Puppies, Trolls, and the Nature of Art

So if you’re a die-hard sci-fi fan who lives more on the internet than in real life, you’ve probably heard about the whole Sad/Rabid Puppies hijacking of the Hugo nominations. There has been a lot of trollish mud-slinging going on from both sides of the political fence, and I have no desire to jump into that mess. What I am VERY interested in, however, is using this unpleasantness to have a legitimately interesting conversation with people from both sides about the question at the heart of this debacle:

Is the personal life of an author important in how we judge the impact of their work?

That’s it. That is the only idea I want to talk about relative to the entire situation. It’s not a question I have an answer to, so let me just toss in a few specific examples that I have pondered recently as fodder for conversation.

H.P. Lovecraft

Good ol’ H.P.L. has been hugely influential on the development of horror and science fiction. I don’t really spend a lot of time dipping my toes into the horror waters, but have picked up on his influence on writers I do enjoy, like Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon.

But…Lovecraft wrote in praise of Hitler’s ideas and personality (though not his ways of making those ideas happen). He wrote about the harm the influx of Jews had done to New York. Some of his celebrated works include shockingly offensive portrayals of black people. If we want to sum that up, we can call him racist, anti-semitic, and sympathetic to Hitler: the record backs it up.

John Green

I have read most of John Green’s books, and my personal opinion is that they’re all telling the same relatively bland story with minor twists. It kills me to say this, but I would rank John Green’s books somewhere between Lurlene McDaniel and Nicholas Sparks, which is to say: it’s fluffy beach-reading targeting readers who could use the catharsis of a good cry. A niche of the novel market I enjoy from time to time, but not something I would predict to have a lasting influence on the landscape of fiction, and definitely not in its approach to the representation of gender, because let’s face it: J.G.’s ladies mostly hover about half a complexity step beyond manic pixie dream girls and his record with meeting the bare minimum the Bechdel test sets up is spotty at best. (For example: I pretty much agree with this breakdown of An Abundance of Katherines.)

But…I like John Green as an internet politician, geek extraordinaire, and human being. I love his work with Mental Floss. I love the videos he and his brother Hank do together. I generally agree with his perspective on various social and political issues and appreciate the amount of research behind his quick and clear explanations of his stance (for example). I love his vocal support of feminism (though, again, his fiction has some serious room for growth there).

John C. Wright

If Wright doesn’t go down in science fiction history as someone with a prolonged influence on the genre, wake me up from my grave and feed me a hat. I read the Chronicles of Chaos a few years back, not knowing a thing about the author, and loved them. His descriptions of the fourth dimensional presence of the narrator as she’s discovering her hidden powers is wonderful. His language is rich and fascinating. His characters are interesting and complex and interact with one another in interesting, complex ways. In many ways, he does a better job of balancing gender representation than John Green. I will eventually get around to reading more of his work, and from everything I’ve heard, I expect to enjoy the rest more than the Chaos series.

But…John C. Wright has some decidedly problematic ideas about sex and gender. Let’s consider this. For those of you who don’t have a solid hour to properly digest this…blob, it’s a lengthy essay detailing Wright’s beliefs on chastity, marriage, and homosexuality, and while there’s a bit of a punch-pulling note at the end that advocates against violent means of upholding this perspective, it’s basically constructing an argument for chastity until marriage and against homosexuality as a licit or natural behavior. His arguments read like a summary of why these positions may have been or seemed justifiable in the past (at least, if you’re persuaded by some of the cornerstones of Stoicism), but I can’t agree with his conclusions, not least because they are built around extremely cynical stereotypes of men and women alike. I don’t get a misogynist vibe from what he says (misanthropic, sure, but more in a self-important/lost-art-of-chivalry way than in a specifically misogynist way), but I doubt he would disagree with anyone accusing him of being anti-feminist. And his snide asides to me and my chimerical ilk (i.e., feminists who bother to look more closely at his justifications for his beliefs)? Definitely a whiff of the firm intolerance we call bigotry in there.

And so…

What’s a reader to do? Does an author’s noxious worldview undermine the value of a genuinely good book? Should we reward the mediocre fiction of people whose politics we agree with? In the current world, where social media makes the political leanings and philosophical convictions of everyone much easier to delve into and gossip about, Barthes’ question of the death of the author (PDF) isn’t just relevant in Laputa. Authorial intent and what readers choose to assume about it has practical consequences for the lives of human beings whose careers can rise and fall for the dastardly crime of having an opinion about important issues.

So what do you think? Where do we draw the line on supporting good work by obnoxious people? Does it compromise the integrity of art to vote for lame work simply because you tend to agree with the author? Is it appropriate for organizations to develop institutional guidance around this question? Should the ebb and flow of political opinions be considered a useful marker for the current state of the genre and its fans, and if so, is there an ethical and enforceable way to guarantee that opinions captured by a ballot are organically representative of the field?

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