Friday, November 13, 2015

Shame on All of Us

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!


  1. Nathanial, You were kind enough to comment on my thoughts, so I'll throw my two cents in here too. While I am a fan of Lovecraft's literary works, and fascinated by all of his many letters, I do collect many other authors too; including Octavia Butler. Even so, I found myself truly surprised when she was recommended as an alternative to Lovecraft as an award statue; because I just couldn't see the scale of her influence on the field as being close to that of Lovecraft. And forty years after the first World Fantasy Convention, I don't currently know whom the majority of attendees would choose as a current icon if they wanted to have another (Easter Island style?) face on a statue. On the issue of how we feel about the lives of authors, where they differ greatly from their writings that we enjoy, without naming names, I didn't realize how much I had been repulsed by actually meeting (at two different conventions in the 70's and 80's) two authors that I had collected for many years, until I noticed one day that I was no longer drawn to their books on my shelves; and I finally realized that they had both personally turned me off to the point that I could no longer separate my feelings about them from their books. It wasn't intentional, but I haven't read them since... Go figure. Will Hart

  2. Thanks for the comments, Will! I guess there could certainly be an added factor if an author of this type is someone who's still alive and able to profit from his/her work. I don't know. I have been put off certain cartoonists based upon interactions with them online, so I think I know what you mean.

    As I said on the HPL page, I think they should had an award without someone's face on it, AND they could have an award for HPL-style works with his name and likeness attached to it. But not a white supremacist one, like someone has recently launched!