When Bad People Write Good Things
Ender’s Game is a good book. Let’s start right there. At the very least, it’s a crowd pleaser, and if we want to get grandiose, it’s not hard to find a reader willing to call it a foundation work in science-fiction.
That said, the author is a problematic person. “Problematic” doesn’t even scrape the surface in some opinions, is overblown in others. For now, let’s go with the blanket term “bad.” Because "bad" is three letters and there's a lot to cover here.
What do we do when a bad person writes a good thing?
Horrible People Can Do Great Things
Before we can even begin untangling bad people from good things, we have to accept that bad people can create good things.
Let’s move away from books for a moment.
It seems Einstein was kind of an asshole. But we don’t have much trouble recognizing that the dude was pretty damn smart.
Was the world pretty pissed off at Michael Vick? Yeah. Can we also look back and say that he was pretty great on the field? Yes.
If you’ve been out dancing once in your life, it’s a statistical certainty that you’ve danced to and enjoyed a song created by someone who is a total bastard.
Have you ever enjoyed a meal made by someone who is a jerk? Maybe had a nice make-out with someone who turned out to be a real ass? Maybe given the best years of your life, the flower of your youth, to someone who took that flower and stamped it into the dirt? And you’re totally not bitter about it except every once in awhile when you add it into a column?
Yeah, me too.
Your life might be really different. But it’s been my experience that the assholes of the world are responsible for a portion of the great stuff. People who suck can (and do) make stuff that doesn’t.
Why Is This So Difficult To Accept In Writing?
Books are different. To those of us who love books, reading something can make us feel very exposed.
I think, when it comes to art, we feel a sense of culpability in identifying with artists through their work. That if someone terrible creates something, and if we find that something beautiful, there must be something wrong with us. Or, when it comes to a terrible person, there’s no way for them to make something without their terribleness seeping in.
I think we’re afraid of what it says about us if we enjoy a work created by a bad person.
The idea that there’s something wrong with us for enjoying something created by a prick is pretty easy to dismiss. See all the above. Songs, meals. Eating a great meal made by a jerk doesn’t mean you identify with jerks. By that same token, you might enjoy a book written by a jerk. It won’t turn you into a jerk. It doesn’t mean there was this latent jerkhood laying dormant inside you, just waiting for the right book to come along and unleash it.
As for the idea of jerkiness seeping into a work...let’s assume some of the rumors are true, and Michelangelo (the artist, not the party dude) was a jerk. Do I think that looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I’ll somehow have his bad vibes seep into my brain and become a changed person? Not really. It all feels too, I don’t know, too much like the idea of records having subliminal messages that you only hear when you play them backwards.
What does enjoying a great work by a big bastard say about us? Not a whole lot. Liking some stuff made by jerks is normal. We've all done it. We all do it in every aspect of our lives. Books are no different.
I Think I Want To Read A Book, But The Author Is A Jerk
I hate to break the bad news, but in order to find out whether or not you like a book...you might have to read it.
Look, if you have no desire to read Franzen, if what he does just doesn’t appeal to you, that’s cool. Don’t waste your time. If Author X is just too awful, if their awfulness will prevent you from enjoying a book, move on to someone else. But if there’s a part of you that is curious what Author X’s work is like, I say give it a go. If you hear negatives about Lena Dunham’s memoir and you’re still curious, read it and make your own decision. If you’ve heard a lot about Ender’s Game, and if you’ve also heard a lot about Orson Scott Card, the choice is yours to make.
It's okay to want to read something by someone who sucks.
It’s okay to like something created by someone who sucks.
It’s okay to read something, find out for yourself, and form your own opinion. You already know that, but sometimes it helps to hear someone say it.
It’s okay to have an opinion on a person and to then form a separate opinion on their work.
I Want To Read This Book, But I Don’t Want To Support The Author
There are a lot of ways around the idea of supporting someone you don’t like. You can borrow a book or buy it secondhand. You could buy the book and then make a charitable donation that offsets the damage. You could buy the book and then buy two other books by people you DO like. Ebooks are a good answer too. Authors usually make lousy money from eBooks, plus you’re not carrying around a branded book and showing that author’s name all over the place.
Not to mention the fact that you can still buy a book and then skip the other stuff, reviewing, promoting, all the things that you SHOULD be doing for authors you love and can go ahead and skip when it comes to authors you hate.
If you need a little more help, let’s talk about it like this: Using something doesn’t imply full-on endorsement. You’re not getting a tattoo of the author’s face. You’re not getting a signed headshot. You’re not starting a fan club.
The one thing I’ll draw the line on, I don’t think it’s justified to steal a problematic author’s work. You might feel like Robin Hood, but you’re not. Remember, Robin Hood was stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. You’re stealing, but then you’re just keeping the material for yourself. That whole giving to the poor, redistribution of wealth thing is pretty key to the whole Robin Hood ethos.
I Want To Read A Book, But I Know Nothing About The Author. What If They’re A Jerk?
Let’s talk ignorance. Finally, a subject on which I’m an expert.
At one time, it would be ridiculous to expect anyone to actually know if an author was reprehensible. It’s not like you could just type their name into a magic box and know within seconds.
Today, it’s actually that easy. Type a name into the magic box. Know within seconds.
What is the obligation of readers now? What is the obligation of consumers to make use of this tool?
I’m looking at my bookshelf right now. I can honestly say I have no earthly idea whether or not Charles Yu is a great person. I can only speculate on whether I’d enjoy sharing a beer with Charles Yu. I don’t even know if he likes beer. (Charles Yu, if you’re reading this, consider it a standing offer). I’ve never read interviews by Charles Yu, never been to readings he did. It’s all guesswork.
Should I Google Charles Yu to find out more before I read? Am I putting my head in the sand if I skip the process of Googling for dirt?
Everyone has to draw their own line on this one. I don’t think there’s a wrong place to draw that line, and I don’t think it’s wrong if that line moves around a bit.
I’ll share the line I use for now.
The short version: more book readin’, less internettin’.
The longer version goes like this:
I’m not a huge fan of the internet muckraking expedition.
If, as a parent, you go through the drawers in your kid’s room from time to time, for no reason other than to check up, then I think you will search until you find that unnamed something bad. If you’re looking for nothing in particular, just “something,” then I think you’ll find it. You’ll find a journal entry that’s alarming. You’ll find some internet history you don’t care for. You’ll find something that, before you searched, wouldn’t have struck you as bad. But once you’re in the mindset of finding something bad, you will succeed.
If I decided to look for things an author said or did with the goal of finding something I objected to, I could find something. And I did. In researching for this article, I absolutely found some things that I didn’t like. Not about Charles Yu, mind you. He seems like a good dude.
Oscar Wilde made a really good point about this whole thing:
The domestic virtues are not the true basis of art, though they may serve as an excellent advertisement for second-rate artists.
There’s a truth there. Multiple truths. Bad people can make good stuff, and good people can make bad stuff. Good people can make bad stuff. It's all over the map. I think the big truth is that someone’s personal life doesn’t generally serve as a good predictor of whether or not their book is any good.
If I was looking up book reviews, and if in the course of doing that I found out a few things about an author, then ignoring those things, pretending they didn’t exist or that I didn’t know, that would be putting my head in the sand. Some authors are notorious enough that you just end up hearing about them, and ignoring all that stuff might be head-in-sand territory. Not actively seeking scandal when I’m completely unaware of whether there’s anything in existence or not...that feels okay to me. I don’t work for fucking TMZ.
There’s A Book I Want To Read, But The Author Is Just Such A Bastard
Hey, we’ve all got a line. Everyone’s got their different deal breakers. If an author listed Buffalo Wild Wings as a favorite restaurant, I don’t know if I could ever get over it.
If you know something about an author that you don’t feel like you can get past, that’s cool. You don’t have to get past anything. Nobody is obligated to ignore their feelings, “get over it” and read something by someone terrible.
Anyone who thinks you’re weak for skipping an author you hate is a fool, and probably a hypocrite. Everyone has their list of offenses that they can’t overlook.
Don’t torture yourself. Don’t force yourself through a book that, line by line, serves to remind you why you hate the author. There are more books in existence than you could ever hope to read. Don’t waste your time on a bad experience.
If you’re opening a book, sighing and saying, “Here we go…” then I’d encourage you to close that book, throw it in the fireplace, light said book on fire, and then use the light from the burning book to read something else.
My Friend Is Reading A Book By Someone Problematic. Should I Say Something?
A couple years after I graduated from college, I went back to campus because the school was hosting a visiting author. I ran into one of my professors, someone who helped me out a lot in school, and we talked books. She asked what I was reading, and I said, “I’m about half-way through The World According To Garp.”
She then told me that when she was in school, John Irving was visiting faculty. And he was an awful, unapologetic womanizer.
It was a disappointing thing to hear. I was really liking the book quite a bit. And I was pretty deep into it. Beyond the point of no return.
The point of this story is, being aware didn’t change my behavior as far as Garp was concerned. I finished the book. I thought it was really good. Although the experience was tainted a bit.
So here’s my opinion on the idea of informing others. Just mine.
If you think the information will change the person’s behavior, go for it. For example, if someone was considering going to school where Irving was visiting faculty, this would be great info to have. If someone came up to me, holding two books, and said "Which one should I buy?" I might go ahead and inform them if one of the authors was a dipstick.
If you don’t think the information will change someone’s behavior, then my personal move is to hang onto the info until the person finishes the book. If, at that point, I feel like it’s necessary to have a talk, I can. If the book doesn’t seem to change my friend or to be a life-changing experience, if it doesn’t come up again, then we can let it be.
That's me. Share what you do in the comments.
Art does not fit neatly into our world of with us or against us. We can find truth, beauty, heartbreak, all of these things in works written by people that we’d never want to share a meal with. I can enjoy the shit out of a book that I read on a plane, but that doesn’t mean I would also enjoy sitting next to that book’s author on a plane.
Do I care for Orson Scott Card’s personal belief system? Not one bit.
Do I think it’s okay to read something by a problematic author? Yes.
Do I think it’s okay to like something by a problematic author? Yes.
Do I think you’re obligated to find out what an author is like, as a person, before reading their stuff? No.
The important bit, I think it would do all of us good, consumers and non, to be open to discussing our decisions. Not defending, not attacking the decisions of others, but to be able to say, “Yes, I will read so-and-so’s work, and here’s why” or “No, I don’t consume so-and-so’s work, and this is why.”
When doing so, I find it helpful to use “I” statements. “I find the book to be really good,” or “I find it more offensive than I do good.”
Yes, I read Ender’s Game. Because I was curious. Because I like a good sci-fi story, and it’s a good sci-fi story. And yes, because it felt like a hole in my reading, something I probably should have read in junior high and missed.
No, I won't be going out of my way to promote Ender's Game. Even though I enjoyed Ender's Game, you won't see it listed as a recommended title below. Nor will I be recommending Garp. I'll spend that energy on something else.
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