Wherein I start with Shakespeare and end with Mormons…
It comes as no real surprise that I have studied a lot of literature in my time. This is one of those things that turns to be wholly inescapable, if I think too long on it. My father is the rare sort that is happiest pulling engines apart or operating heavy machinery, yet his love of poetry extended to casual recitation of his favorites and the occasioned writing of silly verses when the mood struck him. (For those of you deeply and truly interested, his own style was similar to William Hughes Mearns, but his preference tended heavily toward Robert Service.) In the mean time, my mother has never been seen without a book within reach of one hand, a cup of hot tea at her elbow. I could recite Macbeth’s last soliloquy from memory well before I knew anything of what it or the surrounding play meant.
These were the type of people that raised me.
So naturally, when I read something that requires some thought and digestion, my first inclination is to reduce to some referential line or idea from something that I read or heard. (Somewhere around here, I have a pin from Hot Topic that reads, “I speak in movie quotes and song lyrics.” It wasn’t that I needed to have the pin; it’s more that it was unthinkable that I didn’t already own it.)
And so it was, reading over the strangely revelatory notions in Gregory‘s post involving Marion Zimmer Bradley. In short, he talks about how he has come to wrestle with the idea that one of his novelist icons ended up being a horrible person in their own private life, and in the process, he tries to figure out how to feel about this. Until I had chanced upon this entry, I had been largely unaware of any of the furor that had surrounded one of the grandes dames of fantasy literature. Much of this owes to my general unfamiliarity with her work; yes, I own many of the recognizable books, but for me, that just means that I’ll get around to reading it when I have some open space on my calendar. Unlike so many, I never read The Mists of Avalon at a formative time, so I hadn’t even marked her death some fifteen years ago.
As I’ve been pondering the conflict of great works and broken artists, I find myself turning over the epitaph delivered by Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interrèd with their bones.” (In double-checking my references so as to not misquote, I found out that this quote lent itself to an Iron Maiden song, a Charles Bronson movie and a Star Trek: Enterprise novel that apparently starts out on my 183rd birthday. The internet is a strange place, filled with odd coincidence.)
Like I say, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. Since I didn’t have a particular stance on Bradley’s work, I can’t say that I have to examine any of my deeply held convictions about her or what she’s produced. Instead, I’m faced with the idea that anything I read from this point forward will be tainted with the understanding that she was violent and abusive and insidiously warped. The troubling details of how she apparently supported her husband’s pederasty and covered up for his indiscretions when it suited her only feed into this growing distaste, as do the off-handed mentions of the orgies that were stock in trade for the fantasy writers’ lifestyles of the time. (Not, I suppose, that any of this comes as a surprise; after all, I have plenty of knowledge of and exposure to Heinlein. Which is probably why I don’t hold his works in that high a regard, unlike so many.)
Biographical criticism is a wholly legitimate form of literary critique, dissecting a particular work according to how it parallels the life of the author. Most often, it lends itself to slightly more historical authors, as a means of discerning the specific role that the times they lived in played in shaping their writing. I’ve spent a lot of time reading through various biographical sketches of different authors, making sense of why they spent their focus the way they did.
Some of the emergent critiques of Bradley, in light of these allegations, find themselves noting the power dynamics in her works and how the characters may reflect certain aspects of what she was accused of. Yes, rape and abuse and this sort of thing was part and parcel of the era that she was trying to model, much as it makes sense in the context of George Martin’s work, but knowing what we know now, it takes on a certain horror. In a similar vein, it’s going to be hard to go back to certain volumes of Robin Williams’ work in light of his suicide. I’m fairly certain that What Dreams May Come is going to play much differently – a movie about the redemption of suicide, knowing that the main star ended up killing himself. Already, I’ve seen discussions of the Beltane rituals in The Mists of Avalon shadowed by Moira Greyland’s own recollection of abuse, and the filter casts the whole book into question for my purposes.
Before this, the closest I had come to considering what role the author played in my decision to peruse their works came from Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game. For whatever reason, I had never read the book while I was a kid, even though I believe that it was a favorite of my rather Christian aunt. (Perhaps this was part of the reason.) It wasn’t until Card began mouthing off about the offensiveness of homosexuality that I even took notice of who the writer was or what relevance his works were said to have.
There’s a strange sort of inversion at work here. Card makes a point of speaking out about the horrors and perversion of such lifestyles, where Marion Zimmer Bradley’s husband, Walter Breen, dedicated an entire book to exploring the modern and historical context of pederasty and its Greek antecedents. Where Card is comparing gays to pedophiles, Breen was trying to make a case that consent laws were against the natural order of things. For whatever it’s worth, I find both of these extremes to be equal in their own distasteful ways.
Throughout my life, I’ve found that the more that I know about a person that I would otherwise admire, the more I have cause to actively dislike them. This is something that the internet has managed to bring to the fore, given the instant and irrevocable transfer of information. At one point, I found myself reading a lot of webcomics. While living abroad, I would dedicate myself to at least an hour of internet perusal a day, between news and current events and the plethora of webcomics that were available. And what I found was that I enjoyed the comics far more when I knew less about the man who was writing them. But as has become standard for the comics, there’s inevitably an attached blog.
One that stands out is a science fiction story that I started into well after it had become famous and plowed through the archives in my spare time. I enjoyed it for what it was, namely a silly space opera that tried to inject actual hard science and speculative thought. It had its moments, and it was fairly reliable about its updates, which was nice.
But as I went along, I made the mistake of reading the author’s contributions. More and more, I began to see what a weirdly close-minded person he was, fostering an attitude of smug superiority over published authors and produced TV shows, since he held himself to a higher standard than they did. More and more, I found myself distracted from the plot of the comic to be infuriated by the progressively anti-intellectual leanings of its stridently Mormon writer. He would find one thing that offended him about a popular movie and urge that his audience avoid it because it conflicted with his outlooks. And his audience would use this as an echo chamber to tear down movies they had not seen, finding the one excuse they needed for their particular confirmation bias.
As a biographical notation for my own experience, I need to take a moment to point out that this is the sort of thing that I utterly and completely hate – which is why I’m spending this much time thinking about Bradley. I hate confirmation bias, to the point that I will read particular things that offend me, just so I know enough to engage it properly and talk of why it bothers me. (This goes back to both of my parents. My father, a lapsed Lutheran, and my mother, an extremely well-read New Age atheist, both felt that they had to understand the fundamental nature of the Bible to reject it. Biblical studies on my part were never discouraged by them, since they figured that I would come to similar conclusion with any amount of thought.) Most of the time these days, this comes in the form of deeply conservative commentary or the bizarre libertarian or anti-vaccine literature that circulates these days, which far too many of my social media contacts seem fond of. I’ll read through it, pick apart the flawed logic and go on with my day. If there is worth, I want to know it and judge for myself, rather than rely upon a commentator to digest it for me.
So, when I found this writer talking about how something that I enjoyed was a horrible thing because of some reason or another, that was fine. I read through his reasons and took what I could from his opinion. But when he encouraged others to take his judgment on a work and avoid coming to their own conclusions, I took offense. I made a solemn sort of vow to myself to not make this man any money through my consumption of his works, and I walked away. It had been a long road to this point, where I’d managed to brush aside his smug superiority and terrible customer service, but in the end, I was done with it all. (True story: Some years back, I had made a point of going to his booth at a convention I was at, with the idea of buying a couple of things and talking to him about some aspect of the comic. When I got there, he was far too involved in talking to someone he was working with to pay me any mind. I suppose that, if I had shown enough interest to dole out a couple hundred dollars, he would have made the time for me, but I take a dim view of such mercenary attitudes. He had made a judgment about how I looked or how much money I was likely to give him, and he treated me like shit as a result. Even so, I still kept reading his comics, despite this particular black mark. Seriously, it was the point where he urged people to believe as he did that did it for me.)
Not that any of this has to do with being a Mormon, exactly. Card feels the way that he does about gays because of his position on a Mormon council. I have to assume that the other writer holds similar outlooks, given the fairly apparent strength of his beliefs (given the way that it shows up in his blog), but there’s honestly no evidence one way or another. It’s just a weird coincidence that both of these writers have managed to get under my skin in different instances, and they both happen to be part of the same religious sect.
Sadly, I fear that the most that will come of this will be the standard sort of slacktivism I’ve become prone to in the past. I find myself horrified by what I have learned about an author or an icon, and I go out of my way to not support any sort of work by that person. It’s a particularly meaningless gesture on my part, as it causes me to not buy something that I wasn’t precisely likely to buy in the first place. Here I am, having gone this long without buying much by Bradley, and my best course of action is to not take any action. I’ve done the same sort of thing with not buying chicken sandwiches from Chick-Fil-A, a fast food place that I’ve never bought from, and refusing to watch Ender’s Game, which I had very little interest in bothering with anyway. I keep on not doing something that I wasn’t going to do anyway, and by taking this vague and meaningless stance, I could almost convince myself that my stance has relevance.
Instead, I will likely pick up both The Mists of Avalon and Ender’s Game from the library, read through them and return them in a timely fashion. If nothing else, it saves me money that would otherwise go to game books, and I can safely tell myself that I haven’t put money to people that I don’t feel deserve it.