Sunday, August 16, 2009

Seeking the Middle?

UPDATE: A correction is posted below.

An interesting discussion is going on at over an old issue: should one make decisions on novels to read on the basis of the authors' political views? Specific examples cited over there are Paul di Filippo, who recently edited an anthology book of "Mindblowing Science Fiction" stories whose main qualification for story selection was that the tales be "Mindblowing" -- and yet the book included not a single story by a female SF author, and author John C. Wright, whose views on homosexuality are just slightly more tolerant than saying they should be stoned at dawn in the town square.

[Wright has since deleted a LiveJournal post of his that started some kind of free-for-all, but just that one; for a good notion of what kinds of things Wright believes, check out an older post of his in which he offers predictions for the next fifty years. Specifically, prediction #2 is entertaining: "The sexual revolution will be recognized as a complete failure. Monogamy and chastity will return as norms of behavior. Homosexuality will be reclassified as a mental disease." (Emphasis mine.) And in comments, when someone notes that Wright's predictions all seem pretty downbeat, he objects that Prediction #2 is a positive one. So he looks forward to the day when gays are once again seen as lunatics.]

The conversation ensuing in comments is interesting to follow. For one thing, it's pretty civil. This is something I've thought a lot about over the years. After all, I love Richard Wagner's music a great deal, and there's no getting around the fact that Wagner was a shit. And while it's tempting to say that the politics and the art don't have to exist at the same time, many times they do; in Wagner, for instance, one can't escape the man's deification of All Things Teutonic. (Now, whether or not his personal antiSemitism is on display in his music has been debated for years, and I'm not equipped to weigh in on one side or the other in that debate.) But there's something about Wagner that makes it a bit easier to get past all that, and that something is simply that Wagner lived in the 19th century, when views such as his, as odious as we see them now, were much more mainstream. It always seems a bit unwise to hold people of the past to higher moral standards on all issues. No one condemns the Founding Fathers for not realizing, right at the outset in 1787, that slavery should have been ended and blacks made citizens with all the rights and privileges thereof.

But it's harder with those of our own time, isn't it? Now, I've only tried to read one of John C. Wright's books, and I bounced off it, five or six years ago. Many times when I bounce off a book I'll make a note to return to it sometime later. Maybe I do get back to it, maybe I don't -- but in all honesty, my acquaintance with Wright's views as I've seen his LiveJournal here and there over the last couple of years makes it highly unlikely that I'll ever bother. But it's simply not the case that Wright's a conservative and I only read liberal authors; I love the work of Michael Flynn, who is certainly conservative. I felt no problem buying books published by Baen Books despite Jim Baen's politics. Mark Helprin writes wonderful novels, and he's a guy with whom I agree on approximately nothing. However, again likewise, I have no problem deciding that I loathe a writer's views to the point where I simply won't read them. That's why I have not read a single word of Orson Scott Card since his How to Write Science Fiction, which I read fifteen years or so ago. I used to own a copy of Ender's Game that I intended to read sometime, but I started bumping that down the priority list as I heard more and more about his loathing of gays as well. (It's not all about writers who are homophobic, though. What finally made me put Ender's Game on eBay without reading it was a global warming denialist screed Card wrote in which he referred to former Vice President Gore as "pond scum".)

So what's the difference here? Why will I read Flynn and Helprin but not Wright or Card? For one thing, there are degrees of belief. I doubt Flynn or Helprin are anywhere near as far to the right as Wright or Card are. More than that, there's the way writers go about things. I once in a while find myself looking at a Card essay online, and I see the rantings of an arrogant prick. Same thing with Wright: his LiveJournal posts fill me with the sense of being in the presence of someone who is so self-impressed as to leave me looking for the nearest available exit. In a lot of ways, it goes to behavior more than the actual views, and this can actually happen on both sides of the specturm. It can, and it does. There is a film music record producer whose CDs I steadfastedly refuse to buy, because even though I agree with him across the board politically, I find his persona as I've encountered it online to be insufferably boorish.

Some people will point out that I may be missing out on some great books by so banishing authors from my bookshelves, and they're right. The thing is, though, that I'm a human being, which means that I am mortal and thus will, by definition, miss out on the vast majority of great books that exist. I see no reason to not apply some standards once in a while as to the great books I intend to allow to pass by. Ditto the afore-mentioned music producer. Sure, his CDs are highly regarded. I'll survive without them. I've more than enough music to keep me occupied. On a similar vein, in that comment thread author Nick Mamatas makes the point that not buying an author's books on the basis of their views will in no way hurt their royalty statement. Sure, that's true, but so what? Whether I'm in agreement with them or not, I am under no obligation one way or the other to give them my money. It's not unlike my general refusal to shop at Wal-Mart. I've no illusion whatsoever that Wal-Mart is hurting one bit because I am not contributing to their revenue.

However, sometimes I might find myself feeling a tad hypocritical about these kinds of issues. I find Mel Gibson's views on just about everything to be nauseating, perhaps even as nauseating as I find John C. Wright's, but I still watch his movies. (At least, in theory I do. I haven't seen Apocalypto because it just doesn't look like something that interests me, but I did watch The Passion of the Christ, with which I was less than impressed.) What's the difference here? Maybe it's that movies constitute a smaller investment of time than a book does. And there's probably also the fact that I was a fan of Gibson's twenty years before I learned just how far to the right he actually is. That can be a factor: familiarity with a person before learning what their warts are tends to make the warts less troublesome. One of the most memorable family friends from my years as a youth was a man who was warm, loving of his friends, wickedly funny...and a bigot who could get really bad sometimes if he drank too much. It happens.

Avoiding movies or teevee shows that feature actors with whom I disagree has always struck me as being a faulty premise. There are just too many people to keep track of, then; that way really does strike me as being limiting in my choices. I don't stop watching Tom Cruise movies because he's a Scientologist any more than I avoid Gary Sinise because he's conservative. There are just too many actors to keep track of, and ultimately, who cares?

UPDATE and CORRECTION: Serves me right for not totally fact-checking myself. A reader points out, in comments, that Paul Di Filippo did not edit the "Mindblowing SF Tales" book; rather, he appears in it as a writer and posted a defense of it online which then triggered lots of spirited discussion. Thanks to "Phy" for setting me straight, and I of course regret my error. Oops and apologias!


Roger Owen Green said...

"No one condemns the Founding Fathers for not realizing, right at the outset in 1787, that slavery should have been ended and blacks made citizens with all the rights and privileges thereof." Actually, a number of people do. And I think the example is different than the others, such as Wagner. The colonies fought a war to free people from tyranny. They enlisted black soldiers to fight along side of them with vague or specific promises of freedom. And then, for the most part, it didn't happen. Even the Founding Fathers felt conflicted about it; Washington freed his slaves, albeit after he died. So there's the hypocrisy factor.

When I went to Williamsburg, VA last year, I learned that some blacks fought on the Tory side because of promises of freedom.

Are you telling me that our boycott of Wal-Mart hasn't brought the company to its knees yet? DAMN!

Phy said...

fwiw, Paul di Filippo was namechecked not because he edited "The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF," - that would be Mike Ashley, who includes no works by women or people of color, which aroused the ire of many. Rather Paul swam against the stream of discontent and posted a comment that defended Mr. Ashley's editorial prerogative when assembling the anthology. (It should be noted, in all fairness, that Paul has a story appearing in the anthology in question.) Paul was shouted down and the conversation wandered over to into an interim thread about how to develop better anthologies by being wider read ('better' and 'wider' being subjective terms, but the gist was pretty clear). Paul stayed out of that thread but watched from afar.

In summary, it is not that Paul edited the anthology, it is that he was the first to strongly defend it, and he was firmly shouted down.

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

Sounds as if Mel Gibson is deemed a lower form of life than Michael Vick. Where does John Lennon rank?

Kelly Sedinger said...

I'm not really sure I'd "rank" Gibson or Vick in some way, but I'm confused as to the Lennon reference -- is there some reason I'd rank him low?

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

His son Julian may, at least from what I read he was a lousy father.

In the lands of obvious we put a high value on someone who is a good parent. If not then they are full of shit. Being a good spouse is next. A good friend.

Being acclaimed for your work and or creativity is pretty low on the totem pole in obvious.

Kelly Sedinger said...

Well, I'm not sure, really. I'm not talking about judging people as people, really; I'm talking about how my impression of them as people affects my decision to follow their creative endeavors. That said, there's a large extent to which one's quality as a parent is a personal thing. What extent? Not sure. There's "being distant", or "being too strict", or "being uninterested". And then there's "being abusive", which is certainly bad. Or "not being there at all because he left us for someone else" -- that's certainly bad. But wherever Lennon falls in whatever of those categories, or something else, may not be my business in the first place, and it need not color my appreciation of the Beatles. (Within reason, of course -- if he was a drug-addled philanderer who committed crimes, then that's something else. But judging someone's parenting skills isn't really for me.)

Thee Earl of Obvious said...

That's a roundabout way of saying so what? I feel the same way and extend the feeling to Mel Gibson.

Just seems interesting that here is this very popular actor, a box office draw, who all of a sudden does not appear in movies. Kind of hard to calibrate the public reaction to his atrocious comments if he is not given an opportunity to star in movie.


It probably is better if others decide on the public's behalf. I mean his comments extend far beyond anything we could call free speech. I am just shocked that he is even allowed to film his own movies. Imagine, a movie about Jesus Christ, the nerve!

Kelly Sedinger said...

And as is becoming the trend, I have no idea what you're talking about. If you're insinuating something about Gibson being blacklisted of late, well, he hasn't been blacklisted of late. He's been focusing on his directing and producing over the last seven or eight years, but he does have some acting roles in the pipeline. He hasn't dropped into some nether-realm into which non-politically correct actors go (although his high-profile divorce is undoubtedly consuming a good deal of his energy right now, I'd suspect). He is, as far as I can tell, still an active filmmaker.

Thee Earl of obvious said...

Okay. I don't want to drift into debate. I will stop.

Just seems a little odd

a tad over done

Portrayed as a nazi in family guy.seems harsh.

a little

I suppose

No outrage though.


Its nothing. Nothing at all

Kelly Sedinger said...

I don't watch "Family Guy" on any kind of regular basis, but from what I've seen, getting outraged at anything that show does is pretty much a sucker's bet. Creating outrage is part of that show's MO.

Thee Earl of obvious said...

I agree. It is a Simpson's for the slow witted.

Roger Owen Green said...

There are lots of dads (and maybe even a few moms) who were distant, busy with the job with spouse #1 and then figures it out with family #2. Surely John was a philanderer, even before Yoko (and after - see "the lost weekend" of a year and a half). Julian didn't get his dad; the world did.
But he finally figured it out. For the brief time he had a chance, John was a great dad to Sean.
I'm old enough that I can say that the "lost weekend" did diminish my purchases of solo Lennon items, but the total solo output wasn't that great, and his redemption changed my buying habits back.

Roger Owen Green said...

I haven't seen a Gibson film in years, but it was the content - Passion of the Christ? No thanks. The last movies of his I saw were What Women Want and Chicken Run, both in 2000. He's only been in 3 movies since then: we Were Soldiers (not a war movie fan), Signs (M. Night going to the well too often, reviews suggested), and the Singing detective (which I never even heard of).

Lynn said...

Human beings are complicated and we rarely make choices logically. For Mr. Spock, logic was a good thing. In real life a person who tries to be absolutely logical in their choices is just an anal retentive prick and ends up being not all that logical after all.

I unapologetically shop at Wal-mart. I'm from the part of the country where it originated and I can remember when it was the little local discount chain that could. I find all the Wal-mart hate rather amusing, frankly.