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.