who tried to “help” oppressed people without asking whether they wanted it, but this comes off very badly. The things which she’s written since on Native American magic and other stuff now are also troubling. Beyond all that, I’ve found an increasing amount of plot holes in her work, both old and new, but that is more forgivable. What should be done? Thus far, I’m not going to stop reading Rowling’s books or watching movies derived from them, but that could change (say, if she’s found to fund any anti-trans groups). In general though I don’t think an author’s work is identical with them, but exceptions exist where they overlap (some make it really clear what their politics are, often to the detriment of the story).

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