They is bad person. I’m not reading them

Ever since I was aware that writers were actual living breathing people, I have heard readers talking about discovering how putrid the politics/personality/hygiene/habits of a particular writer is and deciding that they can no longer read that particular writer, or give them money by buying the books they once loved.

I always respond by pointing out that when I discovered that Knut Hamsun was a fascist, who thought Hitler was the best bloke ever, it didn’t stop me form loving his fabulous novel, Hunger. Writers are not their books!

As a writer, it freaks me to think that some people will stop reading me, not because of my books, but because of something I’ve said or done. I feel all defensive every time someone tells me they’ve stopped reading Orson Scott Card because of his homophobia. Or John Green because he supports Barack Obama. I love Elvis. Is someone not going to read me because of that? Should I shut up and keep my opinions to myself for fear of offending potential readers? But why should we writers have to shut up? We are not our books. They is independent of us. You make them yours, dear reader, when you read them.

And yet, I must admit that there are a few writers I have met and disliked so much that I have never read any of their books again.1 How is that any different? Am I being a hypocrite?

Yes, I think I am.

Why should a reader keep reading the work of someone who pisses them off? Sure some readers can make the distinction between the writer and their work. Like me still being able to read Knut Hamsun. But it sure does help that he’s dead and that I’ve never read anything but his fiction. I haven’t read his online frothing at the mouth outpouring of Hitler love. It’s a lot harder to achieve that distance with a writer whose offensive views are all over the beastly intramnets. And worse when you’ve been subject to their unpleasantness in real life.

Some readers can still manage to make that distinction between book and author, but many can’t and, really, why should they? There are so many great books out there which makes cutting your choices down a bit of a relief. I’m pretty sure there are enough books on my TBR pile right now to last me till the end of time.

I’m not going to censor myself either. Elvis haters are never going to like my work. I’m cool with that. Their loss.2

What do you lot think?

  1. Or at all in the case of writers whose work I hadn’t read when I had the misfortune of meeting them. []
  2. Not having the Elvis love, I mean. []


  1. Chris Lawson on #

    Justine, I think it varies with what your triggers are. For instance, I am one of those who cannot read Orson Scott Card. I will, however, add that in Card’s case it has slowly dawned on me that his personal moral failings are not actually separate from his books. I was helped along this path by reading John Kessel’s brilliant analysis of ENDER’S GAME ( after which I’ve never felt the need to distance Card the writer from Card the person.

    There are, however, other people whose work is perfectly good on its own terms but I cannot enjoy anymore. These include John Travolta and Beck. I’m sure eagle-eyed readers will know what I’m talking about. But I have to say that much as I can no longer enjoy their work, I would never try to mount a boycott or even persuade others to join me. It’s a personal thing what one’s triggers are. I’ve never read Hamsun but I have seen Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and admired them greatly as cinema while at the same time being repulsed by the politics behind them. I honestly don’t know why I can manage this with Riefenstahl but not with Beck (even though Riefenstahl was involved in something much much worse).

    I should point out that I have never met Card, Travolta, Beck, or Riefenstahl. So maybe this isn’t quite what you meant to talk about.

  2. Diana Peterfreund on #

    There are a few people I’ve decided never to read after knowing them personally — not “reading an article they wrote on the internet” — but actually dealing with them in a business or personal situation.

    There are a few other people whose personal opinions I know I find hateful and anti-me. I still love their books. I recommended one to my mom’s book club — that’s like 6 sales right there.

    I’ve also seen people posting nasty screeds about me on the internet, swearing they’ll never read anything I write because I eat puppies. To which I say — yeah, but not THEIR puppies. Sheesh.

  3. Marko on #

    I was just thinking about that subject yesterday at the bookstore, when I was looking for some new SF/F fare.
    I skipped over the entire block of books with Really Famous SF Author’s name on them, because his views as published on the Intertubes have been a source of great irritation to me lately. In short, he’s a great writer, but a raging assclown in real life, and as such I find that I can’t read any of his books anymore without being reminded of that fact.
    Worse, I now parse his writings through the assclown filter, and it’s distracting because I constantly find myself thinking, “Well, he’s a raging homophobe in real life, so what did he mean by that statement/scene?”
    In that respect, I think you’re a bit off: writers *are* their books, at least to some degree. One’s preferences, philosophies, and personality come through in one’s writing.
    That’s why we like some authors and not others, even though the ones we dislike may be technically better than the ones we like: we don’t like the tone of the other guy’s story, or his plot twists, or the way he treats his female characters, or what have you.
    If writers weren’t their books at least a little, there’d be no distinguishing quality to any novel other than how well the author has mastered grammar.

  4. Marko on #

    Oh, and make that “raging assclown on the *Internet*” in the post above. I only know the man’s essays and novels, and I’ve never met him personally, so inferring what he’s like in real life was a bit out of line.

  5. Ned on #

    I’ve found there’s a distinction between (a) reading and loving Really Famous Author’s fiction and *then* discovering and loathing same person’s non-fictional opinions, and (b) the other way around.

    I continue to enjoy Really Famous Author’s new books, either because I’m suspending my distaste for their extracurricular views, or (more likely) because I’m remembering enjoying my less complicated mental picture of the author.

    Whereas if I hear about a new-to-me author’s unpleasant-to-me views, I’m just not going to take the time to read their fiction at all.

  6. Sherwood on #

    I was just thinking about this same thing last night, and then woke up to a rather disturbing assumption posted by someone in another topic. (I don’t like the book in question, but when the poster reaches past the book to speculate about the author as if such speculation is true,, well, I am wondering if I should post about it.)

  7. veejane on #

    It was a lot more comforting when I was sure all authors were dead. (As they were in my youth, shut up, it’s all Ursula K. LeGuin’s fault because she never changed her author photo or else I would have figured it out.)

    I think the “assclown filter” can be avoided, but it’s pretty damned hard. Most authors are not clever enough to void themselves completely from their books, and I can’t imagine many who try. In general, I find the “has no social skills” flavor of assclownishness is much easier to forgive than, say, “thinks me and mine are unnatural monsters,” but it’s a spectrum of personality and ways of language and whether I can still get pleasure while playing dodge ball with the assclownishness as manifested in the book.

    But we do that for every author, don’t we? Thomas Hardy needed Prozac. J. Michael Straczynski has a thing for the unfulfilled longing of submissive male virgins. Every author has a set of tics and unresolved problems that she explores — or just reiterates — in her works. I can’t read two novels by the same person in a row without starting to guess at their hangups.

    Writers are vulnerable that way. Sometimes intentionally, as a way of examining an unresolved problem; sometimes unintentionally, because they aren’t aware that it’s a problem.

  8. Justine on #

    Marko: That may be true of some writers but in, for instance, Hamsun’s case there’s nothing in his books that screams fascist. If I hadn’t read a bio I would never have known. He really isn’t his books. I do think frequently readers make presumptions about books based on what they know about writers that are not born out by the text. And vice versa. I’ve had people assume I’m a Catholic based on my trilogy and that I’m an atheist based on the same. Books stand on their own. Everything else the reader brings.

  9. Craig Gidney on #

    For me, it’s the intensity of the politics. If OSC had simply said, “I’m against gay marriage because of my religious beliefs,” I might not agree, but I wouldn’t really care all that much. However, spreading misinformation, calling names (“genetic mixups”) and making gays out to be The Worst Thing Ever really goes beyond my tolerance level.

  10. Patrick on #

    Honestly, as a reader, I really don’t care about the writer.
    Knowing about a writer might make me avoid their work or actively seek it out. I don’t know of any writers that I dislike, but like their work.

    There are definitely authors that I like as people but am not their biggest fan in the world, sometimes for genre, sometimes for writing style. At the same time, I wouldn’t want them to change because I don’t like their book.

    In either case, a writer I dislike the views of and a writer I like, I’m likely to try one book to see if they are creating entertainment that I would like.

    As someone aspiring to be published, I really don’t care what people think of me, since I strongly suspect the number of readers who actually look into the writer’s life is a small percentage of actual readers.

  11. Mindy Klasky on #

    When authors’ or artists’ work is truly separate from their personal beliefs, I can despise the individual and still appreciate the work. When that work, though, is designed to elevate or glorify a philosophy I find repugnant, and the Internets confirm that the author or artist champions the repugnance, I find it easiest to just set aside the work.

    With actors, there’s a slightly different chemistry at work. When I see an actor interviewed who espouses ideas that I find repugnant, I find it much more difficult to watch him/her in a role – the facts of those statements interfere with the fantasy of the role too greatly. (My ability to write off the work of personally repugnant actors might relate to the relative low cost of movies/TV – so what if I don’t spend two hours of my life on a blockbuster that others are going to rave about? ::shrug::)

  12. Shalanna Collins on #

    I’m sorry, but I couldn’t finish reading your post after finding that you are an Elvisite. The Sinatra/Darin lovers guild cannot speak to Elvis fans. Sorry about that! I’m sure this was a good post for the rest of us!

  13. Annalee Flower Horne on #

    For the most part, I’ll still read authors whose personal beliefs I don’t care for if their books are good. But I still refuse to buy Card’s books new. It’s not that his politics have spoiled his books for me, (they haven’t); It’s that I don’t want to be part of his platform.

    If he weren’t a best-selling SF author, he’d be just another idiot with a blog. His moronic screeds about me and people like me would be coming from “some random guy on the internet,” or “some guy who writes for right-wing religious newspapers.” Instead, they’re coming from “Orson Scott Card, best-selling author.” That platform gives him access to a larger audience, and lends an unearned air of authority to his positions. If I bought his books, I would own one of the x-many millions of copies he’s sold.

    Now, I can’t stop the idiots of the world from believing that being a best-selling SF novelist is the same thing as having advanced degrees in genetics and biblical scholarship. But I can refuse to help hold up a platform that someone’s going to climb up onto and insult me.

  14. Tempest on #

    I think there’s a distinct difference between not wanting to read a writer due to bigotry than, say, them not sharing a love of Elvis with you. I also think there’s a difference between not wanting to buy the works of a dead artist and not wanting to buy those of a living one. And still further difference between deciding not to buy anymore books by an author and deciding that you hate a book you once loved because you later found out the author is a jerk.

    If I find out that an author I previously liked is an out loud bigot, I’m not buying or reading any more of their books. I may still treasure those that I previously liked, but they might be somewhat tainted. Books are not authors, but books support authors. My embargo has more to do with not supporting that author in any way because I find bigotry despicable. That’s way different than just having a differing opinion on Elvis.

    If said author is dead, I might keep reading them because they aren’t getting any money from it — they’re dead. But I probably wouldn’t. That’s just me.

    Finding out something really awful about a writer — like that they are a bigot, or a pedophile, or something of that magnitude — might taint my view of books I used to like, as I said. And I see nothing particularly wrong with that. I also don’t see anything particularly wrong with still loving those books.

    But really, comparing the people who aren’t going to buy OSC anymore with fears that people won’t read your books because of some, frankly, less serious disagreement is a little off the hook! Sure, there might be some people out there who won’t read because of smaller, less horrendous things than bigotry, but that’s not really what the OSC conversation is about.

  15. Ariel Zeitlin Cooke on #

    A long time ago I decided I was willing to read certain works that were anti-Semitic like Oliver Twist, Merchant of Venice or The Golden Bowl even though I’m Jewish and offended by such comments in real life. Or even Ezra Pound despite his being a fascist. But it has to be a really, really good book and preferably a long time ago.

  16. Chris McLaren on #

    As you know, I’ve taken a kick at this particular can before.

    In the end, all I’ve come up with is that if I read the book before I got the bad associations, then I can keep the good qualities of the book distinct in my head. On the other hand, once the bad associations are there, they pretty much entirely inhibit my ability to find anything good in the books (and indeed, make it much less likely that I’ll spend the money on the book in the first place to even find out if I can get past the associations.)

    However, I have decided I can live with that. I mean there’s no shortage of good books out there–more than I am physically capable of reading in my life–so I’m not going to feel like I’ve failed in some way if I’m ruling some out on “not about the book per se grounds.

  17. Jessica on #

    Man, I started reading that first comment and just had to stop. I hate OSC’s homophobia, and I just read his laest article in some LDS newsletter (in “defense” of marriage, complete not with just homophobia, but circular logic and, uh, no logic at all!) that made me froth at the mouth, but Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books and I don’t want it ruined for me! So perhaps this is a case of self-defense? 😛 I haven’t read a new book (meaning a book I hadn’t read already) of OSC’s in years, so I just don’t know how I would deal.

    As for Elvis, who doesn’t love the King?

  18. cathy on #

    I suppose part of what goes into not buying the books of an author whose personal views are abhorrent is not wanting to provide said author with financial support. That’s not a concern with dead people or works in the public domain.

    There may also been a feeling by some people that shunning the author and his/her works is the only proper response, lest the author think his comments/views have been met with approval.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t be in favor of trying to disappear or ban works by authors I don’t like or books or films that express views I find offensive. Some day I might even get around to reading Protocols of the Elders of Zion just to see what the fuss is about.

  19. will shetterly on #

    Justine, well said, both in the post and the comments here! An additional point: The writer who wrote the book we loved may literally not be the person who’s an asshat now: life changes us.

    As for what we read for, if we read primarily for sympathetic politics, politics matter. If we read primarily for art, politics are only a small part of stories we love or hate.

  20. Haddy-la on #

    Im fairly sure im somewhat of an elvis hater i dont dispise him but i dont like him (i think hateing a person without knowing them is stupid.) but i still think your books are fantastic.

  21. claire on #

    but a writer’s writing is the product of her/his mind. and not just that, it’s the product of sustained thinking, imagining, structuring, and processing the material of daily life.

    and so are a person’s most publicly advocated political beliefs.

    yes, fiction and publicly expressed politics come from different places, but both are part of the intellect and mind-quality of a writer. if that writer gets something really, really wrong, you can be sure that that writer didn’t just get the one thing really wrong. there’s a flaw in that writer’s intellectual/emotional process. and that will affect how well i can suspend my disbelief (which is an act of trust in the writer) for their stories in the future.

    osc is a bad example for me b/c i liked ender’s game a lot, but didn’t love it. forrest carter’s the education of little tree is a better example. i read it in college, at a time when i really needed to read stuff about multiracial children choosing, and demonstrating their choice, to live a non-dominant-race life. “little tree” was a lovely story for me then, and I adored the book.

    later i was able to see how stereotyped the story was, so it wasn’t quite as devastating to find out that carter was no only not little tree, but was also a former klansman. carter’s writing of “little tree” is an interesting story, but knowing his political history definitely kept me from reading any further in his brief oeuvre.

    and i think it’s justified. saying that a person’s experience of the book can transcend the person’s knowledge of the author’s politics assumes that any reader is always going to be smart or perceptive enough to pick out any wrongness in the book. but we’re not all that smart, and none of us is that smart all the time. i think it makes sense to trust what a writer tells us about her/himself directly and let that inform what the writer is telling us about him/herself indirectly.

  22. Victoria on #

    I will only stop reading an author for their beliefs if their beliefs filter into their stories. I have never read Orson Scott Card, but if I did and I saw homophobia in his stories, I would stop reading. But a person’s personal life is just that, personal. I don’t care what they are like in real life, as long as their stories are good.

  23. Patrick on #

    Claire said “but a writer’s writing is the product of her/his mind. ”

    Yes, BUT not every writer casts themselves as a protagonist of every story. And not all stories lend themselves to all themes and view points.

    Just because an author is publicly opposed to people who cover themselves in peanut butter doesn’t mean they will always disparage P.W.C.T.S.I.PB.s in their writing. They may just not be represented or something.

    John Scalzi* is a good example of someone who’s fiction writing is often viewed as opposite his blog persona.

    *I’m not sure how he feels about peanut butter covered people.

  24. Nicholas Waller on #

    Cathy @ 17 – one interesting thing about the Protocols is that it (they?) started life as some kind of fictional satirical dialogue that had nothing to do with Jews; the text was later plagiarised and reconfigured. See : “The Protocols began as a satirical pamphlet by Maurice Joly, entitled Dialogues in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. This work did not involve Jews, but described a plot hatched in Hell that coincidentally matched the political ambitions of Napoleon III.”

  25. CB James on #

    Everyone has covered this topic pretty well by know, but I would like to point out a few things.

    First, reading a book is not the same as buying a book. When you buy a book you are giving some (yes, I know not very much) of your money to the author. If you know that author will use your money to spread ideas you find repulsive, either in person, in print or on an internet blog, I think you should reconsider buying giving that author your money. I live in a capitalist society, money talks.

    Second, I just want to point out again that loving my partner of 12 years and wanting to marry him is not the same as loving Elvis. I do love Elvis, and Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra, but it’s just not the same at all.

  26. Justine on #

    For everyone who is offended by my Elvis example—that was my poor attempt at injecting humour into this serious topic. I do not see it as equivalent to OSC’s hate mongering views which I find abhorrent. I’m sorry I offended you.

    I have never purchased one of OSC’s books. People like him do not get my money. As another commenter pointed out there’s a difference between who we read & who we’ll give our money to.

    I kind of wish I hadn’t sidetracked the discussion by mentioning OSC. He is too hateful for humour.

  27. Patrick on #

    I thought the Elvis bit was funny.

    And there’s far too much stupidity out there to maintain that level of activism of not buying books/going to movies/being entertained due to artist activism.

    Plus it’s what you don’t know about that should have you worried. Diana has been investing HER book riches on researching the creation of pygmy children for pets. Kids are cute, but they grow up. Pygmy children stay small and innocent(until they get blow guns) for life.

    Incidentally, I mentioned OSC’s rant to my wife who was the best ‘man’ in a gay wedding and recently bought the latest OSC book too. She said ‘Huh! He’s nuts. His books are getting worse*, too.’

    *She said it not me. I don’t bag on authors online.

  28. JS Bangs on #

    OSC is a funny case. If all I had was his fiction to judge by, I would have guessed him to have the opposite of his actual view. There is a character in his Earthfall series who is gay and whose homosexuality provides an important plot point. Another character is chastised for having published writings that were negative about homosexuality, and a benign hormonal explanation is offered for the origin of sexual orientation.

    Plus there was a ton of gay love between older men and younger boys in Songmaster.

  29. JS Bangs on #

    Oh, yeah, I also wanted to add that if I didn’t read authors with political or moral views I find abhorrent, I wouldn’t be able to read anyone.

  30. El on #

    I go through stages with people (whether they’re writers or not, but will talk writers here). If I have the impression a lot of people think they’re cool, I’ll go read ’em or whatever and–at least initially–give them the benefit of all SORTS of doubt. Or if I see them at a con and see that “This person is hella smart!” I’ll go read ’em.

    As time passes, I learn more about the person from their books, their interviews, their online presence, their con presence, and who they hang with. And I start refining. Some people, I just like better and better. Some people, I have a progressively harder time tolerating. Some people I like in person/online but can’t read their books; others it’s the opposite.

    In other words, there’s a lot of variation. But I figure it’s all fair. ‘Cause I get to think what I think, y’know?

  31. Jenn H. on #

    It’s funny. My husband and I were just discussing this yesterday, mainly because I am a librarian and it is interesting to see how my fellow librarians react to writers. Once they meet an author and discover that they are not quite the person they expected them to be, some librarians seem to have trouble recommending their books. Or just reading them. This isn’t true for all, by any means, but it can make you think.

    However, for the most part, we try to not let our personal opinions dictate what we will purchase for the library or recommend for patrons. But, our opinions might color what authors we will ask to attend events, especially if they have been rude to children. I have personally witnessed two cases of this, two authors who will likely never be invited back to a statewide book event because of their treatment of their child and teen fans.

    It’s sad really, since the kids still love them. But we youth librarians tend to be very protective of our patrons. As I said before, this doesn’t mean we won’t purchase their books for the library, or recommend them to kids, but it does effect our opinion of the writers as people. It is very disillusioning.

  32. Jennifer Knode on #

    I don’t entirely disagree with your points, and am myself a big fan of Hunger, but where I disagree is with your idea that the author can be absent from their writing. Reading this blog post about author theme and how that is different from novel theme, it made me came back to this entry to comment. I don’t think it has to be explicit, but I do think it’s there.

  33. Christie on #

    This has been bothering me for years, since that first screed by OSC made the rounds. It was deeply upsetting to me specifically because he writes such amazingly sympathetic characters — I come away from his books feeling that I understand even the worst of them. For him to get something that so fundamentally *wrong* that to me seems so basic was a shock. It made his work seem fraudulent.

    Temporarily. I went back and read more — his stories changed the way I saw the world, and I still aspire to being half as good at this as he is. Then I read the one Ender book in which a gay man appears, a totally unbelievable Mormon ideal of a gay man — considering himself sick and remaining celibate all his life — and I had to step away again.

    But when it comes down to it, I still love his writing. I bought two more copies of Pastwatch recently — I like to always have one for myself and one to give away, but I’m always more eager to introduce someone to it than to keep it so every couple of years I find myself Pastwatchless again.

    Neil Gaiman recently wrote on his blog, “…you should never meet your heroes, if you want to keep them as heroes.” ( I think the principle applies here — if we want to keep our literary heroes, we need to stick with their literature.

  34. JGS on #

    Like a number of people here I’ve been thinking about this lately… Is it OSC’s latest explosion that’s (seemingly) put everyone on this topic lately? I don’t have much to add really, but that won’t stop me from adding it! In convenient bullet-point form no less:

    *There’s a difference between someone who’s an a-hole, or whose politics (or musical taste*) you disagree with, and someone who espouses hateful or bigoted views (and yes, ‘hateful’ and ‘bigoted’ are both loaded and relative).

    *There’s a difference between someone who has different beliefs or values then you, and someone who loudly and publicly proselytizes those views.

    *If I’ve already read (and enjoyed) someone’s work, I’m more likely to continue reading their stuff even after they’ve expressed views I find repugnant (lucky for you, Dan Simmons). However, I’ll probably be less forgiving if I think the quality is slipping, and/or if they ratchet up the repugnant rhetoric (ha!).

    *On the other hand, I’m less likely to buy something from an author I haven’t read if I find their views distasteful for whatever reason. It’s just another reason to choose something else, in a situation where there’s generally plenty to choose from. If the book got all kinds of great reviews an/or was recommended by a trusted source, I’d probably still give it a chance. But on a level playing field, it gives me a reason not to pick something.

    My US$0.02, worth less by the minute…

    *I dig Elvis, me. I even have a collection of Elvis-abilia, or, as some might call it, junk.

  35. JS Bangs on #

    There’s a difference between someone who’s an a-hole, or whose politics (or musical taste*) you disagree with, and someone who espouses hateful or bigoted views

    There is? I’m not so sure. As far as I can see, the only difference between “bigot” and “someone I disagree with” is that “bigot” means “someone I disagree with a lot“. Everyone accuses their enemies of being bigots.

  36. JGS on #

    Everyone accuses their enemies of being bigots

    Well, no–not everyone.

    As far as I can see, the only difference between “bigot” and “someone I disagree with” is that “bigot” means “someone I disagree with a lot“.

    Hence: ‘hateful’ and ‘bigoted’ are both loaded and relative… I’m fully aware it’s a sliding scale.

  37. JS Bangs on #

    JGS: Fair enough. You did say that it was relative, though I don’t really see the point of asserting that there is a difference if the difference is entirely relative.

  38. JGS on #

    JSB: Putting aside the fact that I (personally) think there is a distinction to be made between ‘someone I disagree with’ and ‘bigot’ (beyond just degree of dislike), I was simply stating my own bias’ on the post topic. I never said they were anything earth-shaking.

  39. Mihaela on #

    A dead author I’ll read, no matter what kind of person she/he was. An author I personally dislike, I will continue reading if I really, really like the writing. But on some issues it gets bigger: for instance, I think gay is ok, and I won’t be buying anymore Card books – I figure that by buying them I give him money and being opposed to his views on such an issue, why would I endorse him financially in any way? I worked with gifted kids and had them read Ender’s game and sincerely I don’t like the fact that in idolizing the author, they might also be influenced by his opinions on homosexuality.

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