Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."

by John MacBeath Watkins

A couple weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan asked what I think is a very good question: Should you judge a book by its author?

The book in question is Ender's Game, in which a child is manipulated into performing an act of genocide, because the adults can't figure out how to do it.

Ender is a character who has defined his author's career. Orson Scott Card has written books that are not about Ender, but they don't usually sell as well. But Ender's adventures speak to readers, as he is manipulated into committing a great wrong and must struggle with it.

I read the novella years ago, (it later became a novel with a series of sequels) and found there were no characters in it I wished to spend my reading time with. I do not count myself as a fan. But it's a powerful book, and an important one.

Sullivan's objection to Card is that Card believes homosexual behavior should be illegal. Here's the statement from Card, circa 1990, that he quotes:

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.
  Sullivan is, of course, gay. And he quotes Card's current view:
With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.
Which, of course, does not mean that he now thinks homosexuality is okay. There's a move afoot to boycott the film, soon to be released,  of Ender's Game, because of Card's past views on homosexuality and what are assumed to be his current views.

Card has focused much of his career on writing about an abused child, and a recent novella, Hamlet's Father, is a reworking of Hamlet in which the eponymous father is a gay child molester.The portrayal of him in this book brings back to the forefront Card's past attitudes toward homosexuals.

One of my favorite bloggers, Doctor Science over at Obsidian Wings, has this take on the controversy:

The story is not in any developed way about homosexuality, it is about child abuse. In that respect, it's very much like the rest of OSC's fiction, which focuses on the figure of an abused child with a consistency I can only call compulsive.

So (IMHO, IMHO, it's all just A Theory Which Is Mine) OSC wrote it wrong because he's unable to look clearly at the pictures he himself paints. A basic rule of fiction writing is "Show, Don't Tell" -- and what OSC *shows* is the traditional, patriarchal family as a nightmare of abuse, while what he *tells* is that these are the only "real families" worthy of respect.
 She goes on to speculate about why Card's muse, in her view, is an abused child. I don't know if she's right, but I do know that people who write insightfully about  terrible things must somehow have gained insight into terrible things. When Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler, he was racing against a deadline that, if he missed it, would have resulted in losing all of his rights to his past work, and this happened because of gambling debts. Joseph Conrad's greatest book, Heart of Darkness, bears some resemblance to a journey he took into Africa that ruined his health and forced him to retire as a sea captain and become a writer.

I doubt I would have liked Dostoyevsky. He was, by all accounts, not an easy man to get along with. But he wrote some of the most insightful things I've read. Crime and Punishment dealt with the superman ideal long before Nietzsche popularized it, for example, and should be required reading for anyone enamored of Ayn Rand.

Great authors are not trying to be your friend. They are trying to change your mind, by which I don't merely mean convince you of something. They are trying to change the way you see the world.

I've read and enjoyed many books that did not do this. Most of what I read does not do this. But occasionally, I read something like Heart of Darkness, and I feel different after I've read it. The complex prism of my point of view has been changed, and things will look differently to me. And because I see the world differently, I will write the story of my life differently from then on.

And sometimes, the main character has a tragic flaw. We're used to that. We know we don't have to like Humbert Humbert to think Lolita is a significant book.

So why do we expect to like the author any better? Whatever compels Card to write, again and again, about children who are faced with great wrongs, manipulated and abused by adults, is not likely to be something attractive.

There are famous authors I suspect I'd like. Henry Fielding, who was a reforming magistrate and wrote amusingly about human foibles, seems like someone far easier to get along with than Dostoyevsky, but there is no question in my mind about who's the greater author.

You can read Ezra Pound's Cantos without becoming a fascist, even though he became a fascist. You can like T.S. Eliot's work without condoning his treatment of his mentally ill wife, the unhappy marriage to whom he said gave him the state of mind reflected in The Waste Land.

Writers of fiction are almost by definition unreliable narrators of their own lives. As John Updike put it, "Fiction is part confession, part lie."

And, like any unreliable narrator, the author's lies may be the author's misconceptions, or the lies the author tells him or her self.

I don't know why Card holds the views he seems to. The guess Doctor Science made might be right or wrong. Whatever his reason for writing about abused and manipulated children, he does so with power; it seems to be a world he knows. I do not ask how that knowledge was won, though if he finds he can tell us, I'll be interested. Card is not a politician whose views on gay marriage or gay rights is pivotal to his role in society, he is a writer with insights into things that are dark and disturbing.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self