What to Do When You Hate an Author
I looked through a Reddit discussion recently on authors readers hated. I was pleasantly surprised that most of the objections came down to the author’s style. People like Stephen King played higgledy-piggledy with his characters early in his stories. J.R.R. Tolkien reads like a boring travelogue to some readers. I myself have sworn off reading Neal Stephenson and Dexter Palmer, because of their style of writing.
And there are a lot of books in which we have to push through some bad elements to appreciate the good. I slavishly read most of James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series of sci-fi novels. I love their use of description (it’s a pseudonym for a pair of writers), their complex characters, and their interesting takes on politics, religion, and technology. But I chafe at their tendency to use too many different point-of-view characters and wait far too long to bring their storylines together. And often to complete a scene, you have to wait too long to come back to a character that was there to finish it.
But the discussion of hated authors often gets personal, especially in this new social media age, where their opinions are often clearly displayed online. Marion Zimmer Bradley, who gave the world The Mists of Avalon and dozens of other fantasy and science fiction books and founded the Society for Creative Anachronism, which now sponsors so many Renaissance Fairs around the world–she is also reviled by many. Her children came forward after her death and reported being sexually abused as children. Even though the abuse was principally enacted by her husband, she is criticized for letting it continue. Does that make her stories less enjoyable?
Unfortunately for many now, it does. I remember reading Orson Scott Card‘s stories, including Ender’s Game and its many sequels in my teens and early 20s. I was not out or newly out during most of that time, and I don’t recall any of the author’s socially conservative beliefs invading the narrative.
At least not overtly. Even in situations where he puts his characters in sexually segregated situations, they are all chaste. There is a noticeable lack of homosexuality in his books that tracks with his previously stated beliefs that homosexual marriages are inherently lesser than heterosexual ones, because homosexuality in his view is a deviant, chosen lifestyle similar to pedophilia and bestiality.
I was certainly one of the ones who turned against him when he started actively speaking about my inferiority and working to keep me from getting equal treatment under the law. I stopped reading his stories, and when I started writing stories, I avoided sending them to Intergalactic Medicine Show. The genre magazine Card started seemed to endure, and I was told that Card himself rarely takes part in the editorial decisions at IGMS.
I am still distrustful, but I have begun to selectively send his publication stories. All of the ones I send have gay main characters. So far they haven’t accepted any of them.
But how did we get to a place where what authors say and do in their private life so tarnishes their creative output? As I suggested in my last blog post, agreeing to read someone’s novel is like agreeing to be hypnotized. You have to trust that you will be treated well to make that agreement. Certainly part of my hesitance about reading Mr. Card’s works is fear that he will subtly demean me, even if through omission. Critics of the late Ms. Bradley would probably also worry about an insidious belief in the sexual availability of children creeping into her writing. We don’t undergo that sort of a contract without trust.
Greater sensitivity to being “triggered” (especially on college campuses now) shifts responsibility for self-care onto makers of entertainments to protect or at least notify audiences of topics that may or may not negatively trigger them. At the same time, the #MeToo movement has gone beyond making everyone aware of the prevalence of sexual abuse. Too many accused abusers now face dramatic consequences before the validity of the charges is ever weighed. The mere appearance of an accusation seems to make someone irredeemable.
Can we forgive Ms. Bradley for not protecting her children better? I hope so. The dynamics of abuse also affect bystanders, and it is hard to allow the idea that someone you love is hurting your children.
Should I forgive Mr. Card? Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage, he has dropped his opposition to it. He has retired from organizations fighting it. Shouldn’t I have more compassion for someone raised in a borderline-abusive religion like Mormonism and give him some time to overcome that?
I’m working on it. I certainly hope those who have accused me of being short-sighted or enabling oppression will work on it too. Authors are people on journeys too. We learn. We make mistakes. We try to use our influence for good. I’ve met so many authors who are extremely generous with their time and knowledge. They are often champions of volunteerism.
In a time of increasing tribalism that authoritarian regimes have been fomenting, it is a useful exercise to see what value we can find in the words of someone from an opposing side. Behind so many Bible-thumping Right-to-Lifers I have found women reeling from miscarriages and infertility. Behind so many rabid Republicans, I have found subscribers to the American Dream who are losing faith they will ever achieve it.
Every time we open a new book, we wonder where it will take us. You can always put it down, if you end up hating it, but I personally believe the solution is to read the rest of the book before passing judgment on it–or the author.