Multi award-winner Kris Rusch has a new Recommended Reading list up that’s worth noting.
I found this comment particularly pithy:
…some writing students of mine made it very clear to me recently that they believe there’s acceptable reading and unacceptable reading. Unacceptable reading is, if I can get this right, any books that espouse a point of view that the reader doesn’t believe in.
You see this sentiment everywhere lately. People — readers and writers — claiming they refuse to buy or read the work of so-and-so because so-and-so belongs to (insert political party here) or is an (insert political label here) or happens to belong to the (insert party, church, group, faction here.) Basically, people aren’t complaining about the quality of the product itself, they’re complaining about the opinions and beliefs of the producer of the product. Even going so far as to make it an implicit threat, “You have expressed opinions and beliefs which are not in accord with my own, therefore I shall not partake of your work!”
Ergo, until you start telling me things I want to hear coming out of your mouth/keyboard, you’re on my personal Bad Guy List and I won’t spend any money on you.
More Kris Rusch:
…I said to the students, writers represent the entire world. If you block off part of your reading because you don’t agree with what you assume the writer’s point of view to be, then you’ll never learn anything. (And, writers, you won’t be able to write from any point of view except your own.)
What Kris said. In triplicate.
There is something unsettling about this entire concept: refusal to read a book by — or watch a movie starring, directed by, or music sung or performed by — a person because they happen to hold beliefs or opinions which are contrary to your own.
When I look at my own music, movie and literature library, I’d have to get rid of about 95% of it, assuming I actually demanded that everyone in those movies, or on those CD’s, or who wrote those books, held beliefs and opinions that were in accord with mine. In fact, there is precious little entertainment of any sort I’d be able to enjoy if I rigorously adhered to this philosophy.
Yet we see this all the time. Remember the Dixie Chicks? Remember how pissed off people got at them when they made certain comments a few years ago? It was a scandal! Country music stars dissing Dubbleyah! I mean, the nerve! And it wasn’t just people refusing to buy their music. People wanted them banned from radio stations, taken off the shelves of music stores, and worse. And all because the Dixie Chicks didn’t seem to like the guy in the Oval Office.
Now, what, exactly, did the opinions of the Chicks have to do with their music? I’m not a country music listener and couldn’t tell a Chicks song if it came up and bit me in the behind. But I’d wager their opinions about Mr. Bush had zip-squat to do with their lyrics and their musicianship. So how come people got all fired up and started trash-talking the Chicks and wanting them professionally quashed?
Consider also the case of Orson Scott Card. Not just a few people have declared, “I loved ‘Ender’s Game’, but I can’t stand Card anymore because (insert gripe here.)” If it wasn’t his religion, it was his stance on subjects such as homosexuality, or some of the political writing he’s done as part of his Ornery columns. They’re not saying Card is a bad writer. Far from it! They acknowledge that Card is good. Sometimes, fiendishly so. But they refuse to buy him or read him because he — as a person, independent of his writing — has expressed a viewpoint or an opinion that some people simply cannot stand. Or find offensive. Or just flat-out uncool.
If that’s not the Politically Correct mindset in a nutshell — demanding that those around us parrot our own thoughts and opinions back to us, otherwise we divorce ourselves from those people, or cease buying their product/art — I don’t know what is.
Even stranger — to me anyway — is that we see this attitude so common among intellectuals. Or, at least, people who pretend at being intellectual, or for whom the label of ‘intellectual’ is attractive. Sometimes they simply pass under the banner of ‘open-minded.’ But isn’t the very definition of open-mindedness being open to ideas and concepts that are foreign, unknown, strange, different, or even potentially threatening? And why make it a one-step-removed prejudice, wherein the author’s work suddenly winds up on a shit list simply because the author happens to think or feel a certain way?
As Kris notes, when you confine yourself to a paradigm ‘bottle’ you risk cutting off your nose to spite your face. You won’t learn anything about how other people think, and you won’t have an easy time writing good characters who think and believe differently from yourself. Especially if you’re writing villains. We see this a lot too: the stereotypical cardboard villain who is am emblem for everything the writer dislikes, yet the cardboard villain is just that: hollow, soulless, and without motivations that aren’t superficial or otherwise unbelievable. Because the author hasn’t taken the time to dig more deeply into the motives and rationale of actual people with whom the author may disagree.
I’m not saying you can’t judge art by its content. Taste is taste. And what one person deems golden, might be cow dung to another person. A book — or a movie, or a recording — stands on its own merits, and if the content of a specific art product is not to your liking, then feel free to dismiss it or judge it as you see fit.
I remember when the (in)famous Piss Christ photo fracas erupted many years ago. I remember thinking that, whatever Andres Serrano’s political or religious feelings were, a photo of a crucifix in a bottle of urine didn’t seem terribly inspired. I’m not even sure I’d personally call it art, as much as I’d call it cheap sensationalism. But this opinion is based on the photo itself — on whether or not I felt the photo had any relative value to me as an artistic consumer. I wasn’t judging Serrano, just his photo.
We all make these judgments, every day, when we pick what we read and we listen to and what we watch on the big screen and the small screen. And they are 100% valid.
But there seems to be a line that gets crossed — unhealthily — when we begin to make it more about the artist, as opposed to the art. When we begin to ‘punish’ the artist — or the writer, the actor, the director, the performer — for what they think and how they feel, as opposed to what they produce.
I often find myself reading quotes and interviews with famous musicians and actors. Because I enjoy music, movies and (some) television, and I am always curious about the people behind the scenes. Too often I find myself disappointed — either because the person seems generally shallow, generally clueless, politically noxious, or otherwise uninteresting or even deliberately offensive — but I’m not sure it’s ever made me want to stop watching movies/shows with that person in them, or stop buying music from a given artist or band. Yes, it might suck a little of the oomph out of it for me when next I see that person on the screen — or listen to that particular artist or band on the radio — but I don’t therefore turn around and make it my mission to exercise that person from my life, nor their works from my collection.
I’ve heard it said, by musicians mainly, that they’re constantly amazed at how fans fail to “get” what the music is really about. Time and again a musician or singer will produce a piece, and have it go out to the world and be a big hit, and then the fans will come back and tell the singer/musician how they love (insert song title here,) and it will quickly become apparent that the fan(s) in question got something totally, absolutely different out of the music/song than the singer/musician intended. Such that many musicians and singers, after awhile, give up trying to “correct” their fans, and just conclude that once the music leaves their hands — and enters the wider world — it assumes a life of its own; independent of anything the producer(s) might think, say, believe or feel.
I think this is often true of fiction too. Each of us brings so much baggage to the table, when we read something. Each of us will pull out different threads and strands from the work — and if we can’t find what we want, we sometimes invent it outright — so that each book or story becomes a kind of customized one-way communication, which the author has almost no control over once his or her work enters the market in published form. People will “get” all kinds of things out of the writing, intended or no, and the artist doesn’t have much say in it, nor is there much point in ‘correcting’ the audience if it seems the audience is determined to perceive something which the writer did not intend.
So why disavow the writing because we don’t like how the writer thinks or feels? Especially on topics unrelated to a given book or story?
I say, if the writing is good, the writing is good. It’s unfortunate when you find out a given writer is a political or ideological muffinhead, but then, the writer in question is liable to think you’re a muffinhead in your own right, so it’s a wash. Just enjoy the work and pursue it on its own — apart from the writer. Anything else seems to smack of demanding sentiment and lockstep where it’s not our business to demand such.