As someone who writes, I am well aware of the need for an author to have a public persona. What I put out on this blog, on social media, at local readings and events–this defines me as a writer as much as what I publish.
As a reader, I am aware that I care about who the people are behind the words and stories. I won’t buy new Orson Scott Card books, and find myself much more critical of his work, because of his rampant homophobia and ties to the National Organization for Marriage, i.e. a hate group dedicated to making same-sex marriage illegal. (AIthough apparently he resigned from the board after getting professional fallout.) I am disturbed by news that Marion Zimmer Bradley was a child molester, and that makes me read the sexual excess of The Mists of Avalon in a different light. It’s awful. When news like this comes to light, I feel betrayed: how could someone whose work I admire be so horrible? (Perhaps I wonder what that says about me, that I liked a thing made by an awful person.)
Not every case is so dramatic. I still like Ryan Boundinot’s novel Blueprints of the Afterlife, even though Boudinot recently wrote a mean-spirited article that perpetuates some of the more inane myths about writing. It’s been commented on a lot, and I don’t feel the need to go on and on about it. I know I’ll think twice before buying a new Ryan Boudinot book, but I probably still will because I like his fiction. Nontheless, the ripples within the Seattle writing community are affecting him already: his board resigned for the project he started, which was getting Seattle recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature. Now that project is on hold.
On the flip side of the coin, I love it when authors (and other creators) do awesome stuff. Comics authors like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue Deconnick are vocal champions of women working in comics and diverse representation in comics. Jordie Bellaire (a colorist) spearheaded the Comics Are For Everybody campaign, which is about diverse fandom in comics. The late, great Terry Pratchett publicly championed his favorite causes, including preservation of orangutangs and research into curing Alzheimer’s. I have become interested in the works of authors like Saladin Ahmed because of their Twitter presences. I like authors who are interested in issues that I also care about.
But let me complicate the issue: many revered authors of the centuries were terrible people. Heck, my perennial favorite Dante Alighieri was a political panderer (putting his patrons in Paradiso and his enemies in Inferno) and a creeper towards Beatrice in his actual life. But it’s illogical and unfair of me to put modern morals on older writing or writers. I can’t expect Shakespeare to have the nuanced feminism of a modern writer. I can’t expect medieval writers to have any kind of a concept of homosexuality as an identity rather than a behavior. The context of history matters, and analyzing an author’s life is significant, but only one part of what to look at when it comes to their work.
Coming from a literary theory perspective, there are two things at play here: biography, and authorial intent. Looking at the biographical information of an author is one way to look at their work, but it’s limiting if that’s all you do. When an author writes something, that work exists outside of them, released into the world. How it fit into their life and what they intended to do with it are worth considering, but not the be-all and end-all of literary criticism. Because words are slippery creatures, there are layers of meaning in any “text” (words, images, film) that the authors may or may not have intended. And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter what the author meant, not on the reader end of things. One could argue that a measure of craft skill is how closely the author has transmitted their thoughts and feelings to the reader. But many, many schools of critical thought have moved past authorial intent as a particularly significant aspect of a work.
So what of it? What authors meant to do in a work, what they do with their lives: these both affect and don’t affect my reading of the text. My relationship as a reader to the author is not the same as my relationship as a reader to the text. I think it’s easier to separate the author from the work with time. In the now, real political forces are really affecting my personal writing career as well as the lives of writers and people around me. The political is often intertwined with the personal. I want to help writing communities I’m a part of become more just and equitable. I also don’t want to cause more harm than I fix, becoming quick to cry j’accuse and exclude anyone I don’t perceive to fit with my values, perpetuating Call-Out Culture. At the same time, some things that happen in the author communities I’m at least peripherally involved with are truly awful, and I won’t suffer that silently. So how an I affect positive change as an author? How can I deal with the barriers that are put in front of me? How can I reconcile authors and their texts?
I don’t write all this to give you The Answer to anything. I write this to ask questions, and to delve into the stickiness that comes up in my head when I think about this stuff. What do you think? Let’s chat.