A Slap on the Wrist

First published at LitReactor.com on June 5th, 2012:

A few weeks ago, I wrote a news post that I would hardly call news. I considered it more of an update on what had been public knowledge for some time: that Orson Scott Card, brilliant science fiction author and rampant homophobe, was at it again. Card wrote a rather inflammatory column for his hometown newspaper that can be viewed in its entirety HERE. The comments on my article were a mixed bag. Some readers were shocked and appalled, and vowed never to read Card again, but the vast majority shrugged their shoulders and echoed my own views: that the reprehensible personal views and/or actions of artists shouldn’t be considered when forming an opinion of their work.

As I am wont to do, I immediately began questioning my own line of reasoning. Why do authors, more than any other type of artist, get a pass? When R&B singer Chris Brown assaulted his long-time girlfriend and fellow artist Rihanna, it wasn’t long before outraged fans were vowing to never listen to his music, and the Internet was abuzz with folks condemning the MTV Music Awards for allowing Brown to perform as scheduled (a move many saw as a passive endorsement of domestic abuse). A short list of musicians who have been chastised for their checkered personal lives includes Michael Jackson, George Michael, Rick James ,Phil Spector,  Chuck Berry, James Brown, Eminem, and the Beatles. It should be noted, of course, that as time went on, the old adage proved true: there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Gone are the days when marrying one’s fourteen-year-old cousin (Jerry Lee Lewis) tanked one’s career, but the lip-service indictments remain.

Authors, on the other hand, are almost always excused for their relentless lack of character. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. William Burroughs shot his. If these examples are too extreme, you can look at Joshua Chaplinsky’s retrospective on the Greatest Literary Jerks of all time for a full rap sheet of bad author behavior. The very existence of such an article confirms what I’ve long suspected: we not only excuse our authors from being assholes, we celebrate them for it. Furthermore, it’s not just the personal lives of our beloved pen-wielders that get excused, it’s the content of their work. Charles Bukowski is a raging misogynist, drunk, racist, and sometimes homophobe, but he’s still beloved by progressive college students and budding alcoholic poets alike. The same could be said for Hemingway and Fitzgerald (though it could be argued that they were products of their time).

So why do we turn a blind eye towards the bad behavior of our scribes? Part of the answer has to do with tradition: authors, and creative types in general, have a long and rich history of perception. The prevailing wisdom goes that brilliance is either produced by or symptomatic of inherent human flaws. We like to believe that the geniuses who produce unparalleled works of art are somehow separate from us, perhaps out of envy. It might make someone feel better that they didn’t write Nevermind when the perceived associated cost was a round of buckshot to the brain. Nobody knows for certain whether or not there is anything inherent in being creative that necessitates being a broken-down mess in other areas of life, but we certainly have our fair share of authors that reinforce this notion.

However, as stated before, other artists belong to this tradition as well, yet are taken to task much more frequently than their peers who deal in the printed word.  This may have something to do with the fact that a lavish life of luxury and influence has not recently been associated with the world of literature. Generally speaking, musicians and actors are given less leeway when it comes to evaluating their character, since the average theatergoer or CD-buyer (do those still exist?) tends to think of these celebrities as extraordinarily privileged, and sympathy for the wealthy and powerful, particularly in troubling economic times, is scarce. Here’s an interesting thought experiment: think of the most successful authors in the world of modern literature, and imagine what might happen if they went into a very public tailspin. Would the public’s admiration for Harry Potter or A Game of Thrones be nearly as high if it were common knowledge that J.K. Rowling beat children or that George R.R. Martin was cruel to animals? I’m omitting drug and alcohol use for a reason: this seems to be the one vice that is ultimately forgivable amongst all celebrities. If you don’t believe me, look at the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and Stephen King.

Sadly, the most likely culprit for this phenomenon is due to the rising invisibility of authors and books in general. With a few notable exceptions, most authors, even successful ones, toil in the shadow of their work, a condition that exists in no other creative medium. Tom Cruise isn’t “the guy from Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible is a “Tom Cruise movie”. We don’t consume films or albums; we consume the lives of performers. Disturbing though this may be, it makes perfect sense that modern audiences are so appalled by seedy personal lives made public: if you’re taking the life of a celebrity as a wholesale package, you feel compelled to comment and make value judgments on the seediest parts. Readers, on the other hand, if they ever consume the life of an author, typically do so to better inform the art they are consuming. For example, your reading ofFight Club might be a lot different once you found out that Chuck Palahniuk was gay, yet batshit neo-conservatives have never once, to my knowledge, protested Fight Club as a “gay novel” (this may just mean that bigots are terrible at reading subtext). While I’m personally glad that (most) people seem to consume literature in this way (though quite a few folks reportedly swore off Orson Scott Card after that Greensboro article), it’s troubling that the way most people in this country consume media seems to be changing.

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