Do your feelings about an author affect your feelings about his or her work?

Today’s post from Erika Dreifus deserves a look-see. She comments on a recent NY Times essay by Margot Rabb entitled “Fallen Idols,” then adds her own reflections, touching on various writers with Anti-Zionist or antisemitic beliefs, such as T.S. Eliot and Alice Walker (the latter of whom has recently made headlines). I invite you to read both pieces (the links are embedded above).

An interesting aspect of the writer-reader relationship that Rabb touches on is that readers get to step inside the brains of authors. For this reason, there are some Chareidim who only allow their children to read books written by people who are either Orthodox Jews themselves, or are otherwise respected and considered to have good character. While I don’t have this “policy” myself, I do understand that it’s reflecting a genuine concern. Authors don’t have to have a conscious agenda to slip all sorts of allusions to their beliefs in their work. For example, English authors are particularly well known for their antisemitism, which pops up in all sorts of weird places (Georgette Heyer’s The Great Sophy, several works by Dickens, and so on). The science-fiction/fantasy author Phillip Pullman is a proud atheist, and his work reflects this viewpoint.

Then again, if an author uses their money to donate to causes we don’t agree with, a political cause that does not have anything to do with their writing, is that a reason shun their work? Or, to take it a step further, protest their work?

One of the commentators on Erika Dreifus’s blog mentions Orson Scott Card. There are people who want to picket the movie adaptation of his book, Ender’s Game, because they disagree with his political and religious beliefs. (I happen to not agree with the commentator’s assessment of Card, but he’s a good example.) Ender’s Game does not mention the particular beliefs that the protesters find repulsive in Card’s public statements.

Personally, I can see forgoing a trip to the theater, or skipping a book, if you disagree with an author or artist. But a public protest seems excessive to me unless the novel/play/whatever is actively preaching the message you disagree with in that particular piece of work.

How likely are you to read a book by someone whose character is deeply flawed or who espouses beliefs you find repugnant?

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3 thoughts on “Do your feelings about an author affect your feelings about his or her work?

  1. Dear Becca:

    I so appreciate your taking the time to reflect further on my post. This line in particular resonates: “Personally, I can see forgoing a trip to the theater, or skipping a book, if you disagree with an author or artist. But a public protest seems excessive to me unless the novel/play/whatever is actually preaching the message you disagree with.” I guess it gets a little tricky when the author (let’s say, Walker), makes her message such a big part of her public persona, to the point of refusing translation/publication of THE COLOR PURPLE in Israel. Not that I’m trying to marshal a public protest. I just can’t separate her from her work any longer, myself.

    There was so much that I tried to rein in in my post. I could have gone off on a tangent re: talented writers I’ve encountered who simply haven’t been “nice” to me–have been pretty mean, in fact. Luckily, I’ve also come to know many talented writers who are also generous, gracious souls. I’d rather spend my reading time with their work (and possibly, my promotional capital espousing it) than whatever the others produce. So complicated!

    Thank you again for taking the time to think and write about this.

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    • So glad you commented back!

      I think that Alice Walker is a rather special case in that has she now — as you rightly pointed our — interwoven her recent work with the cause she’s espoused.

      Every person has positive and negative characteristics. I think we need to be wary of trying to punish the failings of public figures. While I might not buy a book from someone who I think is a jerk or a total sleazebag, I can’t imagine telling other people not to buy their books because of their character failings.

      BUT, at a certain point, you might think to yourself, “Do I want to put more money in this person’s pocket?” For example, in the case of Alice Walker, she might donate that money to a terrorist organization that targets friends and family in Israel. That’s not punitive; that’s rational.

      I suppose other people feel that way about Orson Scott Card (even if I don’t).

      In a related issue, there are companies whose products I avoid because I don’t support the views they espouse. There are very, very few Disney products in our house, and we have never taken our children to see Disney movies, nor have we visited Disneyland, even though it’s just over an hour from our home. I feel the organization has brainwashed children into being materialistic, superficial monsters, and actively done so to make money.

      From a Jewish perspective, in the Shema, we say that we will love G-d with all our “meodecha.” While this is often translated as “might” or “resources,” there are rabbis who translate “meodecha” as “money.” It seems from this that we should be spend money — or withhold it — with moral guidance.

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      • I agree–I don’t think that Rabb’s essay was getting into the question of taking our disenchantment public. It’s less a question, for me, of the broad, public application of one’s disenchantment than the deep, intense personal experience of it. Which is what makes me (emphasis on ME) want to steer clear of certain writers’ work. And one way I do that is by directing my (individual) purchasing power elsewhere.

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