Pondering: Authors and Morality

Today on the Melville House publishing blog mobylives, they have a post about the fortieth anniversary of Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which covers the decimation of the Lakota Sioux in the (then) Western territories of the United States in the late Nineteenth century. I’ve read Brown’s book–a classic, worthy read–so I was sort of skimming the post until I saw this:

In an interesting aside for book lovers, Giago notes that, “Just six days after the massacre, L. Frank Baum, an editor at the Aberdeen (S.D.) Saturday Pioneer, wrote an editorial calling for the genocide of the Sioux people. He later wrote the children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Maybe some of you out there already knew this, but I did not. I was shocked. Still, as shocked as I was, I doubt I’ll turn off the television next time I see The Wizard of Oz (or maybe I will, but only because I’ve already seen it so many times), but it made me wonder: are there any circumstances under which you would stop reading an author’s books because you found out that he or she had beliefs or called for an action that you found morally reprehensible?

In this case, the damage is done, as they say. I have seen the movie, and I read a few of Baum’s books as a child. I probably wouldn’t have read them again, just out of sheer disinterest, but I decided to look up more about Baum. Right there on his Wikipedia page, it discusses his controversial attitudes to Native Americans and other races as well. But then it also says he was an advocate for women’s suffrage, even going so far as to work positive images of strong women into his books. And of course, Baum is hardly alone: lots of authors were (and are) misogynistic, racist, homophobic. Authors are often as complex as their characters. Do we hold one to a higher standard than the other? As a reader, I like characters who have flaws, even major ones, but who also have great traits. But in the real world, it’s easy to vilify people for their actions, easy to forget that people who have great flaws can also have great attributes. Writer Laura Caldwell discusses this in a post she wrote last week on The Outfit:

I find the whole vilification process not only distasteful, but false. We crime writers have been taught that a villain in a novel who is a 100% evil is, generally, just not interesting, in part because the character won’t strike the reader as true. I guess this is why, to date, I have not written about any serial killers. Yes, they do exist, but they seem so evil as to not be particularly fascinating to me. I don’t know what the answer is in terms of the media’s handling of news “stories,” but I do know what the answer is for me in my writing. I want to write people–characters–whether they’re considered good, bad or in-the-middle, who have complex reasons for their actions, who are motivated by one thing at one time, and then maybe something else entirely a few days down the line, just like the rest of us. Because really, the villains, “the bad guys,” are just like everyone else—maybe they’re just nastier, maybe they just care a little less about their consequences.

But is it simply easier to accept these types of people in literature? It seems to me that it is, mainly because in literature, there is nothing we must do, no need for us to act. If Hitler were simply a character in a story, he would terrify and amaze us, he would make us shudder and think, but then we would close the book and go on about our lives. I am not sure I would want the L. Frank Baums of the world removed from bookshelves, though. It seems too important in an historical and cultural context to have the whole picture.

Your thoughts on this topic?

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4 comments

  1. I think it’s all about having the choice, right? On some level, I feel like what an author does or thinks in his spare time shouldn’t influence how we evaluate his writing… but then again, when I found out that Orson Scott Card was a crazy Mormon who is homophobic, I lost respect for him and it did influence my feelings toward Ender’s Game. I hadn’t intended to read anything else by the author, but finding out those tidbits about him, I DEFINITELY wasn’t going to seek out anything else by him and/or support him financially.

    But, just because someone has these views that I don’t agree with, I think it would be worse to censor them. I don’t have to read their books if I don’t want to, but others can, and I think that’s about right. I suppose I don’t object to the notion of reading a story that doesn’t present the objectionable views even if the author does espouse those beliefs, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to pay out of my pocket to do so (so I’d be more likely to borrow those books from the library, I suppose0.

  2. I tend to not notice authors in the real world. I mostly have been reading older books, and they’ve been long gone. I find it interesting to learn about their lives, read their biographies, etc. But I don’t think learning an unpleasant fact changes whether or not I’ll read their book. I read for the words on the page, mostly.

    I guess I haven’t run in to that aspect yet. Knowing that Baum was as he was doesn’t change the enjoyment of the book, I don’t think.

    But I think I need to ponder this. Thanks for asking the question!

  3. I find it so disappointing when people whose works I admire – Baum not included in this category – turn out to be terrible in their personal lives. But if they are people whose books I love, I usually carry on reading the books, and just feel a bit sadder about it. On the other hand, I love finding out bad things about authors I hate. Then when I don’t read their books, I can have a reason to back it up. Not reading that Ernest Hemingway fellow, he made fun of Dorothy Parker for being depressed. DONE.

    In the end, I think it’s just a question of how much their views informed their books. If it’s not too much, I can keep reading them.

  4. Steph, it absolutely about choice. And I agree (obviously) about not banning/censoring books. I try to vote with my dollar whenever I can, though, so I would probably not buy the books of a present day author if he/she did something I considered reprehensible (like deny the Holocaust, for example) and it filtered into the work. I would probably less strict about past authors, because I have some cultural context in which to place them. Sounds strange, I guess, but that’s how I think.

    Rebecca, I tend not to notice either. I don’t read much “press” about authors (or really, any type of famous person), other than interviews about their work. That’s all about the words on the page, still, though, and about their lives I generally tend to be ignorant. I guess Philip Roth’s ex-wife Claire Bloom considers him a misogynist creep (she wrote a book about it, otherwise I would never even have known they were married), but that doesn’t keep me from marveling at The Human Stain.

    Jenny, that’s so funny! I love Dorothy Parker, too, but I have to give Hemingway his props. At the very least, A Moveable Feast is worth reading. But you make a valuable point: the decision to go on “supporting” an author or not is a personal one, for the most part.

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