If you find an author's views objectionable, should you boycott their work?
The question has emerged as the movie "Ender's Game" is to be released this November. Though it's months away, a campaign by the group Geeks Out called Skip Ender's Game is already calling for a boycott because of author Orson Scott Card's views on LGBT rights.
Let's say that you, like so many, loved the book, and want to go and see this movie. Or you want to read the book then see the movie - but you still find Scott Card's opinions on human rights objectionable. What should you do?
There's a lot to unpick here. Here are some of the issues that this question raises.
• An author is not separate from the work they create. On the most basic level, that's clearly true. Books do not emerge from the heavens, using authors as lightning rods to connect publishers and eternal truth. Novels are written by people whose ideas, childhoods, beliefs, inspirations are placed in a hot subconscious for a few decades until they're ready to serve.
Some people's work is deliberately constructed around ideas of themselves and their character - Paula Deen, to take a now-notorious example - which means that anything objectionable about the person also impacts everything about their work.
However, a person who has bigoted views will not always create work that is itself necessarily bigoted (or, importantly, vice versa). Writers do not have complete control over the meanings and interpretations of their work, in their own age or those that follow, and themes that are unintentionally misogynist, racist - or pro-lesbian, pro-choice for that matter - might still emerge as clearly advocated in a text despite the personal politics of the author.
Perhaps the best thing is always to be aware that every cultural product you consume contains subtexts and interpretations beyond what the author might intend (but that also sometimes might be intentional) - and if you're reading a book by someone whose views about a particular percentage of the population you know to be controversial, be hypervigilant to see if and when their prejudice might be showing.
And it's doubly difficult to separate an author from their work, because...
• Publishers and media encourage us to connect books with their authors. We are in an age of the cult of author. If you have a new book coming up for a major publisher, they will expect you to become a personality, for both readers and media, across multiple platforms. No matter the subject of your fiction, your personal story will also be told and you'll find yourself in a dizzying carousel of interviews and blogposts in the month of publication, talking about yourself more than your book.
So however separate they might be thematically, if you've read much of Scott Card's opinions on atypical sexuality, you might find it hard to read his work dispassionately. You might also find it embarrassing to read his work in public, just as some shy away from reading the works of Ayn Rand or Karl Marx on public transportation. That's the flip side of the machinations of book publicity.
(Judge not the reader of a book in public, for you know not why they readeth.)
Hence, despite my above advice to readers about reading widely and carefully, publishers who are thinking of hiring Scott Card might want to think twice about the decision. The cult of the author means that you will be devoting some of your publicity resources to giving him a mouthpiece, and what he says will be on some level presented alongside your brand. Also, some groups may not be excited about the advance you paid him, which brings me to...
• Authors make money from books and movies. This is undoubtedly true (at least for the lucky few.) However much the filmmakers distance themselves from Scott Card's opinions, they doubtless paid a lot of money for the rights to adapt his book. This isn't really a surprise - the Hollywood Hills are pretty, but those sure aren't moral high grounds. Should the studio have refused to do buy this script, because some of the money would be going to someone who might donate it to anti-gay causes?
Maybe. Scott Card's cut was probably small in comparison to the movie's budget, but still substantial in itself. The ethics of capitalism are complex at the best of times, and it seems relevant to point out that the filmmakers seemed to want to make a movie that wasn't bigoted (as far as I'm aware, though other interpretations are likely available, and I haven't seen the movie yet.)
To be honest, I feel that merely asking these questions, and highlighting how objectionable Scott Card's views are, are themselves a bigger net positive than if no studio had dared go near the book for fear of a hypothetical backlash about the man. As a result of the campaigns and statements about him, a lot of people primarily now seem to know the author for his opinions. Without a movie billboard to hang it on, "old author has ugly views" wouldn't nearly get so much attention.
• Boycotting the movie makes a statement. Kind of, but there are a couple of issues here. First of all, there's no talk yet about making a second Ender's Game movie from the book series. Sure, if the movie is a flop then no sequel, but wouldn't it make more sense to boycott all movies by the film's producers until they apologized or promised not to pay Scott Card any more money? One flop won't threaten their livelihoods - they'll just move onto something else.
The bigger point though is this: not seeing a movie like tweeting "#SupportEgypt". It makes a statement but in a very low-key way. If you want to boycott it, then great, go right ahead. And if you truly want to demonstrate your objections to Scott Card's ideas, but really really want to see "Ender's Game," then go see the movie and give twice as much money as your movie ticket cost to a decent advocacy group that opposes his personal opinions.
Because to be honest, it really doesn't matter very much whether you go to a movie or don't, whether you read a book or not, whether or not you personally go to Chick-fil-A twice a year. Though mass campaigns undoubtedly can have an impact, especially in PR terms, a few dollars spent on a ticket are not going to make a huge difference one way or the other to the issue itself. It's a nice enough gesture if you want to make it, but more important is how you allow the debates that surround these questions inform your thinking, and help you understand how deep are your feelings about the issues. Look at the wider picture of society's bigotry, not just the ramblings of one grumpy Mormon church member whose views don't come as a huge surprise to anyone.
When you've thought that through, then don't not see a movie as your method of response. This is a negative non-reaction that does very little to help or hinder anyone. Instead, do something positive: spend time informing yourself of the issues, research local groups, volunteer, give money, write and circulate stories that contradict objectionable ideas - whatever you feel is most effective and realistic for you, as Geeks Out also suggests on its Skip Ender's Game page.
Yes, doing this will be a lot more work than simply going to see a different movie, but the results will impact you and everyone around you a lot longer than the duration of a film. And that, more than any movie ticket bought or not, will really, really piss off Orson Scott Card.
Correction: The article originally stated that the forthcoming movie "Seventh Son" was based on an Orson Scott Card novel. That was incorrect and has been removed.
This story appears in Issue 58 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, July 19.