Controversial Authors, Non Controversial Books, and the Moral Dilemma
I’ve never read Ender’s Game. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, but I’ve recently felt that the chance may have passed me by. I found out recently that the author, Orson Scott Card, is outspoken about some beliefs that I find personally horrible and that he puts his money where his mouth is. Now that I know, it’s hard for me to pay money for the book when I know he uses his earnings to fund causes I hate. Moreover, it’s hard to enjoy the book divorced from my awareness of who wrote it.
I can’t help but feel that I’m taking a shortsighted position. Card weaves what I am told is an undeniably exciting and well-crafted tale that has nothing to do with his beliefs. He is justifiably respected as an author for this book, so doesn’t he deserve to be read and compensated for his work? If Ender’s Game is truly the great work of science fiction that people say it is, it would be an unfortunate loss to the world if it wasn’t read. As we finish celebrating banned books week, I can’t help but wonder if I am creating my own personal ban by refusing to read the work of a man I disagree with.
There’s a strong argument that literature should stand on its own, regardless of the authors’ intentions or any background knowledge about the authors’ personal life. Card is the latest in a long line of good-work-bad-people authors that readers must wrestle with. Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot were anti-semites, Norman Mailer tried to kill one of his wives, William S. Burroughs actually did. Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul has said that he’s “a better writer than any woman who ever lived”, and Charles Dickens was extremely cruel to his wife. So. Should we read their work? Yes, we should. Art transcends the humanity of the artist. Of course, most of those authors have the benefit of being dead; I can be sure any money I pay for Eliot’s The Wasteland isn’t going through him into the coffers of the Nazi Party, these days.
Maybe that’s what it comes down to, in the end. At the same time that I have grand ideals about art and the ability to enjoy it regardless of artist, I also believe that I must be a responsible consumer. I’m pulled between two moral positions- the belief that an artist should be rewarded for their work, and the belief that my money shouldn’t (knowingly) go to a cause I despise. It’s hard to concentrate on enjoying a book when I can’t stop thinking of where my money went. It’s a thorny issue, but when it comes to books, there’s a grand compromise: heads to the library, or buy it used!