Can nothing of worth come from someone who is racist, sexist, or homophobic? Should we reject any writer or artist – refuse to read/see/hear/acknowledge his or her works – because he or she holds views we find repellent? Should we have some sort of tolerance threshold, some level of flaws we’ll allow in a creative person before we say, “No more!” and refuse to consume any more of his or her products? And, in the age of social media, should we publicly call out these artists? Should we “shame” people for continuing to enjoy their art?
The question is often phrased this way: Can or should you separate the art from the artist? But I think it’s more complicated than that. There are so many other issues surrounding this central one.
The genesis of this post for me was the recent decision by the board of the World Fantasy Awards to change the look of the award statuette it bestows upon fantasy authors each year. Since its inception, the award has been a bust of the author H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, though revered as a writer (mainly by horror fans, I believe), is what you’d called “problematic.” He held racist and xenophobic views. These were evident in his letters, which may not have been made public during his short lifetime, but were also painfully obvious in a few of his stories and poems. So one author started a petition to have the World Fantasy Award bust changed, possibly to a likeness of author Octavia Butler (Lovecraft is known mainly as a horror writer, Butler as a science fiction author, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose). The petition was successful, and the bust will no longer be of Lovecraft. You can read more about the story here.
Now I love some of Lovecraft’s stories. I don’t usually write horror, but I would say that, by reading his works, I learned some things about the craft of writing, for which I am eternally grateful to him. I even based a recent short story of mine – “Polarity” – and one of his (“Polaris”). Yes, absolutely, when I read some of his racist words, my gut sank. It was disgusting, frankly. But somehow that didn’t – for me – taint all his writings.
Of course there have been times when a creative person’s public persona has made me feel unable to enjoy his/her output. When Charlton Heston became an enthusiastic booster of the NRA, and made his “cold, dead hands” speech, I’ll admit, my joy at watching “Planet of the Apes” or “Touch of Evil” was diminished. And sometimes it’s easy to “give up” a particular artist: if you’ve never been interested in Orson Scott Card’s books, for example, it’s not that difficult to boycott a big Hollywood production made from one of them (Ender’s Game).
What seems “newish” to me, though, is the many people who take to Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets to “call out” or “shame” anyone who continues to enjoy the work of one of these problematic creators. You need to be “schooled” in why it’s wrong, they say. “Continue to read so-and-so,” they offer, “but at least admit you’re supporting a racist/sexist/homophobe/etc.”
I suppose this sort of thing is a valid tool for change. Of course the shame merchants have the right to say what they do. And peer pressure can make people either change (at least publicly) or expose their darker natures. But some of it has this strange air of “I’m more pure than you.” You must meet the shame merchant’s standard or you are flat out bigoted and worthless.
So what’s “right” here? What is the right thing to do? I still read Lovecraft and admire his writing. What do I do? Do I admit I’m a racist? I don’t think I am. I am guessing most human beings have some racist aspects within their beings, whether they are conscious of them or not. But I don’t believe people are different/inferior/superior because of their skin color. So then am I supporting a racist? Well, I could point out that Lovecraft is long dead, so is getting none of my money. Would I read his works if he were alive and able to profit from them? I don’t know, truthfully. Should I be shamed for liking his writing (to be clear, that which does not contain racist themes)? If so, should I work to shame others for their likes as well? The argument could go round and round – someone criticizes me, I could find out what they like and why they are not as pure as they hold themselves out to be. “How can you slam me for liking Lovecraft, when you like [fill in a name here]?”
I’ll end by linking to some articles about some problematic authors. Are any of your favorites among them? Well, should you stop enjoying their work now, or what? Toss it into the dustbin of history? What would we gain and what would we lose?
And this is just Norman Mailer!