A Slap on the Wrist: Excusing the Bad Behavior of Authors

A few weeks ago, I wrote a news post that I would hardly call news. I considered it more of an update on what had been public knowledge for some time: that Orson Scott Card, brilliant science fiction author and rampant homophobe, was at it again. Card wrote a rather inflammatory column for his hometown newspaper that can be viewed in its entirety HERE. The comments on my article were a mixed bag. Some readers were shocked and appalled, and vowed never to read Card again, but the vast majority shrugged their shoulders and echoed my own views: that the reprehensible personal views and/or actions of artists shouldn’t be considered when forming an opinion of their work.

As I am wont to do, I immediately began questioning my own line of reasoning. Why do authors, more than any other type of artist, get a pass? When R&B singer Chris Brown assaulted his long-time girlfriend and fellow artist Rihanna, it wasn’t long before outraged fans were vowing to never listen to his music, and the Internet was abuzz with folks condemning the MTV Music Awards for allowing Brown to perform as scheduled (a move many saw as a passive endorsement of domestic abuse). A short list of musicians who have been chastised for their checkered personal lives includes Michael Jackson, George Michael, Rick James ,Phil Spector,  Chuck Berry, James Brown, Eminem, and the Beatles. It should be noted, of course, that as time went on, the old adage proved true: there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Gone are the days when marrying one’s fourteen-year-old cousin (Jerry Lee Lewis) tanked one’s career, but the lip-service indictments remain.

Nobody knows for certain whether or not there is anything inherent in being creative that necessitates being a broken-down mess in other areas of life, but we certainly have our fair share of authors that reinforce this notion.

Authors, on the other hand, are almost always excused for their relentless lack of character. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. William Burroughs shot his. If these examples are too extreme, you can look at Joshua Chaplinsky’s retrospective on the Greatest Literary Jerks of all time for a full rap sheet of bad author behavior. The very existence of such an article confirms what I’ve long suspected: we not only excuse our authors from being assholes, we celebrate them for it. Furthermore, it’s not just the personal lives of our beloved pen-wielders that get excused, it’s the content of their work. Charles Bukowski is a raging misogynist, drunk, racist, and sometimes homophobe, but he’s still beloved by progressive college students and budding alcoholic poets alike. The same could be said for Hemingway and Fitzgerald (though it could be argued that they were products of their time).

So why do we turn a blind eye towards the bad behavior of our scribes? Part of the answer has to do with tradition: authors, and creative types in general, have a long and rich history of perception. The prevailing wisdom goes that brilliance is either produced by or symptomatic of inherent human flaws. We like to believe that the geniuses who produce unparalleled works of art are somehow separate from us, perhaps out of envy. It might make someone feel better that they didn’t write Nevermind when the perceived associated cost was a round of buckshot to the brain. Nobody knows for certain whether or not there is anything inherent in being creative that necessitates being a broken-down mess in other areas of life, but we certainly have our fair share of authors that reinforce this notion.

However, as stated before, other artists belong to this tradition as well, yet are taken to task much more frequently than their peers who deal in the printed word.  This may have something to do with the fact that a lavish life of luxury and influence has not recently been associated with the world of literature. Generally speaking, musicians and actors are given less leeway when it comes to evaluating their character, since the average theatergoer or CD-buyer (do those still exist?) tends to think of these celebrities as extraordinarily privileged, and sympathy for the wealthy and powerful, particularly in troubling economic times, is scarce. Here’s an interesting thought experiment: think of the most successful authors in the world of modern literature, and imagine what might happen if they went into a very public tailspin. Would the public’s admiration for Harry Potter or A Game of Thrones be nearly as high if it were common knowledge that J.K. Rowling beat children or that George R.R. Martin was cruel to animals? I’m omitting drug and alcohol use for a reason: this seems to be the one vice that is ultimately forgivable amongst all celebrities. If you don’t believe me, look at the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Stephen King.

Sadly, the most likely culprit for this phenomenon is due to the rising invisibility of authors and books in general. With a few notable exceptions, most authors, even successful ones, toil in the shadow of their work, a condition that exists in no other creative medium. Tom Cruise isn’t “the guy from Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible is a “Tom Cruise movie”. We don’t consume films or albums; we consume the lives of performers. Disturbing though this may be, it makes perfect sense that modern audiences are so appalled by seedy personal lives made public: if you’re taking the life of a celebrity as a wholesale package, you feel compelled to comment and make value judgments on the seediest parts. Readers, on the other hand, if they ever consume the life of an author, typically do so to better inform the art they are consuming. For example, your reading of Fight Club might be a lot different once you found out that Chuck Palahniuk was gay, yet batshit neo-conservatives have never once, to my knowledge, protested Fight Club as a “gay novel” (this may just mean that bigots are terrible at reading subtext). While I’m personally glad that (most) people seem to consume literature in this way (though quite a few folks reportedly swore off Orson Scott Card after that Greensboro article), it’s troubling that the way most people in this country consume media seems to be changing.

What say you, readers? Are authors given a free pass? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Does loving the work of a racist misogynist make you party to those unfortunate practices? Speak up below!

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Image of Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lo vers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes
Author: Bill Peschel
Price: $9.72
Publisher: TarcherPerigee (2010)
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John Jarzemsky

Column by John Jarzemsky

John is a freelance writer who has been with LitReactor since the days of its halcyon youth. You can check out John's blog, the poorly titled Super Roller Disco Monkey Hullabaloo!, for other reviews, random musings, and ill-thought out rants. He was recently published in Bushwick Nightz, a collection of short stories about the Brooklyn neighborhood in which he resides.

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Comments

AnneChaconas's picture
AnneChaconas from NC, USA is reading The Pen & The Sword, by Jonathon Wolfer June 5, 2012 - 11:44am

I would say that authors are given a free pass on bad behavior because the fruits of their labor (for the most part, unless they're penning an autobiography) are not perceived to be a part of them at all--the story stands on its own, with its own characters, plot lines, and idiosyncracies. Musicians and actors, on the other hand, have a much more visible (or audible, as the case may be) hand in their work. It's much easier to separate the art from the (wo)man if you don't really see it as a iteration of his/her own self. For example, you may not know who wrote Fight Club, but you know that it was a book originally (and, certainly you know that Brad Pitt played the leading chacter, even if you can't remember the name of the character himself)--and, often, people don't care to find out or remember the name of the author, even if they loved the book (bibliophiles exluded, of course). It's the worst (and, one could argue, best) part of being an author--your work obscures your self. 

As a side note, that picture completely derailed me from reading article for a full ten minutes. It's like a weirdly sexual optical illusion. 

Renee Miller's picture
Renee Miller from Tweed, Ontario is reading The Wolf Gift June 5, 2012 - 11:46am

I don't give them a free pass, necessarily. There are many authors I am not interested in reading simply because of their public assholery. Now, I might read the work of an asshole from time to time, but that doesn't mean I'm going to "buy" said work. If I'm curious about an author I consider to be a waste of flesh, I'll hit the library.

I can be hard to like at times. When I publish, I don't expect anyone who dislikes my personal views or my attitude to buy my work. They probably wouldn't like it anyway.

Joyce Sterling Scarbrough's picture
Joyce Sterling ... June 5, 2012 - 11:48am

I wouldn't judge someone's work based on their actions or beliefs, but I WOULD use it to decide whether or not to give them any of my money. Thank God for libraries.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer June 5, 2012 - 11:49am

Their work gets a free pass, as a person, they do not. It isn't my job to punish people for the things they do. That's why there is a legal system. But maybe that is just me. I don't think it makes the readers party to it.

Joyce Sterling Scarbrough's picture
Joyce Sterling ... June 5, 2012 - 11:49am

Great minds, Renee! ;-)

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 5, 2012 - 12:25pm

It's only news if they're already somewhat famous.  Nobody thinks it's even the slightest bit significant that Bukowski was a jerk except people who are already familiar with him.  Why?  Because there are lots of jerks out there and who cares if one of them wrote some books.  A local paper might write up an guy (writer or not) beating up his wife but it wouldn't be national news unless he was nationally known.  Whether or not they "get a pass" is relative to the coverage (among other things.) 

 

misterwoe's picture
misterwoe from Kansas but living in Athens, Greece is reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg by Tim Cahill June 5, 2012 - 12:58pm

If we get a free pass it's because deep down we don't give a fuck what you think about us (unless you're our wife or boss -- exceptions granted). Actually not true because writers can be very sensitive people. And if you think Buk was only a drunkard, then you missed out on the stuff he was writing near the end of his life. These later poems are wise sage guru words from a retired warrior relaxing in his garden.

 

The artist lives in two worlds.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 5, 2012 - 1:01pm

And if you think Buk was only a drunkard, then you missed out on the stuff he was writing near the end of his life.

And if you think the completely unknown drunkard who died nameless in a shelter was merely a drunkard, then you missed out on every single moment of his life up until its end.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... from I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it. is reading whatever he makes time for this week June 5, 2012 - 1:20pm

Ditto, Joyce.

As one of the people referred to in the article—blush—I'd like to clarify that I said I wouldn't sell the Card books I already own or stop enjoying his works, but I that I was unsure whether "I could have a clear conscience and employ someone who holds beliefs I consider illogical and evil." I'm not punishing Card for his beliefs when I withold my money; I am ceasing to reward him for his creative endeavors. It may not seem fair, but it's the only recourse I have since I have no way of changing Card's mind.

The reason I didn't know about Card's belief might be that I usually try to separate the artist and their work so I may continue to enjoy the latter. People have a tendency to be dicks, but even dicks can create something worthwile. To continue referencing other mediums, I think Hank Williams was a dick for drinking himself to death when he had a son who needed his support. That doesn't alter my perception of Williams. He's still the greatest lyricist ever in my mind. That Kurt Cobain is a terrible songwriter and comes off as a whiney douchebag/poor shmuck are two distinct lines of thought.

The Card case, you see, is an exception. This time, the vice was just too profound to ignore.
Still think he's a good writer; will just be using the funds I might spend on his work for other purposes now.

Dorian Grey's picture
Dorian Grey from Transexual, Transylvania is reading "East of Eden" by John Steinbeck June 5, 2012 - 3:19pm

For me, at least, it's the same as celebrities to an extent. When I read an a book by an author, I like to imagine them as being nice and cool, just like I do with celebrities. I remember being dissapointed when I saw Bret Easton Ellis as a Literary Jerk.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 June 5, 2012 - 3:39pm

The way I see it is this.

Everyone has issues or baggage or whatever you want to call it. We're all jerks, in our own way. The only difference between us and the writers on these lists is that they make their issues well known. So, I treat the writer like I treat any other Joe Schmoe I would run into on the street. If I vibe well with their ideas then I continue my relationship with them. If I don't, then we part ways. And, yes, I do let that influence my thoughts on their work, because I don't think you can separate the two.

Zackery Olson's picture
Zackery Olson from Rockford, IL is reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on June 5, 2012 - 3:42pm

I'll have to agree here that it's not my job to police a writer for being an asshole. In the case of Card, I knew he was an asshole and still feel that "Ender's Game" is one of the best science fiction novels of all time. Besides, you could tell me that any given person is an asshole and it wouldn't surprise me. Some people are just going to be assholes, for whatever reason, and just because anybody else disapproves of their behavior doesn't mean they'll change their beliefs. If a bunch of people decide to publically condemn Card and stop buying his books, he may not be so open about his ridiculous and nonsensical beliefs, but he'll still believe them.

 

In the case of authors versus actors and musicians, the level of exposure is much different. Actors and musicians are part of our country's pop culture obsession. You're more likely to see a story about Tom cruise, Brad Pitt, or some other Hollywood schmuck on your national news than you are to see a story about Borroughs or Mailer. It's easier for people to condemn them without doing any headwork. A lot of Americans are lazy in general; why should it be any different in this case?

 

Third point: there's a big difference between drug and/or alcohol abuse and beating, shooting, or stabbing your wife. Drug an alcohol abuse are usually symptomatic of a larger problem like mental illness. Beating, shooting, or stabbing somebody for any reason other than clearly justifiable self-defense just isn't excusable. That is not to say that there isn't also a component of personal responsibility when dealing with addiction, just that the two things--addiction and gross physical violence--cannot be compared on a one-to-one scale.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 5, 2012 - 4:04pm

As one of the people referred to in the article—blush

@BretG  --  I've narrowed it down: are you Eminem or Rick James?

John Lang's picture
John Lang June 5, 2012 - 4:58pm

Two thoughts to chew on... Actors & musicians trade much more on their image and personality than authors. An author to director or screenwriter or producer might be a better comparison as they are behind the camera as an author is behind the page. A director might show up for press and Q&A's as an author has book tours and readings, but they both work behind the scenes compared to musicians/performers and obviously actors.

Also, the majority of authors are not mainstream celebrities for children to look up to. Unlike athletes, actors or pop musicians (Chris Brown), I would doubt any authors (save children's authors like J.K. Rowling) would be considered people kids would look up to.

Enjoyed the piece.

imsteph's picture
imsteph from Los Angeles, CA is reading Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante June 5, 2012 - 6:23pm

I will never read V. S. Naipaul because of his views on women.  This goes for all misogynists - I don't believe it's possible to be a great writer if you lack the ability or inclination to understand half of the world.

Lou's picture
Lou from AMERIKUH is reading Trainspotting June 5, 2012 - 10:49pm

I feel that authors are not necessarily given a 'free pass', it's more that no one pays them much attention. This means that authors will generally not be on any tabloids, but they also can't become iconic in the way that a musician or actor could be, and will mostly have less influence on pop culture.

Robin Karlsson's picture
Robin Karlsson June 6, 2012 - 1:53am

I think the reason there's a difference in how we treat actors/musicians and authors is that the former are performers. I might not want to listen to R Kelly because he's a paedophilic sex-maniac, but I have no problem continueing to listen to songs written by the guy who wrote some of R Kelly's songs.

Paul Scott's picture
Paul Scott from St. George, Utah is reading Son of a Witch June 6, 2012 - 4:22pm

I don't think there's any reason to base a person's work off who he or she is.  If Orson Scott Card is homophobic, so what?  It's his life and his opinion.  If you don't like it, don't read his news articles.  If Chuck Palahniuk is gay, that's his choice.  If you don't like it, don't read about his boyfriend.  Does it matter?  Fight Club is and has always been my favorite novel (and movie).  I've heard several of the rumors that it's a gay novel.  It's about thinking outside the box and breaking down the walls of social norms.  Homophobia is one of those walls that needs to be broken down.  People are who they are.

If I were to base what I read, view, or play based upon the people behind creating it or performing it having a differing belief system than I do, I doubt I'd ever enjoy the arts again.  I respect both Orson Scott Card and Chuck Palahniuk as writers but I'm not about to delve into their personal lives.  I'm sure both have viewpoints that I don't necessarily agree with.  It's not going to change my opinion of their work.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... from I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it. is reading whatever he makes time for this week June 6, 2012 - 5:41pm

Some readers were shocked and appalled, and vowed never to read Card again, but the vast majority shrugged their shoulders and echoed my own views: that the reprehensible personal views and/or actions of artists shouldn’t be considered when forming an opinion of their work.

I hate to be "this guy" (that's a lie), but I think you've misrepresented the response to your previous article, John.

There weren't two camps. The response was much more varied than that. Perhaps one—only one, and that one only perhaps—person actually wrote anything resembling a vow never to read Card again. Less than half even addressed how they'd respond to Card's work due to his beliefs.

I was one of two people who did and did so negatively. Here was my original post:


I try to judge the artist based on the art and not on the person, but this may be too far for me. I had no idea these were Orson Scott Card's beliefs. I may stop buying his books. He'll in all likelihood never know. I will continue to enjoy the books I already own. But I do not know if I could have a clear conscience and employ someone who holds beliefs I consider illogical and evil—both factually incorrect and morally wrong. This is not about Card's freedom to voice his opinions. This is about my freedom to reject them. There is difference between tolerance and acceptance. I cannot accept this.

In other words, I will read Card, but I won't pay him, which in retrospect actually seems like letting the art speak for itself and judging the man alone for his actions. I guess my question, then, is who, exactly, considered the personal views of Card in forming their opinion of his work or swore to never read him again? Also, what counts a vast majority when you're talking about eleven posts and fewer posters?

 

EDIT: This post is a bit dickish, but I'd still like to know.
Also, I prefer Marshall to my stage name.

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading American Rust by Phillipp Meyer June 7, 2012 - 1:45pm

"I will never read V. S. Naipaul because of his views on women.  This goes for all misogynists - I don't believe it's possible to be a great writer if you lack the ability or inclination to understand half of the world."

One has nothing to do with the other. There have been more than a fair share of great writers who were misgynistic, elitist, racist, or otherwise assholes.

The fact is, everyone has predjudices. Those prejudices are part of what make us human. Our flaws are our humanity. Writing is an expression of humanity. It in no way requires the writer to like everyone.

If you only read writers who loved everyone and treated everyone nicely, you are going to run out of stuff to read.

Wayne Rutherford's picture
Wayne Rutherford from Columbus, Ohio is reading NOS4A2 June 7, 2012 - 5:45pm

If you only read writers who loved everyone and treated everyone nicely, you are going to run out of stuff to read.

 By that logic you wouldn't even be able to read the Bible. Think about that.

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading A truckload of books June 10, 2012 - 5:23pm

When you watch someone perform, you are seeing them. When you read a book, you're "seeing" the characters. I think it simply has to do with the medium. I mean, painters aren't exactly vilified.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated June 10, 2012 - 11:03pm

Except for some extreme actions, it's hard to get a view of a person from a few incidents. I'm not taking up for any of the crazy stuff people have done, but if  the only thing you know about someone's personal life is that they did something stupid/bad/unpopular one time (or have a problem with one issue) it's hard for me to really think of that person as a monster I shouldn't read.