Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Some Artists Are Dicks. Does That Make Their Art Less Valuable?

I'm going to take another stab at the Orson Scott Card issue because I think he's really just a small part of the problem and I'd like to discuss the larger context.  But first, I want to it known that my last word on the subject is this:  follow your conscience.  Regardless of whatever else I say, do what you believe to be right.  That's all any of us can do, isn't it?

Sometimes I wonder if the Internet is killing the balance that exists between writers and written works.  The issue occurred to me while I was reading yet another article about Orson Scott Card.  This one pondered whether his involvement in the Ender's Game movie (which looks amazing, by the way) would hurt ticket sales.  Judging by the comments in the article, I'd say that there are some people who will not be seeing the movie because of their personal dislike of the author.

Honestly, that scared the shit out of me.

I have a lot of views too.  I'm anti-gun, pro equal rights, I believe our government is too big but that we're not doing enough to help the least fortunate among us.  I'm a smart-ass and I tend to mouth off before I think.  I feel passionately about things.  I am just as passionate about my views as I'm sure OSC is about his.

But I don't want people to judge my works based on my personal beliefs.  I am personally agnostic, but one of my recent works features a significant religious arc for a character for whom faith is extremely important.  I don't want people wondering what SHAUN was trying to say.  I want them to wonder what the CHARACTER was trying to say.  Because that character's views on religion are not necessarily mine.  And the fact of the matter is that, even if I was trying to use my character as a mouthpiece for my religious views (which I wasn't) it might not have even been about religion, but instead used religion to explore our faith in things.  How much a person can take and still hold onto their beliefs.

Maybe it was none of that.  I don't set out to write themes.  I set out to write a story.  I believe in writing people.  Some are like me, some are not.    But none of them ARE me.

I don't want people to know me.  I want them to know my works.  My books and my characters and the worlds I've built.  And if some of ME happens to slip into my writing, then I want people to discuss what it means in the context of my books.  Not in the context of me, the person.

But the internet makes that difficult.  I don't think superstars like John Green could exist without the Internet.  Oh, John Green is talented, of that there's no doubt, but I firmly believe that his books' popularity have sas much to do with what an awesome human being John Green is as with the stories themselves.  John Green provides us an example of someone using his influence and the Internet for good.  Rallying likeminded people to change the world.

Don't think for a second, though, that JG doesn't have an agenda.  It happens to be a great agenda, but it's still an agenda.  Much like OSC, JG's personality and beliefs have eclipsed his books.  People love his books because they love him.  The same way people boycott OSC's books because they dislike the him.

Which is a shame, because OSC is a pretty decent writer, and Ender's Game has something very important to say about how people (especially children) can be manipulated.

For every John Green, there will be an Orson Scott Card.  And there's nothing the Internet loves more than collecting their group outrage and piling on to one human being to express their displeasure.  Is the Internet often right?  Yes.  OSC's views on homosexuality are disgusting.  Seth MacFarlane was a douche.  Chris Brown is a woman-beating asshole.

However, piling onto one person, focusing our rage on an individual doesn't solve the problem.  Seth MacFarlane isn't the problem.  The institutions that allow misogyny to exist are the problem.

I'm not saying we give OSC a pass.  As I stated at the beginning, you have to let your conscience guide you.  I'm just wondering if we've blurred the lines between art and artist so much that they can no longer exist separately?  And if we have, are we at risk of losing some of our greatest art to our collective rage?

H.P. Lovecraft was a frothing-at-the-mouth racist and anti-semite.  Ernest Hemingway was a misogynist, alcoholic dick.  Frieda Kahlo was a communist.  Charles Dickens was a supposed child abuser, adulterer, and anti-semite.  James Joyce had a fetish for female farts (no lie).  And don't even get me started on what an asshole Ayn Rand was.

I'm not sure any of them would have succeeded in the Internet age.  Their works might have been forever lost as their personal lives and views on the world were splashed across Facebook; as Twitter went up in flames over their latest stupid thought.

And wouldn't that have been a shame?

Maybe.  I'm pretty sure most high schoolers could skip Ayn Rand's back-breaking tomes and probably be better human beings for it.  But for the most part, these artistic misfits produced some damn fine work.  We look past their shortcomings because their art is more than the sum of who they were.  We ignore their prejudices and political beliefs and examine the work.  Sometimes we even study the work of horrible people because examining that art helps us learn who we don't want to be.

We treat the art separate from the person.

That's how I believe it should be.

But I'm not sure that that's feasible anymore.  I've often thought about closing all my on-line accounts and leaving my Internet persona behind.  No more Facebook, no more blogging or Twitter. But that's not reality.  Even before a writer signs with an agent and gets a book deal, he's beat over the head with how important it is to have an online presence.  That it's vital to a career in writing, despite some emerging evidence to the contrary.

The sad truth is that not everyone is the kind of person you want to know.  I like to think that I'm a nice person, but I'm also outspoke, hot-headed, introverted, and can be extremely self-centered.  But just because you might not like me in real life doesn't mean you wouldn't like my books.

I'm afraid I've rambled off a bit.  Once again, there are no easy answers.  Not that I expected there to be.  Whether I like it or not, we're living in a world where art and the artist are intertwined.  John Green's books would not be as popular as they are without John Green.  Amanda Palmer has blurred the divide between art and artist to such a degree that I'm not even sure there is a line anymore.  AND THAT'S NOT A BAD THING.  I think what Amanda Palmer has done is brilliant.  Sh IS her art and her art is her.  But not everyone can do that, nor should they.

Like it or not, this is the world now.  Our job is to figure out how to live in it.


  1. I mostly agree. I do think books are a little different though.

    For example, I have no problem watching a Roman Polanksi film (or even spending money on it). And I have no problem buying music from an artist I know is a misogynist (as long I like the music). Sure, I prefer art from socially conscious people when I can get it, but I'm not going to miss out on the next Kool Keith album just because he's a sexually addicted psychopath (come to think of it, I like him specifically because he's crazy).

    But books are different, I think. I think my opinion about books has also changed since I've become a writer, but even before that, I think I knew books were a unique window into a person's being, you know?

    I'm rambling now too, but it's definite food for thought.

    1. As usual, you make great points. I'm curious though, what makes books (and therefore authors) different in how we approach them? Why is it okay for Chris Brown to beat Rhianna without jeopardizing his music career and not okay for OSC to be a homophobe without jeopardizing his writing career (not that I think either of these people's careers are in trouble)?

      Do we hold writers to a higher standard? If so, why? Music and television programs arguably have a greater impact on children simply do to the fact that more kids watch TV and listen to music than read. Is it because we expect rock stars to be crazy and to flaunt the rules?

      Why is it okay for Polanski to rape an underage girl and get away with it without his movie career suffering, but not okay for a writer to speak out about a view that he or she holds dear without the full weight of the Internet bearing down on him?

      I'm not defending, I'm just curious what distinctions we're making.

    2. I hear you, and I don't know. I'll admit that I don't necessarily think my attitudes are right.

      As for the music analogy, I will say that I think a lot of what attracts us to music is the taboo. At least when we're young. I know when NWA first came out, or anything explicit lyrics, for example, I wanted it immediately, because it was a way to defy authority.

    3. You're not wrong at all. Like I said, each person must do what their conscience tells them. I refuse to show at Lowes because of a controversial racial issue involving muslims. I don't eat Chik-fil-a because of their support of an anti-gay agenda. We make up our morality as we go, doing what we think is right.

  2. Shaun, I think about this ALL THE TIME. As much as OSC's views on marriage and gays (and, oh! what he said about the role of wives! jesus.) are personally abhorrent to me, ENDERS GAME - and many other of his books - remain touchstones of my reading life, and marked the places in my psyche as I emerged from the fog of childhood into my adult self. I treasure them. I treasure the hands that built them. Even when he says things that make me go bananas.

    I do think it's important to separate the artist from the work. Indeed, I think it's imperative. When I sit down to write a story, that story is formed from the bits and pieces of my life and brain, but that story is NOT ME. The story is separate from me. The story is itself. Whether I'm the nicest person you ever met or the biggest jerk ever shouldn't impact whether or not the story works, you know?

    And honestly, it bugs me when artists try to insert themselves into the experience of their work. It seems self-aggrandizing and bull-headed to the point of bullying. I admire John Green's books a lot, but I actually had to un-follow him on Twitter because his Persona was getting in the way of my interaction with the text. And that got annoying. The last thing you want when you're enjoying a book is to have a damn author tapping you on the shoulder asking you how it's going. Don't get me wrong - I admire the heck out of him and appreciate the good that he's doing. It just bugs me personally.

    I think, as authors, we need to take ourselves out of the spotlight, and hope that our books stay there instead. We are not the attraction. Only our books are. And that is as it should be.

    1. Kelly, I think you've put this better than I ever could. In fact, I know you did. Thank you.

      It's like, I don't mind artists and authors having a platform, but when it eclipses the art, it's too much. I feel like we should be able to shut the author off to avoid ruining the books we love.

  3. And also? It's not just OSC. I work REALLY hard to separate the work from the artist. James Brown was a wife-beater, but I still bless his funky soul, you know? And Michael Dorris was accused of doing unspeakable things to his children, but YELLOW RAFT IN BLUE WATER is one of the best books I ever read, and I had no qualms about teaching it to eleventh graders. We are all broken, broken people. And sometimes despicable - even the best of us. That doesn't mean that any one of us capable of making That One Good Thing. It happens. And when that happens, it's a miracle, and we just have to accept it.

    1. I love this point. And I think it goes back to the idea that sometimes stories don't come from us, but through us. Which could be why such douches are able to make such awesome art (sometimes).

  4. I struggle with this. I don't read books very often (sorry) but I watch a lot of sports and movies, rife with bad people. I can't bring myself to watch a Polanski film even though those stories intrigue me and are reportedly fantastic films. Maybe because he got away with it and so many people defend his rotten ass. Whoopi wondered if it was "rape rape." Well, yes Whoopi, it was. Stop defending him just because he's an artist.

    Yet I enjoy James Brown's and Bing Crosby's music, and Michael Jackson's and I still marvel at the athleticism of Michael Vick even though I'd probably stab him in the throat if I ever met him. The difference is probably just that I liked all of them before I ever learned of their misdeeds while I learned of Polanski's before ever having seen one of his movies. And I loved Chick-Fil-A long before knowing about the owner's support for marriage inequality. It's pretty lousy to pick and choose as I do but sometimes I just want to be entertained or eat good chicken and not think about every artist and what they've done or still do. I don't have anything wise to say on it, just that it sounds like we're all hypocrites to some degree. Sean Penn is a huge dick, but Mystic River and Fast Times are just too good.

    1. So I had this reply written out and then blogger ate it. I'll try to reconstruct it. The gist was that I think it's good that you question things. I think too many people on both sides of issues (myself included) often have knee-jerk reactions and never take the time to really think about them.

      And it would be so easy if everything was black and white, but we're all full of contradictions. Even on one single issue, I can't make up my mind. I avoid Chick-Fil-a but not Orson Scott Card. Granted, the chicken sandwiches aren't exactly art, but both support marriage inequality. Does reading OSC's books but refusing to eat at Chick-Fil-A make me a hypocrite? Yes, yes it does. But that's why I'm questioning my own morality.

      I think there's a line somewhere for me. It's pretty hard to define. But so long as we keep searching, I think we're on the right track.


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