I wonder if I'll have to turn in my "Friend of Dorothy" card now.
Recently I dared to see Ender's Game, the target of an LGBT boycott campaign because the author of the book, Orson Scott Card, is an unrepentant homophobe.
And so he is; that much is clear. Card's remarks on same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general are patently offensive -- narrow-minded and despicable, in fact. He's not someone I would invite to dinner. He's not someone I'd willingly spend five minutes with. In fact, I'd probably tell him off to his face if I ever actually met him.
But I didn't meet him. I saw a movie.
This isn't the first time the personality of an artist has been raised as a reason to boycott his work. According to many, I'm not supposed to like Wagner because he was allegedly anti-Semitic. (He also happens to be the composer of the Ring cycle, one of the great masterpieces in the history of music.) A friend of mine, who was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English at the time, told me that she couldn't read Shakespeare anymore because he was sexist. (I guess his inability to foresee Gloria Steinem back in the 16th century was a moral failing.) And, of course, I'm not supposed to read Gone With the Wind because it's racist (despite the fact that Mammy is the moral center of the book, which is a 1,200-page indictment of its antiheroine, Scarlett O'Hara).
Of course, I don't presume to put Orson Scott Card on a level with Wagner and Shakespeare. Far from it. But that's not the point. It isn't only geniuses who deserve the right to let their work speak for itself, despite their own personal failings.
When it comes to choosing a book to read or a movie to see, my first concern is the quality of the work itself, not the personality of the artist. What offends me more, as a writer, is when a mediocre work is passed off as good just because it's in every way inoffensive -- that is, conventional and unchallenging, either politically or stylistically.
Not long ago, my book club selected a highly regarded contemporary novel, with so many blurbs from major writers and critics that the paperback edition required nearly 10 pages just to get them all in. I was mildly amused on page 1. By page 20, I was skeptical. By page 50, I hated it. But I plowed on, out of a sense of duty to my friends in the book club (one of whom had already read the book and loved it), and in the hope that eventually I would understand what the likes of The New York Times and NPR saw in the bloody thing.
So I read on. I read on for 500 lifeless, cliché-ridden, stylistically dull pages, and it never got any better. This was a novel (which shall remain nameless, mostly because bad publicity is still publicity, and I wouldn't want to wish this dreck on another reader) that was widely touted as "literary." Now, to me, a literary novel is one that has something interesting to say and says it in a beautiful way. The Hours is a literary novel. Beloved is a literary novel. This thing was a doorstop.
But I saw it through, and I complained about it every night, even read some of its more dreadful passages aloud to my boyfriend. After a while, instead of laughing along with me, he pointedly said, "Why are you reading this book when you hate it so much? When I asked you to read my favorite novel, you refused because it was science fiction."
And that was absolutely true. I was a literary snob.
So I took his favorite novel off the shelf and dove in. Within a page, I was intrigued. Within 10, I was riveted. And by the time I'd finished it, 400 pages later, I was ashamed of my knee-jerk dismissal of sci-fi.
My boyfriend's favorite book is called Speaker for the Dead. It's the sequel to Ender's Game.
Aware of Card's politics by then, I read Speaker very carefully, on the lookout for signs of homophobia. But I found nothing offensive at all. Quite to the contrary, the primary theme of the book is the need to understand and respect creatures who may be different from ourselves. Unlike a lot of genre fiction, which is often more about blowing things up than enlightening the reader, both Speaker and Ender's Game are allegories of peace, not war. They're about the ways that people are brainwashed by jingoism to dehumanize the enemy so that they will kill without compassion, and without regard to consequences. Moreover, the books accomplish this aim through eloquent language and a surprising level of psychological acuity. By those standards, they are literary. So is Brave New World. So is the movie Blade Runner.
These are stories that need to be told, stories that need to be read. It's the man himself that's the problem, not his work.
I certainly understand the temptation to boycott Card's work. Unlike Wagner and Shakespeare, of course, Card is still alive. When we buy his books, he gets a cut. The argument for boycott is that by giving him money, or by seeing the film, we are enabling him to think that his actions -- ironically, unlike Ender's -- don't have consequences.
Frankly, I wish this argument worked for me. I wish I could reject Card's books the way I've rejected Chick-fil-A and Barilla pasta. But those are commodities; there are simple alternatives to them. Art isn't quite the same -- or at least not good art. While DeCecco pasta serves exactly the same purpose as Barilla and is just as tasty, only Orson Scott Card writes Orson Scott Card novels. Only Leni Riefenstahl made Leni Riefenstahl films.
So I'm stuck with him. I pick up his book, or I enter the theater, and I try to forget that the work I'm enjoying sprang from the same mind that has said vicious things about my people. Maybe it's my Jungian nature: I believe that a work of art transcends the person who created it, that it springs from something deeper than an individual's beliefs and foibles.
I boycott art when it's bad art, not when it's bad politics. In the end, I'd rather give my money to a horrible person for writing a good book than to a saintly person for writing a bad one.
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