How to judge an author

A book the proves that story and context mean everything

A book the proves that story and context mean everything

Well, well, well, it’s been a while since we’ve had a decent author on author scrape in the world of publishing but thanks to a recent piece titled Heinlein, Hugos, and Hogwash by John C. Wright for the Intercollegiate Review feelings have been stirred, thoughts have been expressed, and rants have been rendered, most notably those of author Rachel Aaron. I have issues with both Wright and Aaron.

Wright is upset that science fiction authors are being silenced for their personal views. Much like the defenders of Donald Sterling insist he can’t be forced to sell his NBA team for making racist remarks, Wright believes Sci-Fi authors shouldn’t be punished for their statements on race, gender, sexual orientation, political leanings, etc. He begins his argument by insisting the father (oops, sorry if that’s sexist) of modern military Science Fiction, Robert Heinlein, would not win a Hugo Award in today’s Sci-Fi community. Why? Because Heinlein wrote provocative works that challenged the norms of his day.

Wright is making the same argument the generation before him made about the current state of things and the generation before that voiced the same concerns and the generation before that and so forth and so on. I’m sure Neanderthals sat around grunting out complaints about how utterly politically correct the world of cave painting had become.  We old-timers tend to do that. “Why back in my day we used to…” blah, blah, blah. Most of us have selective memories about what actually happened back in the good old days and get it horrifyingly wrong.

But nonetheless Wright sees a trend that worries him and he’s trying to put the wheels back on the bus. The problem is he doesn’t really make his point. He presents two of Heinlein’s books as examples of where the legendary author lays out his views and then Wright states that one title espouses right leaning social think while the other title espouses left leaning social think.  Wright’s intention was to illustrate that Heinlein had free reign to express his views without fear of reprisal.

Do you see the flaw? Heinlein didn’t adopt a social view and then put it in a story. He wrote two different stories that adopted two different social views. How can you judge a man that is a leftist, conservative, sexist, feminist that has a weird thing for bugs? The ideas in Heinlein’s books didn’t belong to him. They belonged to the societal construct of each story.

Wright goes on to give examples of modern day Science Fiction authors who’ve been attacked and ostracized for their personal views on topics that include homosexuality, immigration, racism, and sexism. His mistake is that he doesn’t recognize that these authors weren’t held accountable for their books. They were criticized and in many cases punished for their opinions expressed outside of their books. As is their First Amendment right, they spoke their minds, and for doing so, they were not thrown in jail nor did the government ban them from publishing a work of science fiction or any other material ever again. Yes, they were boycotted by groups, and they were kicked out of organizations and denied consideration for awards, but there is no constitutional amendment that guarantees you a nomination for a Hugo award or acceptance into a genre based literary association. Like it or not, it is fair and legitimate to judge someone for their personal opinions.

Wright’s final misguided notion is that he is of the opinion that an author’s ultimate value depends on how many awards he or she wins. If you’re writing with awards in mind, stop writing because you’re cranking out thin, worthless crap that no one wants to read, and it won’t win an award as a result. In fact, don’t write for the reader either. I love my readers, but I don’t write for them. In the case of my Oz Chronicles books, I write for Oz and Lou and Wes and all the way down the line to poor lowly Gordy. Those are the people I care about when I write an Oz book. It doesn’t matter to me that they’re fictional. My readers’ views and those of awards judges, even my own views don’t come into play.

Which brings me to my beef with Rachel Aaron. While we both agree that Wright’s views are a tad off-kilter, we do so from very different perspectives. She’s applying the argument that Wright thought he made but clearly didn’t to inform her opinion. That is that authors should not be punished for views expressed in their books. Wright fell short of making that argument because he never cited an example of an author being punished for views expressed in their books. Instead he gave examples of authors being punished for personal opinions expressed outside of their works.

That aside, here’s where Aaron went a little off track.

Authorship is an opinionated business. The very act of writing puts your core values and world view front and center. Your characters, your plot, your moral conundrums, the way you build your world–these are all reflections of you, the writer behind the curtain. If you hold and put forth opinions in your writing that other people find repugnant or offensive, they’re going to offended. And since you, the author, put those opinions in a public medium widely distributed and sold for money, otherwise known as bookselling, these offended people are going to criticize your work publicly. They’re going to say that these stories don’t deserve awards and/or public recognition because of the ideas espoused therein, they might even band together to get you booted out of your genre organizations, publications, and/or fan groups so they don’t have to put up with your crap anymore.

Only in the smallest possible part are my books reflections of me. They are by in large a reflection of my characters and the fictional world they’ve been placed in. True, I am at the helm of the story. I carve out the starting point and the stopping point, but that stuff that happens in between, I stay out of that. That’s left to the DNA of circumstances. The moral decisions made within the pages of my book are made by my characters. In Bad Way Out, E.R. Percy, the protagonist, is responsible for feeding a man to pigs. I would never make that choice nor would I encourage anyone else to make that choice. In The Takers, there are passages where it’s revealed that Oz was a bully in school. I wasn’t a bully in the least little bit. You can read every book I’ve written to date, and you will never be able to figure out my political leanings. Take away the author bio and photo, and you wouldn’t know if I’m black or white or Asian or gay or straight or a man or a woman.

Aaron in particular is not a fan of books “where women are nothing but sex objects and rape victims”. My C. Hoyt Caldwell books contain sexist passages. They don’t contain rape scenes, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write a rape scene in the future. I will if it serves the story.   And to be fair to Aaron, I don’t think she’d be horrified by that statement. The “nothing but” in her objection indicates that she’s not opposed to that kind of material as long as it’s not glorified in any form or fashion.

The problem is Aaron steps into dangerous territory when she writes:

I don’t care if you wrote the freaking War and Peace of sexist rape books, I’m not going to read it, I’m not going to vote for it for awards, and I’m going to tell other people to stay away as well if they don’t want to read sexist garbage.

Now, that might seem unfair. What about the story? What about the context?! But deciding I don’t want to read yet another sexist book full of women being violently raped for plot is my right as a reader, as is calling those books out publicly for what they contain. The same goes for racist books or homophobic books or any other form of bigotry, because I don’t want that poison in my genre. I don’t want it in my world, period. I can’t stop you from writing it or thinking it–that’s your right, your free speech–but just because you wrote it doesn’t mean we as readers and fans and members of the genre (which, by the way, belongs to all of us, not just those you anoint as “real fans”) have to read it or take it seriously.

This doesn’t just seem unfair to me. It seems like she is lurching towards censorship territory. Firstly, story and context matter greatly. As she indicated, she wouldn’t “read yet another sexist book full of women being violently raped for plot”. She’s judging a book she hasn’t read, and making an uninformed opinion about the author based on what others have said about the book. By this logic, she’d not read A Clock Work Orange because it contains depictions of rape and sexist passages. Secondly, by not wanting it in her world does she mean that she wouldn’t want her children to read it? What if a book like A Clock Work Orange was assigned reading in her child’s school, would she then go to the school board and demand that her child not to be forced to read a book with ideas she objects to? Would she fight to have it banned at her child’s school? Do you see the slope Aaron is perched on? Do you see her having trouble finding her footing?

The problem here is that Aaron and I have two different writing philosophies. Obviously, she puts a great deal of herself into her books. The ideas, opinions, moral decisions, etc. are all hers. Only a smattering of mine make it into the stories I tell, and that’s usually a coincidence.

My point is that I have no problem with people objecting to and staging a protest against an author for personal beliefs outside of his or her work. If an author makes a homophobic or racist statement in a public forum that angers you, do not read his or her material. Encourage others to not read his or her material. Why would you want to lend financial support to a person like that? But don’t assume you know an author is racist, homophobic, sexist, or holds any offensive beliefs based on what they write in a work of fiction.  Despite what Aaron says, story and context should be how you judge the use of any loathsome material.

Works of fiction have to be honest to be worth reading. If you remove references to sexism, racism, homophobia, or any objectionable belief system from your story because you don’t want to offend anyone, you’re writing something that is dishonest and truly offensive. A lot of the time the truth is messy and ugly. Don’t be afraid to go there because of it. Write all the abhorrent material you want, and I promise I’ll judge it based on context, but I won’t make any judgements about you.

6 thoughts on “How to judge an author

  1. Well said. I personally don’t use my writing as a political platform. It’s all about the characters, their stories and the truth as is necessary to the “realities” for said characters. I have characters who aren’t squeamish about torture. That doesn’t mean that I will happily torture someone.

    As my brother says, “You’re writing fiction. Just make that s&!$ up!”

    Maybe it’s just me, but it seems a lot of the opinions I am hearing are basically “I demand that you allow me my opinion, but if yours is different than mine, then I won’t allow you yours,” Free speech only if we agree with the loudest opinions.

    Yes, we are judged by others for our opinions. But at what point do we stop being hypocrites and start showing each other the respect we want shown to us?

    • I think you’re on to something, Y.I., and I love your brother’s advice, btw. I understand that I will be judged and misunderstood for some of the things I write. I’m okay with that. It’s just part of the territory.

      Writer’s have a sacred responsibility to imagine the consequences of choice. Sometimes those consequences are pleasant and sometimes they’re unpleasant. We are working in fictional worlds that mirror reality even when the material we are creating is fantasy and science fiction. To discount and ignore certain material because it is outside of our moral comfort zone is doing the story and, as an extension, the reader a great disservice. We aren’t gods creating a fictional world. We are witnesses reporting fictional events. Those events are either enlightening or atrocious. The organic rhythm of the story decides which it will be.

      • Too true. As writers, we should never be advocates of censorship for any reason. There’s always going to be something we don’t agree with or feel comfortable with. That doesn’t mean we have to dog someone out for their ideas and beliefs. Treat others with the same respect you want to be treated with, I always say.

      • “Treat others with the same respect you want to be treated with, I always say.”

        Perfectly said.

      • Thanks.

  2. Pingback: Why I joined Writers Speaking Out Loud | R.W. Ridley

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