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10 Problematic Authors I Have Trouble Separating From Their Work

By Joanna Robinson | Lists | July 18, 2013 |

By Joanna Robinson | Lists | July 18, 2013 |

As the release of the Ender’s Game film draws closer, the controversy and conflicting emotions around its author, Orson Scott Card, grow ever more heated. And rightly so. We find ourselves, once again, in the crucible of this age-old, well-worn question: Can you separate the artist from the art? It’s an issue I go back and forth on pretty regularly. Usually right around the time Roman Polanski releases a new movie. In the case of Card, while I have a child’s love for “Ender’s Game,” I also have an advocate’s desire to send a strong message by boycotting the film. I’ve heard that some are contemplating seeing the film and donating to a worthy cause (like The Trevor Project) so as to enjoy both the pop culture event and peace of mind. That feels a bit like a well-intentioned cop-out, but points for caring at all, I suppose.

But boycotting a movie that (to be perfectly honest) doesn’t look like it will change my life is one thing. Purging my book shelves of all the authors who had problematic personal lives/views is another. (Problematic is the very nicest term I could use here. In some case “repugnant” would be more applicable.) I’m not here to smear mud over your favorite authors nor, especially, to speak ill of the dead. But I do rather miss the time in my life when I didn’t know much about the writers I loved. When I was able to judge them on their work alone. But in this TMZ/fishbowl/celebrity biography world we live in, it requires a huge amount of apathy to not care at all when you discover your favorite author was, say, a massive racist. And, sure, we can make some concessions for social context and historical mores. Some. But it will still shake your teeth loose to see an author you love pen something so hateful. In the end, I think, this question becomes a personal barometer. How many foibles and excuses can you stomach before you brush up against your moral limit? And how interesting to find out where that limit is. As for me, in my capacity as a bookseller, I don’t offer up “Ender’s Game” to curious young sci-fi readers anymore. I steer them towards Douglas Adams, Frank Herbert or Patrick Rothfuss. As for the rest of these, well, the choice is harder.

Dr. Seuss aka Theodore Geisel (1904-1992)
Most Beloved Work: Your mileage may vary, but mine was always “The Sneetches and Other Stories,” which, ironically, deals with tolerance and acceptance of others.
Most Problematic Issue: His early, super racist work.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Most Beloved Work: Once again, this is a very subjective category, but I have to go with “Bleak House,” which strikes the best balance between personal melodrama and social activism.
Most Problematic Issue: The monstrous treatment of his wife, Catherine.

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)
Most Beloved Work: “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” which, in England, was titled “The Artificial Nigger And Other Tales.”
Most Problematic Issue: Uh, you guessed it, racism.

Forrest Carter aka Asa Earl Carter (1925-1979)
Most Beloved Work: “The Education Of Little Tree”
Most Problematic Issue: Carter was a former Klansman and a speech writer for segregation advocate Governor George Wallace. So, shall we say racism?

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
Most Beloved Work: Hitchens was an absolute genius. Without question. I also had an occasion to work with him once and he was, without a doubt, one of the most genial (if unapologetically alcoholic) authors I’ve ever met. He wouldn’t be on the list if I didn’t respect him, and I almost didn’t include him because his passing is so recent. Speaking ill of the dead is bad enough, but speaking ill of the recent dead is almost sick-making. My favorite of his works was the intensely personal and heart-wounding “On Mortality.”
Most Problematic Issue: Warmongering.

Jack London (1876-1916)
Most Beloved Work: “Call Of The Wild”
Most Problematic Issue: His radical (sometimes violent) socialism is not the major problem. No, the problem is his belief that social justice was the right of white men only. Well, let’s just call it racism.

Lewis Carroll aka Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898)
Most Beloved Work: “Alice” (There And Back Again)
Most Problematic Issue: The implications of the child photography which may be nothing at all whatsoever and, in fact, was likely totally fine given the Victorian context but still gives the modern reader a twinge or seventy.

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)
Most Beloved Work: “The Just So Stories”
Most Problematic Issue: Downright lyrical racism.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Most Beloved Work: His short stories, particularly “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Most Problematic Issue: His atrocious treatment of everyone around him. Given that he died by his own hands, we can assume that Hemingway went through life a tortured soul, but that doesn’t give him license to tear everyone around him to shreds. Which he did. Relentlessly.

HP Lovecraft (1890-1937)
Most Beloved Work: “The Call of Cthulhu”
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Many thanks to the Bookseller Think Tank for help on this.