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Slugs, Slime Trails, and the Muse: Can You Separate the Art from the Artist?

Saturday, February 16th, 2019 | Posted by Nick Ozment

BG John CarterMost of our participation in the Great Conversation these days is taking place, not in the halls of academia or in fireside clubrooms, but on social media virtual spaces like Facebook. One conversation that many people have been engaging in lately is prompted by the question “Can you separate the art from the artist?”

Another fact of our present moment is that the most sordid and intimate details of public figures are dragged into the light, subjected to intense scrutiny and immediate judgment. Some of our most beloved actors, our most cherished writers, our most celebrated musicians are suddenly being exposed as pariahs, shameful corrupted beings who must be exiled from the spotlight – and, possibly, from our bookshelves and our stereos and our movie streams.

It is not just entertainers currently in the spotlight who are subjected to this new scrutiny. We hear about how certain renowned science fiction writers of the past might have behaved like some of the characters on the TV show Mad Men. Do we jettison the touchstones they left us in disgusted protest? Reaching further back, can we still curl up for some chills with H.P. Lovecraft when we know he was a racist? Can we unabashedly thrill to the adventures of John Carter and Tarzan when we know Edgar Rice Burroughs reinforced some colonialist “great White savior” views?

BG WhedonEven more pertinently – with artists who are still alive and producing at the peak of their careers — we suddenly learn, for example, a distasteful insight about a writer and filmmaker like Joss Whedon, whose TV series, comic books, and films we’ve absorbed and loved for decades. Turns out he was a jerk to his wife: lying to her for years about his numerous affairs. Then, in his apology letter, he floats the timid excuse that, hey, all these hot young starlets were throwing themselves at him to further their careers; he was just too weak to resist. Joss! You’re a brilliant writer, what were you thinking? If you were writing that as dialogue for a character, you’d be using it to automatically dial down audience sympathy for him.

On Facebook, science fiction and horror writer Adam-Troy Castro has devoted many posts to this question over the last couple of years, and the ensuing debates are what got me wrestling with the question as well. His biggest go-to example is Bill Cosby. He’s loved the stand-up of Cosby since he was a kid; knows some of the routines by heart. He saw Cosby live, he notes, at the last moment you could have seen him before the cloud of ignominy had completely settled and defaced the man’s career for good. And he contends that that performance was perhaps the greatest live performance he’s ever seen: Some of the routines were near-perfect, in terms of the art of stand-up, and perhaps even achieved the sublime. Some of those words, and the masterful way Cosby delivered them, can still bring tears to his eyes. Regardless what he thinks of Cosby the man, that art is stamped in his brain. What to do?

Castro feels the same about Cosby the man as pretty much everyone else (except for some deniers who think it’s all a conspiracy – a crowd, it seems, that consists of Cosby himself, his lawyer, and a handful of people who also think O.J. was innocent and that we never went to the moon); namely, that Cosby the man is a sexual predator with a lifelong habit of drugging women to have sex with them, and he deserves to be where he is: in jail. Like so many of us when a beloved icon is exposed to be not just less-than-perfect but sadistically criminal, he feels betrayed, violated, and absolutely flummoxed: How could a person so flawed write and perform pieces with such humane, sharp insight to family, life, the human condition?

BG GustavCastro favors separating the art from the artist in this debate: The art is true, even if it came from a corrupted vessel. Others who have engaged the question on their pages are not so forgiving. And perhaps “forgiving” is not the right word: Castro does not forgive Cosby for anything he’s been accused and convicted of doing. Not in the least. Just, he has a nuanced view that sees the art as somehow being independent of the artist. (I should note, in citing Castro specifically, that his Facebook posts are set to Public and so intended for general consumption).

This morning I had something of an epiphany. I realized that my general philosophy of art accommodates this apparent paradox, makes some sense of it. It depends on the way that you see, though — your worldview. So if you don’t share something of this worldview, it won’t work for you. But I’ll try to articulate it here.

Before I get to the epiphany, I want to bring up one more artist, and I’m reaching back about 4 centuries for this one. William Shakespeare is considered by most English historians, professors, and scholars to be the greatest writer in the English language. He has held that lofty pinnacle of admiration for more than three centuries, and while there are fewer who feel that way today than did a hundred years or even twenty years ago, his “polls” would still be a super-majority of people who care about literature. If you are not in awe of Shakespeare, my guess is you have never really read him, past maybe a play or two assigned in high school. Myself, a writer of four decades with a master’s degree in English literature and language: I need only pick up a play and read a few lines to be once again flattened by his mastery of the language. And then to read just a little further to be reminded of his humbling understanding of the human psyche, passion, friendship, envy, love, hate – all the ingredients that go into our lives on this world’s stage.

Shakespeare is to us, I suppose, what Einstein is to scientists and mathematicians. People have certainly achieved other things in the field that he did not, and surpassed his work in some areas, but no one before or since has had such sheer, native brilliance. He changed the playing field. In physics, there’s a BE and AE: Before Einstein and After Einstein. There is likewise a clear demarcation in literature: BS and AS. There’s still a lot of BS out there. (Couldn’t resist.)

Okay, why the long rave about Shakespeare? His plays have been performed more than any other dramatic works; literally thousands of books have been written on them – they have been analyzed historically, psychologically, and through the lens of dozens of different critical theories; and as if enough hadn’t been said about them or their author, new books and papers on Shakespeare are born every month.

BG ShakespeareAnd yet, it is a truism that we know very little about Shakespeare. Apart from what he wrote, that is. The art he created. Oh, we know where his troupes performed, where he moved when he retired, who he was married to. That’s about it. There is such a shortage of biographical information that there are still some scholars who argue that he didn’t actually exist. That is, the actor named Shakespeare existed but didn’t write the plays; rather, some other writer (or even a cabal of writers) wrote them under his name. Which is, incidentally, hogwash.

And so here we have a clear example of the art being separated from the artist simply by virtue of the fact that we know diddlysquat about him – there’s nothing to separate. No leaked emails. No paparazzi pictures. No lawsuits. For all we know, he might have been a serial killer. Probably not; but I’d wager that, if we could bring a hidden camera back in time, we could find plenty of dirt on him. And if we did, would we still consider his best plays to be some of the finest literature humanity has ever produced?

But is it possible to expunge all the vile stuff we know about a modern artist and approach his/her work objectively like we do Shakespeare’s? Or, conversely, is it possible – knowing that artist X was a sexual predator or a homophobe – to expunge the sublime art he/she created, that moved and indelibly affected us: to reject both him/her and his/her creations?

Some people will at this point in the debate inject the observation that they don’t want to financially support a person guilty of reprehensible views or actions by buying their work. I want to clear this from the table quickly, because it is beside the point of what I’m tackling here. Yes, that is a valid position. You don’t like Orson Scott Card’s views on homosexuals, don’t buy his books. But what about after an artist is dead, or if you’re just checking his/her book out of a library and so not putting another penny in his/her coffers? Aside from considerations of financial support, can you still enjoy the work of one of your favorite artists once you’ve discovered something about them that makes you cringe?

Let me distill it into one simple hypothetical test: Imagine you walk into an art gallery. You turn a corner and meet before you a painting that immediately arrests your attention. (To keep this brain exercise completely free of any context or signals, let’s say it’s an abstract.) It moves you profoundly. You can’t take your eyes off it. You find something about the work to be sublime. You’re wondering if a print is available in the gallery gift shop. Then a curator walks up beside you and says, “Yes, brilliant painter. Terrible that he was _____.” Fill in the blank with what you might find most objectionable or offensive.

I’m guessing that, if you’re like me, you’d no longer want to buy a print – simply because, every time you looked at it, the curator’s words would spring to mind and you’d always have that negative association. But how to make sense of the painting’s effect on you? How could a person like that produce an object that touched you so keenly?

I’ve spent the first 1,600 words of this essay raising and reiterating the question. Now I’ve come to the closing paragraphs in which I’ll lay out my own, personal answer. Again, it is a philosophical position, perhaps a metaphysical one, and so might not mesh with your own philosophy. As they like to say on social media, “Your mileage will vary.”

There are, most broadly, two competing worldviews that stand in stark contrast in our modern world. One is a highly reductionistic, materialistic view. The other is metaphysical, and would most broadly encompass most religions as well as everyone who believes this is not “all that there is”, i.e., that beyond the material there is spirit.

The strictly scientific, material worldview will see the human brain as a component of the material world, the thoughts and dreams and visions it fires off from its billions of neurons also simply part and parcel with the evolving universe. These are natural phenomena, and not strictly “higher” or more spiritually meaningful than a bolt of lightning from a thunder cloud or a wave crashing on the seashore (though much more complex).

Jung and the restless

Jung and the restless

Most of humanity through most of its existence has seen art as an expression of our Higher Self or even of something higher than our self. We speak of the Muse expressing herself through us, or – using a more twentieth-century psychological-sounding term – the collective unconscious, as Jung codified it and T.S. Eliot adopted. So many writers have described the work as seeming to come through them from someplace else, themselves mere vessels channeling it.

As has been made all too clear in this age of transparency, there are few perfect vessels. Many vessels, in fact, are not just flawed in some minor way but contain in their cracks filth and viruses (that can leach into the art passing through them, infecting the art sometimes with just trace amounts and sometimes altogether poisoning and despoiling the art).

But the vessel is indeed a conduit, distinct from the final creation. Its suitability to the creation hinges, first and foremost, on its being open to the vision that comes to it and to expressing that vision. The song, the story, the stand-up routine: that is the vision, and if it has passed through its vessel relatively unscathed, it can impact and shake us and knock us off our feet, leaving us breathless or in tears or in gales of laughter. We are reacting to the vision, not the artist.

BG Muse

“Kiss of the Muse” by Alex Grey

That is how I reconcile all this and answer the question. It explains why, for example, you can fall in love with characters so convincingly and compassionately rendered and then meet the author at a convention and discover he’s a jerk. Bewildered, you think to yourself, “How – you – what – how did these characters come from you?” The answer is these characters came through him; they are not him. Nor is he them. Whatever character flaws or nasty habits he might possess, the configuration of his mind and his openness to receiving the vision was such that he was an adequate vessel to call those characters into being and deliver them. An absolutely horrible mother might deliver a saintly baby.

Now, a reductionistic worldview will not receive much comfort from this idea. There is no Muse, no collective unconscious, no heavenly music that we call down through our human instruments. The product of a human brain is no more or less material than the brain that produced it; art is, to put it crassly, a secretion of the brain and therefore inexorably tied to that brain. If we reject the brain that made it, we are also more likely to reject it. Reject the slug, reject the slime trail: even if the slime trail came out looking like the Mona Lisa.

This is far from the last word on this debate. It will be with us for as long as the Muse, that fickle and capricious light of humankind, continues to select vessels who are flawed, and who sometimes are so flawed they make our skin crawl, to deliver her music to the world.

23 Comments »

  1. For me the honest answer is Yes I can-subjectively. Separating the art from the creator based on my own dislikes and bias. Some small examples. DC Comics published a series of Shadow comics written by a writer that was fairly well done. Years later said writer is probably by now in jail for possession of a huge library on his computer of child pornography. I still like his Shadow series.

    Another example-do I stop watching Star Trek films because Stephen Collins’ secret came out though I confess some relief not to have suffer thru any more of Seventh Heaven. This is where my likes and dislikes come in to it. Charles Schultz having some marriage problems–dump Snoopy and Charlie Brown-nope, keep reading and sigh at the weaknesses of man. As to Mr. Whedon always had the feeling he was a fellow nerd that struck gold (with talent and hard work) but unable to resist the success and fame and temptations that go with it. Few can and I would NOT be one of them. I always thought it a mercy from God I was never pretty or rich.

    One could go on and on. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain is a great favorite of mine but his personal beliefs on the British Empire being terrific for Africa needs some rethinking.

    At the end of the day every sinner and saint have their times. I like to learn from the good and the bad and avoid the ugly-so to speak. Your case was well presented. Not quite sure I buy in to the conduit as I tend to think we all have at least one talent to be nourished or starved as one lives.

    Comment by Allard - February 16, 2019 8:16 pm

  2. Personally, it doesn’t bother me much at all that some horrible criminals can create beautiful or even very humane art. People are incredibly complex and can compartmentalize their brains in extreme fashions. There is room for them to be wonderful and awful at different times. A truly horrible person might even be capable of great kindness, compassion and good deeds sometimes too.

    I’m glad that so many skeletons are coming out the closet but I think that people have too strong an impulse to distance themselves criminals and deeply flawed people. Society has never properly learned how to live with and rehabilitate them, we just want to be away from them and hope they die quietly without multiplying in their exile. Is it possible that this desire to distance ourselves from these people is related to the times people turned a blind eye to awful crimes and pretended it didn’t happen?
    We need to learn to live with these people and troubling histories, and not be seduced by the idea of a clean separation.

    I don’t think supporting someone’s work is just an issue of their personal benefit.
    I’m very interested in the work of Hans Heinz Ewers and Karl Hans Strobl (who not only wrote but edited THE FIRST ever fantasy magazine). Both were actual members of the Nazi party. Although they were atypical (both were extremely decadent in style, used expressionist art, Ewers was nudist, bisexual and a passionate defender of jews) but I can understand the likely concern that reprinting their work might in some way create an impression of increasing accepting and legitimizing Nazis.
    The Vandermeers have reprinted two Strobl stories and I think they felt a bit conflicted about it.

    I recently bought two John C Wright collections published by Vox Day and I don’t feel entirely good about it. It’s not the idea of them getting a bit of cash that bothers me, it’s the idea of it going towards something more than that.

    Comment by Robert Adam Gilmour - February 16, 2019 8:49 pm

  3. As I read this, my first thought was of Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose work I had long admired until discovering her husband had a long history of committing child abuse and molestation; she apparently not only did not call him out on his reprehensible behavior, but allegedly helped him in his victimization. I’ll never be able to see her name on the spine of a book without thinking of what she might have been able to prevent, and chose not to. I won’t consign my old Ace paperbacks of Bradley’s work to the fire pit in my backyard, but they will not be on display with the others in my collection. Will I read any more Darkover books? Not without offering prayers for her husband’s victims, if even then.

    Comment by smitty59 - February 16, 2019 10:09 pm

  4. Allard,

    I agree about Joss — were I in the same boat, I doubt I’d be able to resist all the temptations. One thing I think I would be smart enough not to do is slip into casting myself as a victim in my apology! That seemed so beneath him.

    And I LOVE the Peanuts! They’re characters who definitely have a life of their own beyond their creator.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - February 17, 2019 1:26 am

  5. Robert Adam Gilmour,

    That Hans Heinz Ewers sounds like an interesting fellow!

    I totally get your conflicted feelings: You want to enjoy some John C Wright, but the thought of giving even a dime to Vox Day is icky!

    Comment by Nick Ozment - February 17, 2019 1:29 am

  6. smitty59,

    I’d never gotten around to Marion Zimmer Bradley before that heinous news broke. Later, I was offered a large lot of her paperbacks. I had zero interest in them and passed — knowing what I knew, I really couldn’t stomach the thought of reading her work. I might be missing out on some really good stuff, and I wouldn’t tell anyone else not to read her. That’s just my own personal feeling — a sleazy association I now cannot disassociate from a person whose art I was not yet invested in.

    In keeping with my thesis above, I realize she must have produced some pretty good stories that meant a lot to many people. And I would not negate that art, nor can she regardless what she may have done in her personal life. I may be missing out. But, since it’s not a zero sum game, there are sooo many other great stories out there by other authors I also haven’t yet gotten to — so she just goes to the bottom of a list that I’ll never have any hope of reaching the end of, if I live to be 100.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - February 17, 2019 1:39 am

  7. For me, as with a lot of things, it has to be judged on a case-by-case basis and I’m not going to pretend to hold myself to any kind of objective standard; I’ll still reread Burroughs and Lovecraft and rewatch Firefly, but I’ll probably never read Orson Scott Card again, or watch Cosby, or read any of MZB’s fiction. (Maybe her Sword & Sorceress anthologies, though?)

    The one thing I _Will_ do in all cases is respect that other people have lines drawn in different places than me, and if that leads them to skip creators that I enjoy and recommend, well, I’ll respect their decisions.

    Comment by Joe H. - February 17, 2019 9:56 am

  8. No one is perfect, the degree of imperfectness is interpreted by our opinion of it. For an artist, the creative ability is one thing, the personal habits of the person another.

    I separate the two, and if the musician, artist, writer, etc. creates work I like, then it’s that work that matters to me, not the non-creative actions.

    Comment by R.K. Robinson - February 17, 2019 1:38 pm

  9. The cult of biography didn’t really start until the last half of the 18th century when you begin seeing all the “Lives of the Poets” stuff. Before that, people didn’t seem to consider what artists were like. It’s significant, for example, that Shakespeare wasn’t who and what he is today until people started to think of him as an untutored “natural” genius, in part because so little could be learned about his life.

    That said, I’m a little uncomfortable about looking at writers or artists of more than say, 50 years ago, and attacking or dismissing them because they didn’t hold the social or political or artistic views we hold today. It would be nice if all those 18th-century poets weren’t misogynists, it would be nice if Lovecraft wasn’t racist, or if Burroughs wasn’t a believer in the white man’s burdon. None of those views were unpopular in their day (well, maybe a little). No one was shunning Jonathan Swift because he made no secret of his repugnance for women. That’s something we feel now.

    Comment by Violette Malan - February 17, 2019 3:11 pm

  10. What a boring, bland world you’d live in if you intellectually isolate yourself from any and every author who had some aspect to their personality or deed you found offensive or non-compatible with your ideal belief set.

    I have a Hypothesis that to be an excellent writer, artist, etc. there is some cruel requirement you have some kind of negative personality trait that’s at least vile by the day’s standards. Oh, plenty of hacks and paint spatterers who might be popular now but won’t be remembered a decade after their death. But the ones that will last for the ages have some nasty aspect about them. Drug abuse. Insanity. Horrible personality. Crimes. Wheel of deviance. There are exceptions, but by far it seems to be the rule. I think the cause for it is that they all have some kind of internal ‘pain’ that needs to be expressed mainly through their art. Or inflicted on the world that causes them pain, etc.

    There’s a lot of examples to argue it. I tried to do like 1% then decided not to post it assuming it’d only be seen as trollish flooding here. I’ll elaborate – if asked – but I feel safe to say that this crowd certainly is well read enough to understand my argument.

    There’s also a ‘time shift’ issue – where the exception becomes the rule. Thus I’ll bring up one popular example. Frank Herbert – haven’t had time to research whether or not he was a pervert or sold poison milk to schoolchildren but to hear the “Triggered” shriek he might as well have been. There’s a crude cash grab in the works, excuse me they are re-making the “Dune” movie. Forgive my opinion, but I doubt it’ll be anything other than the dry scifi channel attempt with better special effects. However the PC crowd might just derail it with a trifecta of outrage and demands. A book that was the flagship of “new wave” Science Fiction in the 60s now is very offensive to some. They claim it is too white. They hate the main character as a ‘great white savior’. And, last but not least they are offended by one of the pivotal characters, the Baron Vlad Harkonnen. Having him the bad guy is supposedly offensive to obese people, gay people and pedos.

    Heh, I’d like to strap the ‘triggered’ down Clockwork Orange style and make them watch “Grindhouse” pics made and in the theaters at the time Herbert wrote his book. Like early Pam Grier or the Ilsa movies – give them something legit to scream about. But – again they just might derail themselves and what I consider a dry cash grab of a movie so I’d have something to thank them for.

    Comment by GreenGestalt - February 17, 2019 3:27 pm

  11. I really think that normal people are equally crazy and screwed up as artists but don’t get the same attention, leeway and don’t have the same ability to express their craziness.

    Comment by Robert Adam Gilmour - February 17, 2019 5:54 pm

  12. I think a big problem we have in the modern world is this unfair expectation of perfection from people. That said, some times there are things we just can’t get past. That’s OK too. Still there should be some kind of middle ground and room for forgiveness for at least some of these sins. No one is perfect and shouldn’t be expected to be especially if their only crime is an unpopular opinion.

    Comment by CMR - February 17, 2019 8:38 pm

  13. As for people like Joss Whedon, I think his infidelities are between him and his wife and not really anyone else’s business.

    Comment by CMR - February 17, 2019 8:40 pm

  14. GreenGestalt: “I have a Hypothesis that to be an excellent writer, artist, etc. there is some cruel requirement you have some kind of negative personality trait that’s at least vile by the day’s standards.”

    It’s one thing to have such a personality trait, and something else entirely to allow that trait to influence your actions and behavior. I don’t disagree with you: I’ve studied enough writers and musicians and artists in my 68 years, both for the sake of my own interests, and as source material for my teaching college English, to verify your hypothesis more often than not. As Nick suggests in the body of his piece, if we were to learn disgusting facts about Shakespeare, would that alter our opinion about the (arguably) greatest playwright in the English language? Would the Royal Shakespeare Company close up shop? Would Stratford, Ontario, shut down its annual Shakespeare Festival? Would we see mass burnings of Shakespeare books and DVDs? (I recall the public burning of Beatles records when John Lennon remarked, more out of frustration and disbelief, that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.) As a college English professor who taught literature for 23 of his 31 years in the classroom, I made sure my students understood that the narrator’s ‘voice’ in a story or poem was NOT necessarily the undiluted voice of the author, that in many ways, what they read on the printed page was similar to watching an actor on stage or film playing a role. A writer could be a pussycat at home to wife/husband/kids and create a narrator who’s a vicious serial killer, or, vice-versa, give us a persona like Mr. Rogers on the printed page while engaging in Satanic rites in his/her basement, eviscerating kidnapped runaways and feasting on their innards. I’ve done enough stage work (20 plays in 12 years) to appreciate the idea that many artists feel they have to suffer for their art, and I’m more than ready to believe there are a great many people out there, artists and non-artists alike, who experience daily torment from their personal demons. But I’m also bothered by the application of 21st century values to artistic work produced long before those values became the norm. To use Shakespeare as an example again, can we legitimately apply feminist or Marxist theories to his plays and fault them for not meeting all the earmarks of those theories? I’d certainly agree that it might be fun to interpret, say, “Hamlet” from a feminist perspective, or “Julius Caesar” from a Marxist viewpoint, but it’s possible we may never know Shakespeare’s own personal feelings on either EXCEPT for what we might be able to glean from an Elizabethan perspective. When I first read Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” in high school (a thoroughly bowdlerized version), I had no idea Swift was actually writing a viciously wicked satire on politics, religion, and much, much more, better suited to being read by historians, philosophers, and sociologists than by English majors. So — how will literature students of 2069 view Lovecraft, or ERB, or Rider Haggard, or MZB? I’d say chances are good that whatever passes for that time period’s commonly held social beliefs, it will lead to interpretations we can’t even guess at. I shudder to think that we could see real-life scenarios that mirror the events in Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” or see Orwell titled his most famous work 85 years too early…

    Comment by smitty59 - February 17, 2019 9:28 pm

  15. Separating the art from the artist is something I cannot do.

    For me it comes down to the fact that there is so much good stuff out there that i want to read, why would i settle for an artist who is also a horrible person.

    I don’t think that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s name should be wiped out of the history books. She needs to be remembered as a lesson. But I don’t think Mists of Avalon should be on school reading lists and i’m sure it is still.

    On a different note. If I read an interview with an author and they are a jerk, I’m not exactly rushing out to buy that guys book. The whole time i’m reading it thats all i’ll be thinking of is that interview.

    Comment by Glenn - February 18, 2019 9:11 am

  16. I like the issue with the MZB thing that came out in recent years.

    IMO it’d be only fair if the “Intersectional College Person’s club of hatred of the white man” sent activists out to “Un-Person” her work. Vandalism of her grave. Flooding the net with requests to take down her listings from websites, online stores…

    Maybe they’d even go to the Barnes and Noble and when someone goes to buy one of her books or even picks it up from the shelf runs up to them shouting with a can of paint spraying… “Do you know you are supporting a Pedophile Enabler!? Pedo Enabler! Watch the kids!!!” spraying them with paint. Then when the store – rightly – kicked them out, stand screaming outside of it, with pure adrenaline grab the trash can (or the insert, those things are big) and throw it then bend over screaming arms around the chest till Da Fuzz take them away for the protection of others then themselves. Then, next day, another person from the “intersectional” club there…

    And these same people would have been the “Feminist” lady shoving her in my face when I pick up the latest Dark Horse Conan TPB only a while back!

    I knee-jerk disliked MZB. Never got around to reading it, but rather because of my long argument about “Operation shoot self in foot” of the publishing industry ramming in a “Politically Correct” agenda starting late 70s/early 80s. So while I read Andre Norton’s stuff and liked it and wasn’t freaked out when I discovered she was a woman, I did NOT like all the “Science fiction but written by a WOMAN” (or place ‘other’ group here) shoved in my face that were either whiny feelz or clear derivative hack work at best. Not saying that about MZB coz I never read her stuff, but I associated her – “Sword and Sorceress” with what I saw as the downfall.

    Heh, now that she’s had the blow to her popularity – a guilt by association socially unacceptable aspect – I might just read some of her stuff!

    Comment by GreenGestalt - February 18, 2019 7:05 pm

  17. Coming in late here. Little more I can say that CME, RK, Robert G, Smithy and Green haven’t said already. Green your posts generally make me smile, cutting away with any PC stuff and get to the main point.

    I suppose my take is not as much Nicks thought provoking essay but more where will it all end? A bland world of dumbed down literature that is acceptable to everyone at the time and in so doing is rubbish no one can stomach.

    And what may be today’s PC may be tomorrow’s social no no. How much sanitising and rewriting to please everyone is necessary? How long before people start burning The Hobbit because John Ronald Reuel Tolkein was born in South Africa and thus, according to the current mentality in SA, he has to have been part of the “master plan” and was thus a racist white supremacist pushing a colonists agenda to suppress the black man. Why just look at his Lord of the rings with its clearly Arian and superior elves vs it’s violent and slave like Orcs!

    Sadly while this bit is of course written to be taken with a pinch of salt, someone vigilante somewhere has already no doubt made the “connection” and is having a vociferous winge about it. Worse someone else is likely listening and agreeing.

    Comment by Tony Den - February 19, 2019 4:29 am

  18. This is a tough one. It’s a case-by-case thing for me, as for Joe H above. Political climates change and change again, and reasonable people can disagree about stuff, but I draw the line at actual evil. And, since her name has come up here, I put MZB on the far side of that line; I long ago dumped the books I had by her in the recycler. No judgement against people who decided that case differently.

    Cosby was tougher for me. He was a big part of my childhood, what with his comedy albums and I SPY. But, in the end, I can’t laugh along with that guy anymore.

    Mere political differences don’t usually bother me. Lots of my favorite writers (e.g. E.R. Eddison, J.R.R. Tolkien, Leigh Brackett, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, etc.) were obviously far to the right of me. If writers do their job properly, that doesn’t matter. (And if they don’t, I don’t want to read them anyway.)

    Comment by James Enge - February 19, 2019 10:34 pm

  19. I have two distinct sets of reading protocols — one for pleasure, and the other for understanding the canon(s). In both modes, there are far more excellent books of interest to me than I will be able to read in a lifetime, so I have to use some kind of selectivity.

    When I’m reading for pleasure, especially reading stuff by living authors, I generally skip people who have done things that I can’t stomach. MZB is on the far side of that line for me, too, though in my teens I read a fair number of her Darkover novels. I don’t anticipate reading her ever again. Why would I, when there are so many other excellent books by people whose share of bad life decisions are nowhere near on the scale of hers?

    When I’m reading to get my bearings in a branch of the canon I want to know better, I will slog through books by people I know to have done or believed appalling things, even if those books are themselves appalling to me and have actively made the world, in my opinion, a worse place.

    If you want to understand modernist poetry, you have to read Ezra Pound. He was too important to the development of that literary movement to omit. To try to tell the history of literary modernism without him would be a lie. He was, proudly, a fascist, an antisemite, and a traitor to the United States during wartime. On the personal level, he was a monumental jerk to a whole lot of more or less innocent people, with spectacularly messed up consequences especially for women. And yet, I’ve assigned Pound to my students. I’ve done the same with Milton’s Paradise Lost, a book that makes me so angry that when I read it in the privacy of my home, it usually gets thrown across the room at least once. But you can’t tell the history of poetry or mythic storytelling in English without Milton. Those histories, purged of him, would be lies. If the thing we’re measuring to determine a book’s Reprehensibility Index is harm done by the text itself, there’s not a single work of fantasy or science fiction from the 20th or 21st century that rates anywhere near the cultural harm done by Paradise bleeping Lost, in my opinion. I bring only a tiny sliver of my personal response to Milton’s life and work into my teaching, because it shouldn’t be my students’ problem. I’ve probably required a couple hundred young readers to tackle it, and write thoughtfully about it beyond just having an opinion about whether it or its author was good or bad.

    When I’m gone, if I’m very lucky, there will be enough of a body of work left behind and enough readers who read it that anybody will care about my life choices. No doubt some of those choices will age poorly, and I can’t begin to guess which ones they’ll be. I just try to do my best not be be a jerk, because being a jerk sucks for all parties concerned, and hope that posterity will see that I tried. Yeah, it’s actually a pretty low bar, now that I look at it there on the screen. Living authors who don’t seem to by trying go to the bottom of my TBR list.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - February 20, 2019 12:29 am

  20. Sarah, James – again check the link in my reply to Glenn. Nothing offensive/nsfw – just a clip from an early Druillet – the Yragel/Urm thing. Neat scene that could be from Zothique or such. Seems to not show up unless you are logged in here…

    That is the world we create for ourselves if we embrace foolish token false media idealism. A nihilistic world of destroyed great idols towering over rubble.

    There’s almost nothing you’ll find written by a saint. Oh, and per Bierce – “Saint: A dead sinner, revised and edited.” And, anything of any worth regardless of author will find someone somewhere who’s offended to the core – with reason or with not. Edit out these things we will have nothing.

    That’s what they want, btw, the “Controllers” – a bunch of nihilistic, apathetic people. Easy to manipulate to sell stuff to. Easy to manipulate to get one half fighting the other half while they wedge in another tax break. Easy to lie to to get into wars or maybe someday sooner or later off to ‘population control’ centers… Just one man’s opinion…

    Comment by GreenGestalt - February 20, 2019 6:49 am

  21. This is a really great post, and something I’ve been wrestling with, especially since my reading tastes stretch all the way back to the Middle Ages and beyond.

    I tend to grant an “of their time” defence to anybody who didn’t actively do harm, and especially if they had mental health issues – HPL, for example. Old fashioned views in fiction tend to be pretty obvious, and therefore do no harm – though they may trigger enough distaste to dislike an otherwise good story.

    I also give a pass to the flawed and weak as long as they didn’t actually commit crimes. Being a ___ should have consequences, but doesn’t invalidate the work… unless the work looks like it exists to justify the bad behaviour, or suddenly feels like a cynical exercise in attention getting. I am, for example, uncomfortable now watching Woody Allen films but am fine with material by Joss Wheedon.

    Then there are predators who cross the line and I can’t help feeling that they developed their art in order to predate – Cosby – or that their art contains hints and justifications – MZB.

    Comment by M Harold Page - February 20, 2019 5:01 pm

  22. Many of my views are on the far side of the spectrum from John Wayne, aka Marion Robert Morrison. Yet I have a huge collection of westerns starring John Wayne, and watch them without remorse or reservation. Some of them are among my favorites. How? Why?

    I’m not watching them to see John or Marion. I’m watching them to see Sheriff John T. Chance and Rooster Cogburn and Tom Doniphon.

    What if this current trend to conflate the art or the performance and the artist or the actor went both ways? Imagine if the corrupting influence was perceived to flow both directions. Then we might suspect Harrison Ford of being homicidal (his role in What Lies Beneath), and Tom Hanks of being a drunk (A League of Their Own) and felonious (The Ladykillers), and Glenn Close of being an animal abuser and puppy killer (101 Dalmatians). Leonardo di Caprio must then be a virulent racist because he played Calvin Candie, and Edward Norton a white supremacist because he played one in American History X.

    Of course that would be silly! But rejecting a fictional character or a film because of the actor who played him/her or appeared in the film seems only slightly less illogical.

    This irrational conflation arises from the cult of personality in a celebrity-obsessed culture.

    Once, many years ago, Harrison Ford explained to a reporter his reticence about giving interviews about himself and his private life. He said it made his job as an actor harder, getting audiences to see the character and not the person Harrison Ford up on the screen.

    He was really onto something.

    That said, as others here have pointed out, it is really each consumer’s individual experience; it’s subjective; each person will have his/her own line in the sand and that line will even vary in application from one artist to the next. If I met Lovecraft at a con today, and heard him express some of his racist views, I’d write the guy off and never pick up one of his books. Context is key: I encountered the work of Lovecraft before I knew anything about Lovecraft the man; his works had already colonized parts of my imagination before I knew anything biographical. There’s also the distancing of history — knowing that he’s been moldering in the grave for eighty years.

    How much the art is a vehicle for the artist’s own personality and proclivities plays a role too. A friend of mine noted that he could probably never watch and enjoy Louis C.K.’s sitcom again, although he could probably still appreciate House of Cards because it’s an ensemble cast and not a vanity project presenting a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Kevin Spacey’s life. Likewise, I doubt that knowing about Spacey’s gross misbehavior would lessen my enjoyment of L.A. Confidential.

    An engaging debate; and one, I think, with no cut-and-dry answers.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - February 21, 2019 1:15 am

  23. I told my daughter about this discussion and she brought up “House of Cards” and said that, despite what Kevin Spacey may have done off-screen, his participation in “HoC” was as one performer among an ensemble cast, and deciding not to watch the show because of one actor’s private life was essentially unfair to all the other actors, plus the writers and all the staff behind the scenes. She was right, of course, but that same sort of logic can’t be as readily applied to writers of literature. Certainly there’s an editorial staff, and cover designers, etc., but far fewer people would be affected by the boycotting of a writer than by boycotting an actor.

    I am also a long-time John Wayne fan, and despite his politics, I still enjoy his films without being bothered by his personal life. But I would not be able to sit down to reruns of any Bill Cosby programs, no matter how much I enjoyed his comedy albums as a kid. There are some crimes I simply cannot forgive. Just to test my own tolerance, I had a copy of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Hunters of the Red Moon” on a bookshelf by my desk. I’ve gotten through the first 26 pages, and I’ll probably end up reading the entire thing — but I bought the book in 1973 (yes, I’ve owned it for nearly 46 years without having read it!) without having any inkling of what she would later be publicly pilloried for, and I can’t decide how I feel about actually enjoying what I’ve read so far. Perhaps it’s a testimony to her skill that I’m not thinking of sexually abused children as I read the story, or maybe I’m just fortunate that I was raised by loving, nurturing parents in a healthy home atmosphere. I will, however, agree with Nick Ozment’s last comment above, that ultimately, there are no cut-and-dried answers. But there sure as hell have been a lot of victims out there who need help, and understanding, and more comfort than they may ever be likely to find.

    Comment by smitty59 - February 21, 2019 2:23 am


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