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The Ethics of Artistic Consumption: Seinfeld and Orson Scott Card

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Remember the controversy a few years ago when Michael Richards made his infamous and unfortunate remarks about “stringing up” a heckler? I recall a lot of speculation as to whether his outburst reflected his true inner feelings or whether he was simply backed into a corner on stage and had no idea what he was saying.

Right now I’m less interested in the answer than in why we asked the question. Were we hoping that with enough discussion and investigation, we would eventually come up with some explanation for his behaviour that would be good enough? Were we hoping it would all turn out to be a misunderstanding? Perhaps. Because if we can’t manage this, then another question is immediately raised: If Kramer turns out to be a racist, are we still allowed to watch the show?

The old quandary of separating the art from the artist has been on my mind lately for a different reason.  A few years ago I finally read a book which is deservedly hailed as one of the all-time classics of the science fiction genre, Ender’s Game, and was absolutely blown away.  I’ve given copies away as gifts.  There’s a reason Orson Scott Card won both the Hugo and Nebula, for two consecutive years, for both this book and its immediate sequel.

But shortly after devouring the book — along with several of the aforementioned sequels — and wondering why I had taken so long to discover this author, I did what I often do with an author I really like, and checked out his  web site.  I discovered he was pro-Iraq War, and a devout Mormon. I’d seen enough to know we weren’t on the same wavelength, but his books were still good, so I closed the browser and left it at that. I was sure I could come up with some sort of dinner table disagreements with just about any author I enjoy — if I had the good fortune to share a meal with them in the first place, and the poor manners to pick a fight.

Having made such a decision, I congratulated myself on my open-mindedness, and continued to enjoy books by Orson Scott Card while avoiding anything else from him.  Then, a setback.  Despite my best efforts, I ended up stumbling upon this quotation of his on the subject of gay marriage:

Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy.  I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.  Only when the marriage of heterosexuals has the support of the whole society can we have our best hope of raising each new generation to aspire to continue our civilization.

My question of separating the art from the artist had come back, with a vengeance.  This is a man who is actively fighting with all his resources — including the financial position and name recognition fans like myself have provided him in purchasing and talking about his books — against gay rights.  Even if I can still separate the man from his work, certainly consumer decisions do have political consequences; thus the Fair Trade movement, and country-specific trade embargoes.  Is reading his novels still an option, if I want to consider myself an ethical consumer?

As long as his writing continued to be good, independent of his whacked-out personal beliefs, this would be a dilemma for me. But as I started paying much closer attention to his writing, I wondered if this was really the case.

As the series goes on, his personal point of view, often absent in earlier books, begins encroaching on his world. It gets ridiculous later in the Shadow series, when two of the battle school graduates from Ender’s Game have grown up — sort of.  They’re in their mid-teens, and have started noticing the opposite sex. In another author’s hands, you might expect some inexpert flirtation and perhaps an awkward first kiss.

Not Card’s teens.  Card’s teens feel, deep down in their soul, that they’re so in love they should get married right away and have lots of babies.  They just know, somehow, that this is the most important thing they can do in their lives (they’re in the midst of saving the world for the second time).  They end up having nine children via artificial insemination (long story), and I can’t seem to recall if the titular hero of the series ever managed to get to first base with his girlfriend before agreeing to marry her and father entirely too many kids.  This doesn’t seem like believable 15-year-old behaviour.

I had made efforts before to separate the man’s beliefs from his work, but it was fast becoming clear that Card no longer made any such effort.  Rarely does Card acknowledge the existence of passion, or even simple teenage hormones.  When he does, it seems that he is really instilling in the reader a moral lesson about resisting those kinds of base urges. Homosexuality, in Card’s universe, does not seem to exist, nor promiscuity.

Meanwhile, theological discussions, sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes quite explicit, occur with unrealistic frequency.  While there are apparently a multitude of viewpoints, those few characters of his that are truly agnostic seem scripted to lose every argument on the point.  Later in the series, experimental scientists discover souls.

Was this Christian fiction?  Was this the Mormon equivalent of The Screwtape Letters?  If I wanted increasingly poor writing and a made-up universe designed to support one person’s religio-political views, I would have read the Left Behind series.  I felt vaguely insulted that he expected such proselytizing to work on me: a devotee of the science fiction genre, where rationality is king.

For several books now, as I’ve continued to guiltily read the controversial Card, the experience has turned out to be less and less worth it. I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but even his basic writing skills are appearing more and more amateurish, as if he’s given up trying to make his books work as novels, and is relying on the momentum of the series to keep his books selling. Meanwhile, his moral lessons are more and more heavy-handed.

After reading Ender in Exile earlier this year, I finally made the decision to walk away once and for all. Not for ethical reasons, truth be told, or I would have done so while I was still enjoying his work. I’m done now because Orson Scott Card the person has become sufficiently indistinguishable from Orson Scott Card the writer that the latter no longer has anything to offer.  All there is now is Orson Scott Card, religious right-winger, bigot, abuser of narrative. And I’ve had enough of him.

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About J.J.S. Boyce

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/alan-kurtz/ Alan Kurtz

    Thank you for this article, which I really enjoyed. It’s a fascinating topic.

    I’ve been a lifelong jazz fan, and as a youngster idolized my favorite musicians. As I got older, and learned more about them, I discovered that some of the greatest performers were despicable human beings.

    As you describe, it’s impossible to separate an artist from his or her work, so complexly interwoven are the two. We must therefore either continuing admiring certain artists, admitting their tragic flaws, or drop them like a hot potato. You decided to drop Orson Scott Card. I realized I couldn’t live without Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, and so made my peace with their inner demons even if they never did.

    In any case, it’s not always clear how much an artist changes over the course of a career. “As the series goes on,” you write of Card, “his personal point of view, often absent in earlier books, begins encroaching on his world.” There are at least two explanations. Perhaps success emboldened him to present more of his ideology. On the other hand, maybe he hadn’t embraced such ideas at the time he produced his earlier work, and manifested them only as he gradually came to feel their force.

    Either way, it stands to reason that an established artist would feel more confident in expressing a personal point of view. And the market would increasingly bear it. After all, who cares what some artistic nobody thinks? But a Famous Artist? Yes, by all means, we want to know.

    I acknowledge that this can lead to a kind of prurient interest. Famous artists, however, are public figures. In some cases their every utterance, no matter how thoughtless (vide Michael Richards), is transmitted for mass consumption. Yet no matter how much this may diminish them as individuals, it needn’t interfere with our appreciation of their work. Kramer should not be less funny because Michael Richards turned out to be a racist.

  • Keith

    Even being gay, I had the same dilemma with Card. I came to the conclusion, though, that I simply could not support him in any way, since he avows that he will stop at nothing to deprive me of my Constitutional rights. Sometimes it’s okay to put an artist’s personal life to the side. Sometimes, you do it at the cost of your own soul.

  • brad

    I was molested as a kid, but I still listen to the pedophile Michael Jackson. Get over your own feelings about someone’s actions and live life the way you want.

  • Porterfield

    Well, we could start calling right wrong and wrong right. Better yet, let’s organize a political body to do this for us; we’ll call it the GLBT. And we’ll highjack an old political manifesto called Mein Kampf and use it as a template for all our partisan actions. Oh wait, someone already did that.

  • Susie

    I actually know him in real life and he’s not afraid to speak of any subject and is quite aware of promiscuity among teens and homosexuality, etc. He’s totally “real” about all those topics. And he’s most definitely not a bigot, if you really knew him. I was a fan of his books long before I knew him but if you knew the things he did and how generous he was with his time and money and helping people, you actually would genuinely respect the guy. Do you guys have different views about God and homosexuality and marriage? Yes! But why hate and name-call? We’re not five years old. We can tolerate differences of opinion. At least he can…can you?

    Now for what you’re saying about his writing or his books, that’s completely separate from his character. I don’t appreciate things being so divisive because of differing viewpoints about gay marriage, etc.

  • Dee

    Can you really separate spiritual and physical, heavenly and earthly, art and the artist? The [Mormon] laws of science and heaven and earth are inseparably connected, yet most scientists cannot look past their nose to see the sky. Doesn’t the law of Entropy prove that the universe didn’t just happen? Is there a single species that can reproduce without the opposite sex? Where is the order in your thought process? Agree to disagree on minor things like entertainment, not morality and sin and death.

    Card is on a different wavelength than you. He knows about the creation, he knows about what God expects of us. He actually has to dumb it down for most in order for them to get it. For most Christians going to church is a rare thing. For those few that go weekly do they really believe and try to follow during the week what they learned on Sunday? People all know right from wrong. You can deny it or accept it but doing what’s wrong doesn’t make it right. Even the law of land doesn’t make the wrong right. Wickedness was never happiness.

  • Jennifer

    Re: “If Kramer turns out to be a racist, are we still allowed to watch the show?”

    You can indeed watch Seinfeld re-runs guilt free. This article should ease your mind. ;)

  • Murdock

    Imagine if you were Mormon and decided that you could not tolerate books, movies and music by artists whose moral views (or lack thereof) were antithetical to your own values? There would not be much left to read, watch or to which to listen. Do you think that Orson Scott Card does that? Do you think that many Mormons do that? In contrast, boycotting the work of Mormon artists, carries insignificant costs. The sniveling in this blog post does not impress me. Mormons, in contrast, have to confront, daily, hourly, a world which is hostile to everything which they are.

  • Synesthesia

    Oh, I know how this goes. I’ve been a reader of OSC for years, since Jr. high school. I’ve noticed that his books have come more and more preachy. OSC takes over characters and uses them to push his point of view. It’s a bit irritating. Ender in Exile was nothing MORE than nagging about marriage and babies to the point that the characters weren’t interesting and intense anymore. They were more like 2 dimensional cardboard cutouts with bubbles saying things like heterosexual monogamous marriage is the only way to raise healthy children.
    It got old and too simplistic, so I choose to read things I’ll enjoy. Stephanie Meyers is Mormon and I think her books are entertaining.
    Also, I’m not hostile towards Mormons, Murdock. The problem is the whole let’s focus on gay marriage thing instead of focusing on the real problems that actually hurt marriage. It makes no sense to put so much time and energy into pestering gays when you can instead do something more useful with your time and money.
    I’ve tried to give Card a chance. I don’t hate him. He made me cry with Lost Boys, his best book in my opinion. It’s hard to hate someone who can be so warm and kind about having children. But, I do not like his point of view about gays. I will speak out about it and be polite about it.

  • http://www.kevintumlinson.com J. Kevin Tumlinson

    “Ender’s Game” was the book that made me realize I could be a writer. It was years after reading all-things-Card before I even knew he was Mormon. As far as his views on homosexuality, he’s used that as a theme in at least one book to my memory (“Songmaster”).

    I’m a conservative-ish Christian (non-Mormon). I have my own personal views about homosexuality (I believe it’s a choice, not a biological imperative). I’d like to think that despite my beliefs and idiosyncrasies, my writing is about something deeper. I feel that way about Card’s work as well.

    A lot of the world’s art and literature came from sources that were less than representative of the whole of society. That’s putting it kindly, of course. But in the end, the value of art and literature is entirely in the interpretation of it by the viewer, and the author be damned.

  • http://www.dangerousromance.onsugar.com Laurie200

    I thought the first 3-4 books in OSC’s Ender series were brilliant. I think the series started changing, perhaps as his views became more and more entrenched and his success became more mainstream.
    I think that a lot of people are looking at OSC and his comments on the Micro level (for example-should I buy/notbuy his books because he is homophobic.)
    How about not buying his books because he is anti-american. If he really said the quote above, how is that not terroristic speech? Our country is founded on religious liberty and the rights of all people to pursue happiness if in doing so it doesn’t trample on someone else. We are in the process of struggling as a nation to consider the rights of individuals who for what ever reason, have a “personal” sexual orientation different then the norm.
    Now read his quote again carefully…

    “Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”

    IF OSC actually said those words, and I would really like to see where that quote came from, when he said it, and where…think about it. He is saying, if our country legalized gay marriage.. AMERICA is his mortal enemy, and he will actively fight to bring it down.”

    Seriously people, THAT is what should concern you. THis guy isn’t just a nut job, he is a nut job with dangerous leanings towards being a terrorist if our country becomes more inclusive socially. That right there will make me NEVER read, buy, or support in anyway his writings. I’m a a straight christian but I believe in people’s rights to live their lives for who they truelly are and who they sleep with is a. no threat to me and b. none of my business. And if American voted today to legalize gay marriage across all 50 states, my life would be no different tomorrow. As far as I’m concerned, we are reaching maximum capacity on this planet. We need more gay couples who for the most part aren’t bringing kids into the world, and they are adopting those who need homes. And for that, OSC wants to actively tear down our country. I see above posters who are talking about how hard it is to be a Mormon because of the intolerance they receive, yet look at the intolerance that is being said by members of their church.
    If someone else was saying things like that, he’d be on an FBI watch list. If someone who was an American who was Islamic said that, people would be frothing at the mouth. I don’t think because the guy is a white Mormon he should get a pass.

    Laurie