Friends with feet of clay

Okay, I’m out of practice at this blogging lark, so this is almost certainly going to be a long and rambling post dancing all round the point until I actually get there, so bear with me.

By and large, the people we regard as friends are those who share the same values as ourselves, or as a minimum don’t embrace values we find abhorrent, and it can be a shock to discover that this isn’t always the case.

I’ve known people who I’ve liked, whose company I’ve enjoyed, and part of that was the unspoken assumption that, on some level, they felt the same about things as me, that any differences were simply of degree or in areas of unimportance, and then a casual remark has revealed something about them, a taint of bigotry that has made me realise they’re not like me at all, and as a result I’ve had to reassess that relationship.

I think the writers whose work we enjoy the most, whose prose moves us, are also in a sense people we come to regard as friends. Not in the sense that they’re somebody we go down the pub with or meet for movie night, or necessarily even want to do those things with, but they are people who’ve touched us – emotionally, intellectually – with whom we can on some level identify.

So what happens when those friends are shown to have feet of clay, to not be the people we thought they were?

Recently there have been online discussions about how a writer’s morality impacts on their literary worth, as for instance Marion Zimmer Bradley’s support of her pedophile husband Walter Breen and the revelation that M. P. Shiel was gaoled for sexually assaulting his twelve year old stepdaughter.

Does knowing stuff like this make us feel differently about these people as authors, is their work any the less worthy?

I’ve read a fair bit of Bradley and have no strong feelings either way about her work, so turning my back on her oeuvre costs me nothing. And with Shiel, though I have a couple of books about the house, I’ve never read anything, so the question isn’t if I’ll reassess his work but how knowledge of his past will impact on my reading when/if I do sample his fiction.

Compare though with the case of Edgar Allan Poe, who as a twenty seven year old man married his thirteen year old cousin Virginia Clemm. Yes, the situation is altogether different from that of Shiel, and yet by modern standards both men would have been condemned as pedophiles, but I’ve never seen anybody seriously suggest that Poe’s work should be ousted from the canon because of his relationship with a ‘minor’.

My gut feeling is that literary merit is something that should be considered separately from what we know of a writer’s morals and personal life. I don’t want to regard Shiel as part of the canon, then remove him when some terrible revelation comes to light, only to reinstate him again if, at some future date, evidence surfaces that his accuser was lying. I want the writing to be worthy or not independently of the person who produces it, because unpalatable as it may be to admit, good literature isn’t always written by good people, and while validation of our own attitudes, the discovery that other people think and feel as we do,  showing we are not alone, is part of literature’s agenda, I think that it can also perform a vital function in challenging the mores of the age, the things we take for granted.

But while that might be fine in principle, in practice the waters get a little muddy.

I’ve never read Jeffrey Archer and never intend to. I could tell you that’s because I’ve heard that he’s crap or that he doesn’t write in the genres that appeal to me, but the truth is it’s because he’s a Tory. You can lecture me until you’re blue in the face about literature as a means to challenge personal beliefs and how I need to be exposed to different opinions, and I’ll agree with you in principle, but in practice there is no way I am going to knowingly do anything that puts money in the pocket of someone who actively supports and campaigns for a party and political philosophy I find repellent.

That’s my prejudice, my ‘bigotry’ if you like.

But those waters get muddier still, because I’m pretty sure that there must be authors who hold similar views to Mr Archer and whose work I enjoy, and if I discovered tomorrow that one of them was standing for Parliament on a Conservative ticket I don’t think it would stop me reading whatever book they came out with the month after. (And in my personal life, I don’t ostracise people for being Tory, though I may give a wide berth to those whose true blue colours are too much in my face.)

It’s a case that I’ve already ‘befriended’ these writers, and in the case of friends you can allow a little more leeway, accept a difference of opinion as long as it isn’t about something that feels fundamental. In American parlance, where friends are concerned, political differences aren’t a deal breaker. (Well, unless they’re extreme.)

The British Fantasy Society had a similar problem last year. Ostracising the guy who wrote in green ink was easy, because he never had time to bond with anyone, they knew where he was coming from with his very first post linking to a far right website. Revelations about another member’s links to the BNP didn’t have the same effect, because that guy had been a member for years, had forged friendships and kept his politics under the radar, and so it was easier to ignore the elephant in the room rather than deal with the harsh reality that somebody you liked wasn’t the person you wanted them to be.

And, of course, most of us will ignore the elephant if we can, brush things under the carpet and not make a fuss, even me.

Which brings me, at last, to the point of this post, Orson Scott Card and Superman.

I loved Orson Scott Card when I first discovered his work, and was enthralled for many years. Not Ender’s Game so much, but novels like Speaker for the Dead, Hart’s Hope, A Planet Called Treason and the Alvin series, stories like ‘Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory’, ‘King’s Meat’ and ‘Lost Boys’. I found excitement and colour in his work, and underlying it all a deep well of compassion, and even though I wasn’t keen on his religious stance and the slant it often gave his work, it wasn’t a deal breaker, but something that gave our ‘friendship’ a little zest, the frisson of being exposed to a perspective different from your own.

At some point I became aware that homosexuality was a problem area for Card. In the Memory of Earth sequence of novels there is a gay man, and he isn’t portrayed unsympathetically, but as somebody who has to struggle with unnatural desires given to him by God, who grows as a result of resisting temptation. I didn’t agree with this, but I wanted to give an author I liked the benefit of the doubt, and so I decided that Card was essentially a decent human being who was trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his innate goodness and sense of toleration. The answer he came up with wasn’t the correct one, but I gave him brownie points for trying and had faith that he’d come up with the right answer later in the sequence.

I was in denial.

I reviewed ‘Hamlet’s Father’ for Black Static when it first appeared in a collection of four novellas, and I took the view that it was a work that had a villain – a child abuser and killer – who just happened to be gay, an incidental thing.

Then Subterranean released ‘Hamlet’s Father’ as a standalone novella and the shit storm broke. In the light of this I did some research on Card and what I found left me in no doubt that this wasn’t a story in which the bad guy just happened to be gay, but one where his homosexuality was meant by the author to be seen as the root cause of his evil, that being gay predisposed him to molest others who would in turn be ‘infected’. Homosexuality as a vile form of sickness.

I couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room any more. It was sitting on my head.

I still cherish the works by Card that I’ve read, but I’m reluctant to revisit them in case I see them with different eyes now and treasured memories are soiled. I have some books of his that I haven’t read, and now don’t think that I ever will, and certainly I won’t buy anything else by him, regardless of whether it’s good or not.

Yes, I still believe that literary merit should be judged independently of other factors. That’s a fine principle to hold.

But there are other principles that count for more, and one of them is that the people I regard as friends, whether in ‘real life’ or through the medium of fiction, should be decent human beings, should differ from me only in ways that I find palatable. It hurts, to turn away from a writer you love, but to do otherwise is to let down myself, to be a less good person than I can in passive support of something hateful.

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23 Responses to Friends with feet of clay

  1. Ray Cluley says:

    Interesting stuff, Pete, something I think about quite a lot regarding various art forms and I think you’ve argued the point about principles and preferences perfectly. Yes, work should stand alone, but you can’t always let it. Would you argue that the opposite can be true, too? Say, a writer you kinda never bothered with and then found out you agreed whole-heartedly on a political point or philosophy and so gave a try and appreciated all the more for it?

    [As an aside, what often bugs me (and it’s not what you’re doing here) is when readers mistake the view of a character with the view of a writer. That doesn’t sound like the case at all with Hamlet’s Father (which I shall avoid, which proves your point I think) but it happens.]

    • petertennant says:

      I think that yes, discovering and engaging positively with a writer as a human being before you encounter their work, can impact on your appreciation of the work. It predisposes us to like them, and perhaps give them the benefit of the doubt whereas we wouldn’t without that bias. As an example, though I’ve never read any “Harry Potter” books, because of her political comments and charitable donations, I find myself quite ready to adore J. K. Rowling’s work. I don’t think it would turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse for me, but I’m prepared to overlook that some of the purse’s material is slightly shop soiled and that there are places where the stitching is a little frayed.

      In a way I don’t think this is quite as insidious as the negative spin. If a writer whose work I enjoy turns out to be some brand of bigot etc, it feels to me like I’ve been let down in some way, and I start to wonder if their views were present in the work and something I’ve been absorbing subconsciously.

      I agree the confusion between author and character can be annoying. I know at one point, when I worked in an office and had written a story with explicit homosexual scenes in it, a couple of people concluded that I was gay because a guy couldn’t write that sort of stuff unless he was ‘that way’ inclined. Duh! If art really imitates life, they should have been a lot more concerned that I was writing torture scenes and about serial killers 😉

      • Ray Cluley says:

        Yes, sexuality is a strange one – write about it, and people make assumptions, though as you’ve said, not about other aspects of your writing. And even when it’s true, some people become rather fascinated by it and use it as the defining feature – the amount of students I get from GCSE who know Duffy as “the lesbian poet”. You know, becasue there’s only one of them.

      • petertennant says:

        The situation I mentioned above got quite amusing. I was informed that one of the guys at the office where I worked was so ‘concerned’ about my possible homosexuality that if I was in the toilets when he went he would lock himself in a cubicle rather than stand at the urinals beside me. Yes, seriously. And then another guy, who had a gay brother, took serious offence at this and the two of us would stand in the toilets gay flirting with each other, while the first guy was, presumably, locked inside the cubicle and trembling with fear in case we dragged him out and had our way with him. Bigot baiting can be great fun. The guy’s wife also worked there, and she found his behaviour incomprehensible and embarrassing, was forever apologising for him 😉

  2. Excellent post, Pete, and of course it does raise important issues. How do we handle Lovecraft’s racism, Pound’s fascism, Card’s homophobia? I loved Philip K. Dick’s work, then was dismayed, years later, to read that he would allegedly get drunk occasionally, turn up his stereo (probably playing one of his beloved German operas), and beat his young wife Tess. Back in the Seventies I knew a guy, Phil, I used to hang out with in Los Angeles. A lot of fun, he really was, but an absolute racist. How do you reconcile that? I don’t know. Harry Truman said once that he thoroughly enjoyed Stalin’s company, as a man, even though he knew he was a monster. I guess we choose our friends, but we don’t choose our friends’ flaws. But I do agree, Card’s homophobia is absolutely despicable. The world is such a hard place–it doesn’t give us much–so we should celebrate every single fucking time a man falls in love with a woman, a man falls in love with a man, or a woman falls in love with a woman. We need more love on this cold, green, dangerous, wonderful planet of ours.

    • Ray Cluley says:

      “we should celebrate every single fucking time a man falls in love with a woman, a man falls in love with a man, or a woman falls in love with a woman. We need more love on this cold, green, dangerous, wonderful planet of ours”

      Beautifully put, that man.

      • Thanks, Ray. Big fan of your work. Along with Pete’s reviews, your stories are one of the best things about Black Static.

      • petertennant says:

        Yeah, great comment Rob, and it also reminded me of one of my favourite quotes, from Richard Brautigan – ‘This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.’
        Let’s not add to that shit.

    • petertennant says:

      Lovecraft and his racism is an interesting case. I’d be prepared to regard the racism, as with Poe and his child bride, as symptomatic of the times, except I understand that even by the standards of the day HPL was extreme. But I’ve heard it argued that the racism was part of what drove his writing, that he channelled his xenophobia into his work and that helped give it an edge that might otherwise not have been there. Of course you can’t possibly know if HPL would have been a greater/lesser writer without the racism, but it gives me pause to think that without it there might be no Cthulhu mythos, that it may have been an essential component of what made him remarkable.

  3. owlwoman says:

    There’s a line, I think, on this: I can accept that I may not love everything about an artist, but can love their art, but there is a limit. Much as I like what William Burroughs wrote and did as an artist, his misogyny means I will never be a fan. And there is a well respected British sf writer who was appallingly homophobic to me some years ago, which means I’ll never read his work. Won’t be naming names, but I found it frustrating to see folk who are supposed to be crossing boundaries in their art, but not doing it at home, so to speak.

    And on the other extreme, it’s not only Clive Barker’s writing that makes me a big fan, it’s his attitude and open-mindedness about Life itself. It matters.

    • petertennant says:

      I think for me it’s a case that if I know they’re a bigot before I sample any of their work, then I’m probably going to steer clear of a particular writer/artist. I don’t want to read them and be won over. If I’ve fallen in love with the work first, then it becomes more problemmatic for me, and I have to decide how much bigotry I can stomach as part of the whole package.

      Sad to hear about the SF writer you mention, but I guess people compartmentalise, can accept change in one aspect of their lives/the future, and not another. As an example I have a hard job reconciling Harlan Ellison’s championing of ERA with the Connie Willis incident, or that Isaac Asimov, with his visions of the far future, was credited with wandering hands when around women at conventions. And don’t get me started on the contradictions in the work of Heinlein.

      I agree with you about Clive Barker, though when I read the non-fiction book a while back I was surprised by his negative comments about modern abstract art. I have the latest “Abarat” book and the “25th Anniversary Edition: Weaveworld” in for review at the moment.

  4. Ray Cluley says:

    I read recently that a publisher was concerned about publishing Barker’s ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ because people would learn his sexuality. Interesting, because it wasn’t until reading that bit of trivia that it even crossed my mind Barker might himself be gay. It didn’t matter at all, of course, it’s just I hadn’t gotten it from the fiction.

  5. owlwoman says:

    Ha, ha, yes, Peter, a difficult one to spot, eh??! But actually I think Barker was extremely wise not to come out too soon. I think it would have had an adverse affect on his career, sad to say. Even when he was selling zillions of books and had his first openly gay protagonist in a novel (sorry, I’ve forgotten the title) he had real problems with his publisher about it.

    And ‘In The Hills, The Cities’ is a mastery of imagination. Thank the goddess it was published…

  6. Ray Cluley says:

    Good link! Always impressed by how you manage to bring it back to Kylie. It’s like you can’t get her out of your head…

    • petertennant says:

      Yes, this Minogue mania of mine is something we clearly need to get to the bottom of.

      And I think a lot of her career is quite obviously Barker influenced, as with ‘German Bold Italic’, a clever play on the framing device used in ‘The Books of Blood’, and you can see ‘Locomotion’ in an entirely different light if you just think ‘Midnight Meat Train’, while in ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head’ the parallels to ‘The Age of Desire’ are easy to see.

  7. petertennant says:

    Just don’t get me started on cross cultural transference between Stephen King and Madonna 😉

  8. Pingback: Trailer Trash – Ender’s Game | Trumpetville

  9. Bj says:

    You’re (rightly) complaining about OSC’s homophobia, and yet you’re overlooking the vile misogyny and child rape (in which the 12-year-old victim is shown to be exploiting the PERPETRATOR) in Hart’s Hope and claiming that it’s one of his great works? Seriously?

    • petertennant says:

      I don’t think I’m overlooking those aspects of the book, as such. It was a very dark book, and those things were part of what made it so, and as far as I can recall it appealed to me because it put such a dark and very different spin on fairy tales and the material of high fantasy.
      Lots of Card’s early work dealt with difficult and controversial material – genocide in “Ender’s Game”, torture and corporal punishment in “Capitol”, cannibalism in “King’s Meat”, and so on.
      The important thing for me is that it never felt gratuitous or exploitative, that the author approved of and/or advocated those things, which is why “Hamlet’s Father” gives me pause, in that I feel Card is very much pushing an anti-gay agenda with that one.
      Still, it’s been nearly thirty years since I read the book. I’m older and hopefully wiser, and more aware of things like subtext and sexual politics, and most significant of all I’m now alert to Card’s failings as a human being and less willing to give him the benefit of any doubt, so if I read the book again I might respond in a different way entirely.
      But for now, all I can say with any sureness is that I enjoyed it when I read it.

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