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Sunday, September 19, 2010

The First Amendment: The Separation of Author and Work

There has been a lot of talk recently over the problem of the separation of an author from his or her work, and this has largely been so because of some rather alarming words written by Elizabeth Moon on Muslims and citizenship (in the U.S.).  Bloggers, such as Gav over at NextRead, among others, have wondered whether we should separate the author from the work, or whether what an author writes should always be read within the context of what they think on a personal level (which, oddly enough, is discovered through what they write).  My only problem with this discussion is that it avoids dealing with the other side of the divide; namely, the economic one and its relation to politics.  But we'll get to that second part in a minute.

In a lot of cases, it is easy to separate the author from the work, particularly when the author is channeling a particular kind of idea or character.  If an author is pro-gay rights, but writes a book
about an anti-gay character, one shouldn't ignore the book simply because of the author's politics; on the contrary, you should read it to see how he or she deals with an alternative viewpoint.  To give a more innocuous example, if the author is a pacifist and writes a novel about war, such as about soldiers, it shouldn't be difficult to separate an author's personal opinions on war from what they've written about in their books.  After all, it is the author's job to write about characters and situations that may or may not be in-tune with their ordinary lives.  One could even argue that an author who can channel multiple viewpoints is an accomplished one.  (If someone can come up with a better example of how this works, please leave a comment.)

In that sense, I think it's silly to reject an author's work simply because of their personal viewpoint.  There is value in exposing oneself to multiple worldviews, particularly since doing so means we are better prepared to deal with those we might disagree with, or might feel different from in some way or another.  But, even more importantly, many authors write books that have nothing to do with their personal politics--at least, in an obvious way.  Lewis Carroll, for example, has been called by many a pedophile (he wasn't, by the standards of the time, but that's neither here nor there); his work, however, shouldn't be read within that context precisely because, as far as I can remember, his work has nothing to do with his supposed pedophilia.  The same is true of many other authors, dead and alive.  It is also important to note that authors are not born in vacuums, or brainwashed from a young age to fit a "writer template."  They come from all walks of life, from every continent and, I would hope, every country.  If there is any question that the United States is the melting pot of the world, then we can all take solace in the fact that the writer's world is an unflinching melting pot.

But where I diverge from most on this particular subject is on the economic issue.  Authors (and publishers) need readers to earn "money" (both in the physical currency sense and in the readers-as-currency/voice sense), and they use that money for various things.  What should be of concern to anyone who cares about their own politics is that the "money" authors earn from us can also be used against our interests--here I'm specifically talking about living authors, rather than ones that have been dead for centuries.  If your politics are not important to you, then you can ignore such things and continue supporting authors who would use their voices to deny things you rightfully deserve.  If your politics are important, however, then it should quickly become obvious that separating an author from his or her work is an economic impossibility.  Providing "monetary" gains to authors also provides incentive for them to continue doing what they do.  In most cases, this isn't an issue, since many of us want our favorite writers to keep writing and talking to us.  But some authors use their "money" to push their political ideologies, to speak against issues that matter to us in the most bigoted way, and so on.  To support such authors is tantamount to saying "I'm okay with you using your monetary and reader-ly currency to combat my personal interests."

If you're okay with that, then you should continue buying new copies of books written by authors you vehemently disagree with.  But I think that by doing so you become an accessory, which would be an insult if one could say that there is such as a thing as being not-an-accessory--which, I would argue, there is not, since we all purchase things that, somewhere down the line, work against our interests.  Regardless, with authors, we have a very clear choice:  we can support the ones we disagree with by giving them royalties and an audience, or we can cut them off like the diseased limb that they are and give more "money" to those who are both great writers and great people.

I've made the choice for option two a number of times, such as in the case of Orson Scott Card and John C. Wright, both of which have said many an ignorant, disgusting word about the LGBT community, and both of which are good writers.  I still own books by both of them, and will continue to do so, but I won't purchase new copies of their books in the future, nor will I review their works, or provide them any sort of positive feedback which might, in some way, be used as "currency."  That's something I'm not willing to do so long as their politics are so vehemently opposed to mine, and so long as they are so outwardly for the destruction of what matters to me--my family.  I may make the same choice with Elizabeth Moon, depending on what happens in the next week or so.  I think the more one realizes that every dollar we spend gets used for something else, including things we might disagree with, the more we have to acknowledge our responsibility, even our complicity, in the negative (subjective as it is).  In the case of the separation of author and work, I think we should make the choice to step away.

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  1. I very much agree with not financially supporting those whose political viewpoints disagree with your own - that's an enormous epiphany that seems to have escaped a majority of consumers in this capitalist culture, which is terribly disappointing, not to mention scary.

    I will say, though, I read the Moon post and feel a lot of her statements were taken out of context. There's a long preamble before she dives into the "Ground Zero Mosque" which display her intention and viewpoint very well (i.e., compromise is necessary in a multi-cultural nation, and to compromise is not the same as helplessly surrendering freedoms).

    But even though I agree with her entire point, I disagree that the mosque is a proper example of this. If religious edifices shouldn't be allowed near sites of past atrocities made in the name of said religion...we wouldn't have very many religious edifices. Like, at ALL. Most Christian churches would by necessity be torn down, near were the KKK was active, where abortion doctors were shot, where the inquisition reigned, where the crusades were held, etc, etc. We can't say the mosque is improper in this respect without saying ALL religious buildings are improper in the same.

    Since I doubt any other religion is willing to concede this, there's no social compromise in Muslim followers surrendering the mosque. Therefore Moon's point - for all its merits - is mis-aimed at the GZM.

  2. My problem with Moon's post isn't that there isn't some truth or logic in what she's saying or trying to address; it's that her method of attacking the problem is to make statements about a group of individuals that are offensive, particularly since she's trying to take the higher ground by degrading another culture. Even within the context, her argument that there is such a thing as "undeserving-of-citizenship" and that many Muslims are in that category is disgusting. There a very few instances in which one might be undeserving-of-citizenship, but being of a particular religion, or even being of a particular radical form of religion is not one of them. You might not agree with their politics, but if that was a basis for denying citizenship to people, we'd all have a hard time agreeing on who actually deserves it.

    There are other issues too, such as her argument about complicity on the part of Muslims in 9/11 and human rights violations.

    I get a lot of what she says, and generally I would agree, but the way she says it is the problem. I'm not one to apologize for any religion or non-religion. If you do something disgusting, you deserve to be called out for it and condemned. But furthering Islamo-phobia is not a way of doing that. It's fear-mongering verging on racism.

    And we're in agreement about the mosque. I think there's a lovely bit of hypocrisy going on. We'll condemn the uncommon religion for the actions of the few, but when it comes to the common religion, we'll turn a blind eye. You can't have it both ways. Either religion is protected, or it isn't.


  3. The ground zero 'mosque', of course, is just an Islamic centre with a prayer room which is open to all denominations. There are already sex shops and a mosque closer to ground zero than the proposed site, and most New Yorkers are not against the centre at all.

    There's a lot of disinformation going on.

  4. Adam: Absolutely. It's all absurdity. People are conflating this center (inside of which is a mosque) with radical Islam. They might come from the same tree branch, but we should be focusing our attention on those who are not interested in the continuation of the freedom project. That's not what I see going on lately.