I read as a kid, but not omnivorously. Rather, I read repetitively. Looking back, it was probably a self-soothing gesture, just like my incorrigible fidgetiness. In middle school, one of the books I read repetitively was Roald Dahl’s Boy, his slim autobiography about growing up in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Already reared on my mother’s taste for British television (To the Manor Born, anyone?) and concurrently watching reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, it was perfect for me. I particularly remember the sweets incident, where Dahl and his school friends are given free Cadbury bars as testers. There’s a wonderful Quentin Blake illustration of the young Dahl eating chocolate on a sunny stair, and I loved it. I may not be as huge a Roald Dahl fan as others of my generation, given the ‘90s penchant for adapting his works to film, but that’s still a warm memory for me.
And then my friend Molly told me that Roald Dahl cheated on his wife, a stroke victim he had lovingly nursed back to health, for eleven years; his children knew, but didn’t want to tell their mother. I say “and then my friend Molly told me” because I think it’s part of the human experience to blame the messenger, especially since it’s hard to get angry at a corpse. We just don’t like to hear bad things about people we like. Does this invalidate my warm, fuzzy memories of Boy? No. It doesn’t cross that line for me. But for someone else, it might. The line is very personal and very subjective, but everyone has that line—the line that, when crossed, invalidates someone’s creative output for you.
For me, the most glaring example is Roman Polanski; I might be missing out on some great and canonical films, but I definitely don’t want to hear anything a rapist has to say, so I’ll take my chances. In literature, the most glaring example is Orson Scott Card, whose Ender’s Game is a sci-fi classic—and whose rampant homophobia (as expressed in Hamlet’s Father) makes me want to gag. In April, Josh Tyler of Giant Freakin Robot asked geeks to focus their ire on the Mormon Church’s stance on homosexuality rather than Card: “It’s possible to hate his beliefs but love his talent.” Of course, there’s a difference between simply being Mormon and writing Hamlet’s Father (I’m never going to get over that), but Tyler’s point still stands. It’s possible. But for me, Card is now a no-go author, because I don’t like to be so violently hated by the media I consume. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I won’t read things that offend me. If I only read the works of people who agree with me on everything, I’m just constructing an echo chamber of a book fortress. I’m not challenging myself. I forget, sadly, where this quote comes from, but the general idea is that if you took out every problematic book in a library, you’d be left with nothing. It is wholly possible (and, in fact, important) to both love something problematic and be thoughtfully critical about it; I defer you to this Social Justice League post.
I don’t have a hard and fast rule for what invalidates an author for me; it’s mostly a case by case thing with me. (Although whitewashing is a huge offender for me; see The Last Airbender, Cloud Atlas, and the forthcoming The Lone Ranger, but that’s generally a sin of cinema.) But it has to be extreme for me to not only take notice, but also deliberately avoid their works. So, to misquote Justice Potter Stewart, I know them when I see them.
It’s been the first week of my winter break, and I’m just now done with Christmas presents and getting rid of extraneous books that have found their way to my chambers. (My dad has his treasure hoard, I have mine. I just liquidate it.) Which means I have a lot of credit at our local independent bookstore, so I’ll be combing the shelves soon. Okay, I’ve already done a little bit, which has given me The Lions of Al-Rassan, Warrior Woman, and The Woman Warrior. But I’ll be making regular trips to keep tabs on the inventory. But mostly, I’m excited to cook all the food. I’ve already made breakfast muffins and banana bread, and I’ve got an almond cake and a goose lined up for Christmas dinner. Bring it, holidays!
Do you have any authors or other creatives who have just crossed the line for you?