To Read or Not To Read: Should We Read Books By Problematic Authors?

Lately there’s been this discussion about whether or not we should separate the artist from their art when we find out something not so awesome about them. We see this with R Kelly, Orson Scott Card and Woody Allen who’ve done or said some terrible things. However, can we still enjoy their art outside of that?

Orson Scott Card

(Orson Scott Card: Author of Ender’s Game)

Kit Steinkellner wrote a piece on Book Riot yesterday that discussed exactly that and she said she would personally stop reading books by authors who she found out to be “monsters”. I don’t think I own any books by questionable authors but I’m sure at some point I’ve read an author who’s not that great beyond the words on the page. I do know that art is a very personal experience and parts of who the author is gets imprinted on it. Is it fair for someone to decline to read a book of yours because you molested a young girl? Absolutely. I do think it’s a personal choice as Steinkellner pointed out because book censorship is never a good idea. Everyone has the right to express their ideas and knowledge just as other people have the right to access them. It’s up to you to decide what you’ll get from the experience and I think prefacing or checking out the author’s bio is a great idea if you do end up reading their work.

I’ve personally gone back and forth on this issue internally because some of these authors have written books that touched on really interesting ideas and issues on society that could be used as great teachable material. I also think it would be harder to let go of a book I’ve read and loved but, in the case of Ender’s Game, I’m more likely to drop an author if I haven’t read their book(s). What struck me about Steinkellner’s piece and separated her arguments from others was when she mentioned the White Male Authors of the book world.

How can I say an “uneasy yes” to all these authors? And why do I feel this insidious pressure to say yes? Is it because we’ve elevated these authors, all men, all white, to a legendary, almost-god-like status?

– Kit Steinkellner “No, I Won’t Read Your Book if I Think You’re a Monster”

I’m not saying that others who aren’t white men aren’t problematic but I do think we would be faster to demonize them rather than those who’ve be classified as the greats or must reads and who happen to be white men. If there’s one thing that I hope people who’ve been reading this blog have noticed, it’s that I am not a fan of the “universal pedestal”. It irks me to no end when I hear people say that Shakespeare is the greatest writer that ever lived and if you don’t enjoy or read his works then you’re nuts. Art is subjective. I don’t care if Shakespeare inspired works of fiction and other mediums centuries later, it doesn’t mean I have to or will enjoy his plays. I don’t care if Jane Austen is the best damn romance writer ever. She’s just not my cup of tea. There’s this pressure to bow at the greatness of a book and/or author that, when we find out they’re essentially an asshole, we’re suddenly unsure of what to do. Again, I’m not saying women, minorities etc can’t be assholes but I also don’t think we’d give them as much slack.

I say this: if you’re unsure on whether or not to drop an author due to their problematic beliefs/actions, then please let that conflict be based on the book and the author. Don’t ever feel pressured by the supposed “classics” (in terms of being deemed “the greats” versus their publication age) and the “must read thus must love”.

This is an interesting topic and I think it’s one that requires more discussion. What do you think? Should you drop a book because the author is problematic?

A. A. Omer

16 thoughts on “To Read or Not To Read: Should We Read Books By Problematic Authors?

  1. I’ve been having this conversation with a few other bloggers…for me, I try as much as possible to separate the author/artist from the art because I don’t want it to influence me while reading. I want to make my own decisions on whether this is good art or not. Art is an escape for me, so, without being ignorant, I want to escape the boundaries of who the author/artist is.

    I do think it’s true that you shouldn’t bother with what’s “great” or “classic” and what’s not. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. That said, I don’t necessarily mind those terms because they give me something to reference when I do read. They’re subjective terms, sure, but unlike the author/artist debate, they’re terms that others have about the art, not about the artist. It’s equivalent to reading other blogger reviews or other critical essays about art. I don’t think anyone should feel badly about not liking something, but I do think the “great” and “classic” terms make me stop and think more about WHY I don’t like something, whether I need to read it again, and whether it’s relevant to the world outside of just me. To me, that’s the purpose of critique.

    1. I have no issue with giving authors credit where credit is due in regards to influencing other works in a major way in literature but there is been a culture of guilt tripping readers into enjoying or even reading a book. Great points and awesome discussion 🙂

      1. It’s frightening but true – the guilt-tripping, I mean. I actually think it’s more prevalent the other way – e.g. guilt tripping or laughing at people because they don’t read or like more classics. How many times have you been laughed at because you read YA books? How many times have people called them “trash” or “fluff”?

        That said, I suppose it’s all part of the discussion, right? I do think it’s sad that people feel guilty or bad about not liking books (for me, that book is Wuthering Heights, yuck), conversely, I think it’s sad when people dismiss certain books as trash,, but at the same time, if we’re going to discuss books, sometimes that’s going to happen. I don’t take it as a controlling thing…instead, I just try to see it as passion for that particular book from a personal perspective.

        I think the “white men” argument that Steinkellner makes is pretty interesting…I don’t think that we’re slower to demonize white dudes, I think it’s just the larger problem of “white dudes were the only ones allowed to write/create anything for a really long time”.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. This whole white “supremacist” ideology and “universal-pedestal-god-like-stature” that is given to a lot of artists, written or otherwise, is superficial in the grand scheme of things. For instance, Edmonton International Airport (Canada) just went through this big thing when a teen tried to walk through the security gates with a pipe-bomb. Barely anybody batted an eyelash, and not only that, security tried to give the bomb back. The kid claimed he’d forgotten it was there and that he and a friend were originally planning on blowing up a shed and filming the action (post trip to Mexico). Now the big controversy/conversation is if it were a person of color walking through would they be harassed or given the same delicate disregard? It was a big media buzz a week or so back, now everybody’s wrapped up in Sochi terrorists and Justin Bieber getting arrested in Miami on a DUI charge (I still can’t over the fact that he’s smiling in his mugshot – dummy..)
    Moving on.
    You’re right. Steinkellner is right. People should use their due diligence when it comes to accepting requests from authors/publishers when it comes to reading books by individuals who might have a “scandalous” lifestyle.
    Classics may be classics but that doesn’t mean everybody has to like them. I’ve never read Jane Austen, or Bram Stocker, or Robert Louis Stevenson, but I won’t hold it against somebody who has. Classics have a tendency of letting somebody enjoy something and see into the writing styles of the “old”. It’s inspiring and shouldn’t be shot down.
    Nobody’s a saint, and if we are all to be treated with that form of expectancy we wouldn’t get the same form of creativity that van Gogh gave us.
    Sorry for the rant.. I couldn’t help but get vocal this time – yikes!

      1. Haha.. I had a slight fear when I saw I received a reply. I was waiting to read “Wow, way to go Krys you completely misunderstood this entire piece… GTFO” phew lol

        I hadn’t actually read the original article on Book Riot, or even the article from Book Riot that spouted this entire debate, but I’m quite curious in the end.

        I honestly am not going to hold it against somebody of their societal flaws, and just like if I choose to read/review a particular book by an author who has done something unacceptable by societal standards – ethically, morally, etc – I don’t want to have to feel chastised and turned against and considered a terrible person afterwards or worst a martyr of some kind.

        I haven’t done any research in to authors and their histories, and I don’t think I will either, because in the big picture, who am I to criticize somebody past the literature they’ve published. I get it, it’s not right, but what do I know?

        Isn’t it up to people who are paid to worry about these things worry about them and the outcome of a persons livelihood? I understand it’s up to us to make rightful decisions based on what we know, but I’m not going to dig into old news clippings to find out if J.K. Rowling was a bad seed in kindergarten and hit a kid in the head with the bouncy ball causing a concussion and the kid’s parents sued the Rowling parents and the school for some petty reason, or Stephen King was inspired into writing Pet Sematary because he hit a child on his way to work.

      2. What people have issue with in regards to author’s outside of their work is when it comes out that the author molested a child, sexually assaulted someone, spewed racist, homophobic ideologies etc Those are big issues that have people debate on whether they should separate the author from their art and whether that’s still viewed as giving money to someone who would do those things. That’s where the conflict lies. 🙂

      3. Very true. There’s a few of those that I’m sure if I heard about them that an author has been caught or confessed to, I’d think a little longer before purchasing the book, however, I might consider borrowing it from the library or going audio. For some unknown reason the idea of scapegoating in this situation sounds better…

  3. I think everyone should be able to read whatever they want, and that it is not my responsibility or obligation to police them. THAT SAID, I am personally uncomfortable with the idea of giving money to authors who hold values and perpetuate ideas/actions that are harmful to other people. It’s a very fine line, because yes, “the author is dead” when we are praising or criticizing a text, but if an author is spouting offensive ideas and calling for actions that violate human rights and still expects people to give him/her money to pay the bills? Then I would exercise my own right to walk the other way. If buying certain books is how I can voice my support for authors whose ideas I would like to spread, then I’ll focus on that instead.

    1. Angel has perfectly summarized exactly what I was going to say! I would never dare to tell anyone else what they should read but if an author’s beliefs, opinions upset me I am most likely not going to support them by buying their book. Orson Scott Card is the perfect example. it’s public record now that he gives a lot of money to anti-gay groups so why would I give him more money to give to those groups? He has the right to believe and write whatever he wants but I’m not obligated to read it

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  5. “There’s this pressure to bow at the greatness of a book and/or author that, when we find out they’re essentially an asshole, we’re suddenly unsure of what to do.”

    Love the angle that you’re going for here. And it’s a wonderful discussion. I personally will not support the author. I have Orson’s books and and Emily Giffin’s books and here I am thinking what do I do with them? I just don’t want to be supporting people who act or believe in such a certain way. I’m okay with that. If others support them, then that’s up to them. Good for them! I can control what I like and dislike and will sleep better at night.

    You’re right, art is subjective. There all different opinions and it’s okay too.

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