Should a great book be shunned because its author is a major jerk? And if the answer’s no, what about a merely good book?
An author’s sweat, imagination and ideas go into a book. A part of them. “Other than original manuscripts, [a first edition] is the closest most readers can get to an author,” writes Allison Hoover Bartlett in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. (The library has the six-hour audio book read by Judith Brackley, and it’s the fascinating story of bibliomaniac John Gilkey, who seems unable to stop himself from stealing rare books from dealers around the world.)
“This sense of a book as an extension of a person is not remotely new. In 1644, John Milton wrote: ‘For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them, to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are. Nay, they do preserve, as in a vial, the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.’”
In 1900, the poet Walt Whitman echoed the belief: “This is no book – who touches this touches a man.”
So what to do? Does reading a book, then, imply approval of the author? Must a work of literature be judged by the morals of its creator? Or does it stand on its own?
And for good measure, here’s one more question. What about at yet another remove: Does watching a book-based Hollywood blockbuster imply approval?
Of course, there’s another layer to add. One person’s jerk is another’s political hero.
Take the writer Orson Scott Card, whose novel Ender’s Game is a sci-fi classic (it’s filed in Young Adult Fiction). A young child is taken from his parents and schooled in an elaborate video game, presented with endless shoot’em-up strategy sessions against a cold and vicious interstellar enemy. Spoiler alert! Except the Earth is actually at war, and the game is, unbeknown to little Ender Wiggin, very real.
Ender masterminds the complete extinction of a race.
Winning a war is one thing. Genocide is another. Ender spends subsequent books attempting to atone.
But Orson Scott Card himself is controversial on other matters, to say the least. He’s a Mormon who has confidence in the tenets of his faith, and the platform of a best-selling author, to speak out on matters of import to him. He’s a well-known anti-gay rights activist in the United States, and many pro-gay folk have called for a boycott of any book written by Scott Card, as well as the movie based on Ender’s Game (it’s in theatres now).
The libertarian Ayn Rand is regularly attacked for her politics, and her novels are shunned by those who disagree (they’re also works which showcase her beliefs, and are intended to persuade).
And what about authors considered misogynist? Norman Mailer, for one. He also stabbed his wife. (She survived.)
Toronto professor and author David Gillmor recently sniffed at the work of female novelists (all but Virginia Woolf), and the renowned VS Naipaul has said women are not his literary equals. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.
To read a book is to make decisions about art, authorship, and meaning and morality. Some don’t care about such debates, of course; that too, is a political decision made by a reader.
It’s always fun to reverse a question. Should books about jerks written by a great person be shunned? What if the author is merely a good person? Douglas Coupland, who seems to be nice enough, has written an iconic work of literature (Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture, filed in Adult Fiction) as well as much Canadiana, but his latest novel is titled Worst. Person. Ever. (2013). Unsurprisingly, his protagonist is a terrible, dislikable person.
Reviews have been mixed.
Perhaps Coupland’s imagination has failed him, and he is too nice to fully inhabit the being of a jerk. Or is the inability to connect the reader’s fault?
– Eleanor Brown, November 8, 2013