Story First, Author Second: Drawbacks of Judging Literature By An Author’s Character

Orson Scott Card, known for his award-winning novel Ender’s Game, has achieved unusual notoriety for a bestselling author. While many readers praise Card’s writing ability, they sometimes struggle promoting his work since they disagree with his views on gay marriage. Gay rights activists have boycotted Card’s work on multiple occasions, successfully keeping a Superman story Card wrote for DC Comics from being published in 2013. Interestingly, activists did not claim Card’s Superman story had a homophobic agenda. They simply claimed hiring Card would promote his views.

These boycotts raise not only important moral questions, but also an important literary question. Simply put, what role should authors’ character traits (i.e. lifestyle, political, or spiritual views) play in evaluating their work? Should stories be banned purely because of an author’s character, or should the content be judged on its own? In this case, one side argues that an author’s character traits can be the sole basis for evaluations. This view certainly holds some truth and shows good intentions. However, the anti-Card argument is impractical when applied to literature as a whole.

Granted, there are clearly times when readers should note an author’s private life. Authors often write stories based on their own experiences, including creating characters based on themselves. Sometimes, authors will openly state that their stories have certain agendas or influences. Given these facts, readers should consider how authors’ character traits influence their stories and take issue when stories champion something truly offensive – such as pedophilia or intolerance. It would be strange not to take issue when authors promote obviously offensive actions.

Even so, readers should be concerned with having realistic, functional methods to evaluate literature. One must consider each method’s logic and its implications for both readers and organizations who distribute or recommend books (such as libraries, bookstores, or schools). The anti-Card argument clearly contains implications that work against this goal.

Just because authors have particular views or lifestyles does not mean all their work reflects their deepest-held beliefs. Biographers’ discussions of authors’ private lives often lead to valid analyses of direct influences on their work. John Pearson noted in The Life of Ian Fleming that there are clear parallels between Fleming and his creation James Bond. But characters are never perfect mirrors of their creators. Fleming may have given Bond his womanizing attitudes and adventurous spirit. At the same time, Fleming had other roles (such as being a father) which never featured heavily in Bond’s adventures. No single book in the Ian Fleming library completes his self-portrait. Therefore, simply looking at authors’ biographical characters does not prove their stories always reflect authors’ views. Genre fiction, as Carnegie Medal-winning author Terry Pratchett reportedly said, is like a stew – a combination of many things. An author’s private life is only one of many factors which create a story.

Since the anti-Card argument over-emphasizes authors’ character traits, organizations following its reasoning would have to ban stories barely connected to their authors’ personal lives. For example, censorship boards concerned about fantasy authors promoting witchcraft could not just stop at banning Harry Potter. They would also have to forbid P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins series since Travers was interested in mysticism. To be completely safe, censors would also have to remove The Hound of the Baskervilles since it mentions ghosts and Arthur Conan Doyle enjoyed studying paranormal activity. The fact neither The Hound of the Baskerville or the Mary Poppins series describe genuine witchcraft would be irrelevant, because according to the anti-Card view, they were written by questionable authors. Regardless of good intentions, organizations following the anti-Card argument would prohibit many excellent stories for arbitrary reasons.

A system following the anti-Card argument would also ultimately work against reading widely. Once readers choose on principle to avoid stories by any author whose character traits they dislike, they can justify avoiding authors they even slightly disagree with. In the end, readers and organizations would be compelled by safety and good taste to only read stories by authors they entirely agree with. Book critics following this logic could only review stories by authors who share their views, thus destroying objective reviewing. Bookstores would need absurdly specific sections, such as “Christian Books that Approve of Divorce” versus “Christian Books that Denounce Divorce.” Libraries would have to keep track of what each family believes and considers good reading for their children, or give up recommending books entirely. As a result, one of the best reasons for reading – exposing oneself to new ideas – would disappear.

Finally, the anti-Card argument forgets the many situations where authors’ character traits are unclear. In such circumstances, readers cannot truly know how much author’s private lives influenced their work. For example, many scholars debate whether Charles Dodgeson, author of Alice in Wonderland, was a pedophile. No scholar has successfully verified Dodgeson’s sexuality. All historians know for certain is that Dodgeson was socially awkward, good friends with his neighbor’s daughter, and, like many Victorians, took photographs with semi-nude or nude children as models. These facts suggest Dodgeson was eccentric, but not all eccentrics are pedophiles. In the end, scholars simply do not have enough evidence to label Dodgeson a pedophile. Consequently, readers cannot say whether Alice in Wonderland is safe or unsafe to read. Still, readers and organizations following the anti-Card argument would have to ban Alice and other classics simply because the authors may have been indecent people.

Readers have a right to evaluate literature, recommend some stories and not others, and take issue when stories promote truly offensive actions. Nonetheless, these evaluations must always be based on a book’s content, not the author’s lifestyles or views. To claim that readers should judge stories totally on an author’s character traits is an impractical argument that would lead to unjustly rejecting many excellent stories. In the end, the anti-Card position makes reviewing, recommending, or even trying out new stories impossible.

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G. Connor Salter is a freelance writer, currently studying Professional Writing at Taylor University. He writes weekly articles for the Odyssey and has contributed pieces to the Waynesdale News and Taylor University’s The Echo, as well as other publications. You can check out his blog at gcsalter.wordpress.com