To read or not to read… Or watch, or listen!

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.

JMHO.

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13 thoughts on “To read or not to read… Or watch, or listen!

  1. With certain exception. I don’t think I’d buy OJ Simpson’s book, nor that of any other convicted felon. For that reason, I also don’t buy Michael Jackson’s music. 😉

  2. I also think it depends on the nature of the work. I agree, it is silly to shun the Dixie Chick’s music because of their political views about Bush because their songs aren’t about their political views about Bush. If you like that genre of music, they’re good songs. Similarly, ‘Ender’s Game’ did not deal with Card’s views on religion or homosexuality. It was a good story that, after reading, in no way suggested his views on these topics. You would have to find that information elsewhere before you could cast judgement. It’s not part of the story.

    For many books this isn’t the case. The Ayn Rand books, for example, are really just soap boxes for her to stand on to argue for her philosophy of Objectivism. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’s Christian themes show up throughout, and on the opposite end of the spectrum Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” books strongly convey his atheistic themes. Personally, I greatly enjoyed both Lewis and Pullman (not so much Rand).

    Someone who disagreed with Pullman’s religious views boycotting his books makes much more sense to me than someone who disagreed with Card’s religious views boycotting his books.

  3. I’ll be honest. I never could finish Atlas Shrugged. The world Rand painted was so bleak, populated with so many cardboard scumbags — except for the few, individual “heroes” like Reardon and Taggart, who were also somewhat cardboard — I had to put it down.

    A.G., I think you hit it on the head. When an author’s political views are unrelated to their work, it is silly to refuse to read them simply because of those views. But when an author deliberately sets out to infuse their work with their views, it gets a little more complex. Or maybe it isn’t complex at all? Lord knows I don’t like being thwapped across the nose with a rolled up ideology whenever I am reading fiction for pleasure.

    This happened with a story I was reading in one of the SF digests not too long ago. An author brought the action to a screaching halt just to deliver a one-paragraph, plot-unrelated political message. It was a little like watching a stage play and right in the thick of the action, the actors froze in place and one of them strode downstage to announce, “We interrupt this play so that the playright can thwap you over the nose with their political opinion, which is almost entirely unrelated to the story!”

    Annoying, to say the least.

    I dunno, perhaps it’s impossible for authors to not infuse their stories with some level of personal belief. I guess some authors are just more subtle about it than others. As long as the story remains focused on THE STORY, and not the author’s personal political proselytizing, I am OK with people bleeding in their politics and opinions.

  4. Hi Brad, I’ve been following (lurking) around your blog for a while after reading comments from you on the WOTF forums (where I was also lurking).

    I had this exact discussion over the weekend, specifically talking about Card, and I think I see this from a slightly different angle. I have read probably a dozen or so of his books and liked most of them, even loved a few of them. I have no problem distancing the quality of the work from his personal views. I see them as totally separate issues (as I believe you do). However, there is a difference in my mind between judging a work on it’s own merits and actually laying down cash in support of an author.

    Now, for me personally, there is no conflict; I’m just arguing the point of a friend. I have and will continue to buy his books because I like them, regardless of his own opinions. But basically the argument was, sure I like his books, but I don’t like him and I don’t feel like giving him my money. Or, to put it another way, I don’t give money to people I don’t like. My friend’s compromise was getting them from the library instead of paying for them.

    I can totally understand and support this point of view. It’s not judging the work based on the man; she agrees that the work is good. It’s deciding where to spend your hard earned cash.

    So, in summary, I agree that a story should stand on it’s own merits, uninfluenced by my opinion of an author. This is only fair because I don’t know what kind of people most authors are, because they aren’t as outspoken as Card. But I also can decide not to purchase a story, even if I think that story is good, because I don’t want to support an author.

  5. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me on all of my views and beliefs and I’ve watched plenty of shows and movies that were conservative or that I disagreed with but it was done well and I mentally placed it in the agree to disagree category.

    That said, I don’t think there’s anything unreasonable about not wanting to have anything to do with someone who despises me as a human being which in my opinion is a whole different animal.

    I’m not wrong for not wanting to read John C. Wright’s work seeing as he thinks I’m sodomite and a pervert.

    That would be like saying that a Jew is wrong for not wanting to support Mel Gibson after the anti-semitic slurs he made. Or a black person not wanting to read the writings of David Duke.

    I agree that some people take it to the extreme in the examples you cited and the “intellectuals” can be as close-minded as conservatives but at the same time open-mindedness works both ways.

    /My two cents.

  6. Hmmm. Would you consider reading a John C. Wright book, presuming it was from the library, said nothing about sexuality or sexual preferences, and came recommended from a friend?

    Just wondering.

    There is one SF author I’ve enjoyed quite a bit, back when he was still doing SF, and who has made it plain that he thinks my religion is crap. In my favorite book of his, he portrayed everyone in my religion as either a schemer, a dolt, or a well-meaning moron. I had a tough time getting around that, because it felt personally insulting. But I thought the book was very good, and I’ve re-read it several times since, and I still think it’s very good.

    I guess everyone has their own limits. I try not to let an author’s personal beliefs or opinions become the fulcrum, as to whether or not I like or buy them. So far I haven’t run across someone who is so personally noxious I won’t support them with sales.

    Wait, that’s wrong. I have to correct myself. Michael Moore. My wife and I rented Bowling for Columbine, and I swore after I saw that I’d never support Moore. Especially after how he took advantage of Charlton Heston. That was just dirty pool, and ruined my opinion of Moore.

    Now, if Moore suddenly began writing fiction that was not, ostensibly, political, maybe I’d read one of his books or stories, just to see what the man was made off. To my knowledge Moore has never produced anything that wasn’t overtly, over-the-top political in nature.

  7. “I guess everyone has their own limits.”

    You nailed it right there. Granted some people are more extreme (and unreasonable) than others but I don’t think it’s wrong to have a limit.

  8. Thanks for the link. I read the column.

    I guess it all depends on how tangled we want the web to get.

    Should people who opposed the Iraq invasion refuse to pay taxes because part of their tax dollars pay for the troops, food, ammo, etc?

    I can sort of get people not wanting to buy Card because Card has gone out of his way to speak out on homosexuality. But Meyer? She’s not said a word — so far as I know — about homosexuality, her stance on it, etc. Refusing to buy her on the suspicion that she tithes and that this tithing supports a “homophobic” religion… I dunno, I think that’s going too far.

    But, people are gonna do what they’re gonna do.

    I try not to make my purchasing choices politicized to the point that it gives me a headache. I go where the bargains are, and when it comes to entertainment, I spend on the things I enjoy. Even if the people producing these things don’t thrill me with their politics.

    When everything becomes politicized — what we eat, what we listen to, what we watch and read, who we associate with, which family members we choose to spend time with, etc. — I think it’s unhealthy.

  9. I agree, especially about Meyer. Now you’re not only making choices on what someone thinks, but on what you THINK they think. And the article makes the point that there are a lot more people getting a lot bigger slice of the pie than the author, most of whom probably don’t share his/her viewpoint. So you’re hurting them financially too (although you could argue it serves them right for choosing to work with a bigot).

    For me, that’s a lot more work than I’m willing to put into my shopping. I don’t even want to drive across town to a cheaper gas station. 🙂 Just wanted to make the point that people who don’t want to support an artist because of their politics might not be judging the quality of the work based on the politics.

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