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.