Is a Good Book Still Good if the Author Isn't?
I have been thinking a lot about personal morals, and the impact it has had on the art form I love.
Specifically, it has been flowing around books from authors who have been labelled as terrible by mainstream media, either for their behaviour or beliefs.
Books I loved reading, books that had a profound impact on me. Some made me look at feminism a different way. Some made me question how I perceive romance and relationships. Some made me question how I position male authority in my life. Some were just great stories that I enjoyed reading.
Some pushed me to create of my own.
But sometimes, these authors, whose books I really love, have disappointed me with their personal lives being absolute shitshows. Orson Scott Card and Marion Zimmer Bradley are two prime examples. The Mists of Avalon is part of my Arthurian lexicon, and a huge influence in my feminist upbringing. Marion Zimmer Bradley has been accused of abusing children. Orson Scott Card's Enchantment whetted my interest in fairy tales and mythology fiction.He has long been labelled a bigot, and has often expressed his negative views on homosexuality.
More recently, the profound effect JK Rowling's now publicly outed beliefs around gender have had on the Harry Potter world is astounding. I feel for each fan (some I call good friends) who are now questioning their love for books that changed their life because the woman who wrote them has beliefs that are not in line with their own tolerance and acceptance. That sucks. I have not read all of the Harry Potter books. I watched all the movies. I'm not a big Harry Potter fan per se, but the stories are creative, fantastical, and captured the imagination of a generation.
Is that enchantment felt by millions all invalidated now?
Tough pill to swallow when the author has beliefs that go against some of the cornerstones of a generation's tolerance and diversity platforms that seem to be driving current acceptance narratives around gender and culture.
I want to separate the book from the person. I really do. But everywhere I turn, everything I read is saying "No, you can't! Turn away, absolve yourself of that piece of creativity because it is now tainted. You must now hate it." - polarization on a personal level. Never easy to navigate, and I balk against it because the stories and characters are still ones I really enjoy. Does that make me complicit, or a bad person too? Oi. A lot to unpack.
therefore, it brings up questions I am grappling with. Big ones.
If the author doesn't hold the same beliefs as the reader, are we validating that belief if we read a story, even if the belief mindset s not in the book? Are we tolerating awful behaviour if we continue to love the book? Are we endorsing real world abuse, rape, sexual assault if we read a book by the perpetrator and like it? Is our reaction to the story still valid, or must we now feel guilty about loving a story written by someone we would not associate with in real life?
People are going to be good, bad, ugly and all in between whilst creating unforgettable art, this is a given. Do we punish ourselves from reading/cherishing something that is life altering just because the author is a terrible human? Is the love we have for a particular book negated when we discover that author doesn't hold the same morals and beliefs we do?
I feel it is also a harder separation when you connect art with effort. I understand what goes into creating a (hopefully) good book. I live that yearning as a writer.
But I also know that a book is not necessarily in line with the author's world, it is a work of fiction (in most cases for the sake of this post) . We put our fantasies into our work, we often create plots that are something we wish for in real life. We heal trauma with our stories, sometimes too. There is a form of separation that happens, when we pour our own experiences and desires onto the page.
Broken, traumatized people who have different beliefs still make beautiful, valid art, in all forms. Van Gogh was crazy, by all accounts. Mozart and Beethoven were both very mentally unstable, Wagner was a womanizer. How many of our classic novels today were written by men that held culturally normal beliefs that now are considered not acceptable? Jack London was reported to be a terrible racist, Roald Dahl has been accused of being anti-Semitic, for example.
Let's not even go into the world of "me too" in the movie industry. The list of movies that have an accused sexual harrasser and rapist attached to them is really, really long.
I am not even going to touch on the stories that - at the time - were accepted narratives on minorities and women, that now would never be created, or if they were, shunned. Cultural bias, and adding the lens of today's cultural morals has upended how we view art from even twenty years ago.
These are hard, hard questions. The book still changed your life for the better, still gave you something priceless. But you don't want to support garbage people. Rock... Hard place, right?
Everyone has to make their own decisions around this. I truly believe it is not a "one or the other" decision, but a fluid choice made with each book or story you pick up:
Whether to read books by authors who have been accused of horrible crimes.
To listen to music by composers and singers who mistreat others.
To watch movies by people who have had their sexual misdeeds made public.
To love characters and stories by someone who is intolerant of others.
To love classic fiction even if it was written in a time that accepted mistreatment of other cultures
I will say this. I will not judge you if you still love Harry Potter, but don't pay attention to JK Rowling anymore, or decide you can no longer read the series at all. I will not judge you if you still watch Harvey Weinstein produced movies and love them, or burn your copy of Pulp Fiction. I certainly won't judge you for toe-tapping to classic Michael Jackson tunes, or hiss whenever an R. Kelly song plays. I won't worry that you love reading heterosexual romance novels, or only read in the LGTBQ/own voice sphere.
It is your choice, and must align with your personal beliefs and moral compass. But, I commiserate that the choice is not easy, nor are the questions around it.