So, can we separate the work from the author?
I have read yet another discussion on Twitter on the subject of whether or not we should continue to enjoy the work of people who have proved themselves to be dreadful human beings. The person asking was asking genuinely. She said that Harry Potter and Buffy were her comfort reading/viewing. (Joss Whedon is the latest celebrity to disappoint his fans with his behaviour, possibly worse than J.K Rowling, who has been piled on for saying something stupid and offensive, whereas he harassed some of his cast quite badly. Most replies were telling her that it was up to her, and meaning it. One said that her children were Potter fans and she was going to leave it for now, till they were old enough for her to have a chat with, and even then it would be up to them.
Someone irritated me by saying that if she must read this stuff, she could borrow from friends. So...it was evil, but other people should continue having this stuff so that those who disapprove of it can still read or view it?
I didn’t respond to that tweet. I have kept out of this whole debate on Twitter, as people can get nasty about it. But it seems to me that you either read it or you don’t. If you just don’t want them to get money out of it, there are libraries, though a word of warning: in Britain there is Public Lending Right, which pays a certain amount for anything by the number of times it’s borrowed. We do have lending rights here too, and you just have to have a book in the library to get payment, but as you have to be local to access it, it wouldn’t benefit anyone outside the country. So, Aussies can borrow all the Harry Potter books they like without benefiting the author.
I was one of those who said it was up to her, and pointed out that there were a lot of truly horrible people who had created amazing stuff. If it’s not just a matter of giving the creator money, there are plenty of dead authors we can boycott, if that’s what we have in mind.
Agatha Christie? Antisemitic, though to be fair she did change her mind eventually. However, her presentation of Jews was, “He’s a Jew, but he’s quite nice.” And characters tend to call people from outside England foreigners even when it’s the English character who is the foreigner! Mind you, that may just have been a typical British attitude of the time.
There is one Poirot novel that I may not read again, due to its racism against an African student who was shown as a comical character, too dimwitted even to be considered as a potential murderer. I might donate it to a second hand or op shop.
Despite all that, I’m still reading Agatha Christie.
And speaking of Africans and racism, did you read any of the Doctor Dolittle novels as a child? I read the first two as an adult, but couldn’t read any more. A dimwitted African Prince appears in the first book and turns up again in the second, in which he joins the Doctor and his friends on their voyage, as ship’s cook, and isn’t too good at it. He gets accused of laziness by a damned parrot, who uses the n word. Yet some of the same people who were talking about burning their Harry Potter collection were chatting enthusiastically on Twitter about Hugh Lofting’s wonderful Doctor Dolittle books. I can only assume they haven’t read them since childhood.
Enid Blyton? Sexist, classist and racist(anyone remember those golliwogs in the Noddy stories? That was a huge thing many years ago). Yet her books are more popular than ever. And how many of us will ever write as much as she did? Or as widely, genre-wise? Publishers have, mind you, rewritten them, such as making the nasty schoolteacher Dame Slap into Dame Snap, because people might think there was violence against her pupils going on... Well, yes. That was the whole point. Characters have been renamed for the American market. Still. If you want to boycott her and refuse to let your children read her books, fine. Go ahead. They will probably find them somehow, just as I found comics when my mother wouldn’t let me read them at home. I read them at a friend’s place.
Sir Thomas Malory? Author of the book that has had the most effect on how we see Arthurian literature? Powerful stuff, written by a man who was in prison at the time. He even says so at the end, asking his readers to pray for the poor knight in prison.
Do we know why? If he is the Thomas Malory mentioned in documents of the time, he was in jail for something other than being on the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses, though he was (Lancastrian during the reign of Yorkist Edward IV). There is mention of burglary, robbery and maybe even rape.
Beethoven? Horrible to his nephew, and not someone you’d want for a next door neighbour. But composer of some of the most wonderful music ever written!
Wagner? I don’t even need to go into detail about his antisemitism, which is very well known. But nobody is banning his work, except in Israel, and I’m guessing that if the rule is still up now, it will be phased out when the last Holocaust survivors die. Between you and me, I’m no fan of his music anyway. It’s loud and vulgar, IMO, and I think the stories are stupid. The other year I went to see my last Wagner opera, which was on my Australian Opera subscription, and said to myself, “Enough! No more!”
But he influenced the likes of John Williams, whose music is glorious!
Last year, during the World Science Fiction Convention, George R.R Martin, author of the Song Of Ice And Fire books, aka Game Of Thrones, annoyed - really annoyed! - fans sitting through the Hugo Awards by waffling on about himself instead of getting on with it, making the ceremony a lot longer than necessary, and, even worse - talking a lot about John W. Campbell, who was one of the major founders of science fiction, but also a racist, whose award for new writers had recently been given a new name, something Martin surely knew. I think he may have been forgiven by now, as I haven’t heard any more about it.
Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov? Brilliant science fiction writers, both of them, but known in fandom as men who groped women. I hadn’t heard that their work was banned or burned. It’s still in print.
If you want to know the nastier side of Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of some classic fantasy and SF, I’ll let you look it up - it’s too horrific to describe here. But her books are still on sale, and as far as I know there is still an anthology series with her name on it. Fans know! But she has been gone for a while, and people will forget, and young fans won’t have heard of the accusations against her.
One thing I won’t have is book burning, though. On Twitter I have unfollowed and muted a number of people who were talking about burning their J.K Rowling books - and one who said she wanted to reach for her matches when she saw those books in the bookshops. Her business, but I don’t have to read anything else she says on social media.
I won’t have it! When you start book burning, you are standing with certain other book burners in history. I understand people feel let down and disappointed, all the more because people who loved her books are now referring to them as “trash fires”. They are hurting. I totally get that. I won’t buy any more of her work. Borrow from the library, maybe, if curious, but I doubt it. The Potter books were her masterpieces. I quite enjoyed two of her crime novels, but can live without the rest.
But talk of book burning makes a shiver run down my spine. If you start by doing that to books you disapprove of, you will have to accept that the nut cases who ban or burn books you approve of are entitled to do that too. In fact, the Harry Potter series has been banned by religious schools that have completely different reasons for doing it, something ironic.
And for the record, there were some nasty books in my library, including a couple bought before my time for Year 11 Politics, and I didn’t burn them, though you couldn’t separate those from the authors. If I withdrew them, it was because Politics was not being studied any more. But nothing went into the furnace.
So, what do you think? Can we sometimes separate the author from the work?