Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Orson Scott Card Problem

My general rule of thumb has been to remain silent on this topic, to not join in the endless online debates surrounding Ender’s Game and Orson Scott Card. I don’t like controversy. I don’t like people misconstruing what I’m saying. But I’ve been asked this multiple times now, so here is my attempt to explain how it is possible that I can love the novel Ender’s Game as much as I do when Orson Scott Card is such a completely vile person.

But before we delve into that particular example, let’s back up. Because there are larger questions here than the awesomeness of Ender Wiggin versus the awful terribleness that is Orson Scott Card. Prepare yourselves. This is going to be a multilayered and extremely long look into this problem, so bear with me here, dear readers.

First off, I think there are three things that should be viewed as universal and true of all art/artist relationships and the relationship the reader has with them. So these are my universal truths:

A piece of art can be enjoyed without knowledge of the creator.

I think we can all agree that a piece of art can be enjoyed without a person knowing anything about who created that piece of art. For example, I know nothing about Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, but I adore “Welcome to Night Vale.” When I go to art museums, 99 times out of 100, I know absolutely nothing about the artists who created the pieces I’m viewing. I don’t know even know when the art was created (unless there is a plaque by it stating when) or what sort of artistic movement it was in. But I can still look at that art and connect with it, judge for myself whether or not I think it’s beautiful.

A creator is not his piece of art.

On twitter the other day, Brent Weeks made a comment that he was writing a character who was expressing opinions he himself does not hold and he just knew someone was going to read it and think that was what he believed and give him grief for it. This is an atrocity. And I’ve discussed this before at length. An author is not his world or characters. They do not necessarily represent at all what he believes. They can, but they don’t have to. A main character can have completely vile beliefs, and it doesn’t mean those are the author’s beliefs. By the same token, a character can be completely in line with your morals, and it doesn’t mean the author is. A person can identify with or hate a character, and that means nothing in regards as to how that person should feel about the author. An author is not his character.

We all can and should read/watch/consume things that we disagree with.

It’s almost impossible to tell by picking up a book or movie that you’re going to disagree with its morals, thoughts, ideas, or anything. So I would say most people regularly consume things they don’t like or agree with. This is particularly important when it comes to news/opinions/politics and the like. Otherwise, people suffer from confirmation bias. The problem with confirmation bias is that it causes people to view people on the other side of the issue as insane/crazy/somehow Other. Also, reading intelligent discussions on topics you disagree with can stretch your understanding of the world, and challenge your thoughts on the subject. A challenge either results in changing a belief or reaffirming it. Both of these things are good things. In the words of my friend Erika, “I read Ayn Rand so I can better hate her.”

Now here are three things that are completely my opinion and affect how I consume art.

Knowledge about a creator does not change the creation, for me.

I really love Tom Hiddleston. The more I learn about him, the more I think he’s a completely adorable person. His existence makes this world a better place.

But that doesn’t change how I feel about Loki.

Even if Tom Hiddleston was a complete whack job. Even if he beat his wife or murdered people and was sent to jail, it doesn’t change the fact that when I watched his performance as Loki it moved me to tears and literally changed my life. And when I see Loki, I don’t see Tom Hiddleston—I see a broken, hurt god trying to find his place in the universe. Outside of the movies, I can look at Tom Hiddleston and appreciate that he is a good person who portrayed Loki amazingly, and I like Tom Hiddleston all the more for it, but in the world of the movies, I am completely absorbed. Who these people are in real life has no impact on my viewing of the story. It’s a complete dissociation.

This may not be the same for everyone, and that’s ok. For some people knowledge about an actor/author/artist/creator can taint the piece of art. For others, it works the other way, the art taints the artist. I have a friend who doesn’t like Tom Hiddleston—despite his sheer adorableness—because she cannot dissociate him from Loki, who she views as a despicable evil villain (which is a valid view of Loki). I try to point her to earlier point that a creator is not the piece of art he creates—Tom Hiddleston is not Loki—but she can’t dissociate them. I view that as a problematic way of viewing the world. Because sometimes art has to be messy and dirty and disturbing. Thor, heck The Avengers, needs a villain. It wouldn’t work without him. But I am completely ok when things work the other way. If your knowledge about the creator affects your view of the creation, I understand. And that’s ok. That’s just not how my brain works.

I do not do a background check on any creator before I purchase their content. Or even after.

Most of the time I go to the bookstore I judge a book by one thing: the blurb on the back. If it sounds interesting enough, I’ll buy it without even looking at pages. If I’m iffy on it, I’ll read the first few pages in the store to see how I like the writing style. That’s it. That’s all I use to judge a book. (If I’m not purchasing it off of a recommendation. Those I purchase without even looking at anything else most of the time.)

Even when I finish the book, most of the time I don’t even read the “About the Author.” Usually I do read the acknowledgements, but that’s because I’m looking for agent and editor names (both are usually thanked in the acknowledgements section).

It’s only recently that I’ve started looking up authors online. In fact, the first author I actively sought out an online presence for was Brandon Sanderson. And that wasn’t even because I loved him. Not at the time. It was because he was taking over The Wheel of Time, and I needed to know who this person was that Harriet and the Tor team thought he was good enough to take over my favorite epic fantasy series.

I since learned that Brandon Sanderson is a good person. And that’s awesome. But it doesn’t change how I view his books. I still think all of his original stories are amazing, and that he completely and utterly messed up Mat in The Gathering Storm. The fact that he is a good person does not mitigate this error. But neither does it make him a bad person. It means he messed up. It happens to the best of us, but it will hurt every time I read that book that Mat feels off. Brandon Sanderson is not a bad person because his art is bad, and his art is not made good because he is a good person.

I rarely seek out information on an author. I only learned Orson Scott Card was crazy when the Ender’s Game movie was announced and I saw forums explode with objections to his person.

If I limited my media consumption based on who I agree with, I’d never read another book, watch another movie, or look at another piece of art.

This is just the truth. I’m a weird mix of a person, and I know very few people in this world who believe exactly as I do. Heck, I disagree on a lot of topics with a lot of my friends. In many Christian circles, people label me as liberal, and in the world at large, I’m usually labeled as conservative. I believe in evolution, I think that gay marriage should be legalized, and I am a feminist. I am also strongly anti-abortion, I think sex before marriage is a bad idea, and if alcohol magically disappeared off of the planet, never to be seen again, I’d be ok with that. If I required that creators agreed with my exact set of morals and personal beliefs, I would not be able to claim Iasaac Asimov as one of my favorite authors (he was an atheist), Brandon Sanderson as my favorite living author (he is Mormon), or heck, enjoy a Cassie Clare book (I’m told she had some issue with plagiarism in the past).

Even if I did look up every author before I purchased their books, the odds of me being able to find out whether they donate money to an organization actively working against my beliefs is low. So how can I purchase their books knowing or not knowing whether they’re contributing money to something I may or may not believe in?

The truth of the matter is that I don’t know this about anyone. How do I know the grocers at my store aren’t actively working against gay marriage or actively supporting abortion? I don’t. And by shopping there, I’m paying them and they’re supporting these organizations I don’t support. What am I supposed to do about that?

But let’s assume that’s different, because maybe in this case, ignorance is an excuse. So not knowing is valid, and as long as you don’t know, it’s ok to pay for things. (Ignorance is bliss after all). Clearly, this is not the situation of Orson Scott Card. Not anymore.

The Orson Scott Card/Ender’s Game Problem

I read Ender’s Game in the eighth grade. This would have been the school year of 2000-2001. At that time, I didn’t really have internet. Sure, I had access, at school and at home, but for very limited times. I was only allowed to use the internet for very monitored and limited means. Mainly I used the internet for research regarding school projects. But this was a time period when I was more likely to use a hardbound encyclopedia as a reference for reports than the internet.

My father gave my Ender’s Game to read in the seventh grade, but I didn’t, because for some strange reason I felt if he recommended it to me it must not be very good. So I put it off for a year before I read it. My father knew nothing about Orson Scott Card. If you look at what the “about the author” says, it’s basically nothing. So we were living under the “ignorance is bliss” umbrella. We didn’t know.

When I read Ender’s Game, it blew my young mind. I loved it. It was more than the twist. It was Ender himself, a boy who was both compassionate and ruthless. This was a kid I could follow into battle. And his story taught me lessons about life, about how to view strangers and the world around me, that have made me a better person.

I re-read Ender’s Game on a yearly basis. I have every year since then. I cannot begin to describe the impact this book has had on my life.

So what am I supposed to do when I’m suddenly told, over ten years after the fact, that Orson Scott Card is a completely vile person?

I do support gay rights. I do not support ridiculous rhetoric about overthrowing the United States government. Is loving Ender’s Game supporting these things? Does that fact that Ender’s Game has had an impact on my life somehow make me a vile person by association?

I would say no and no. If anything the story of Ender’s Game is in complete dissonance with Orson Scott Card’s personal beliefs. Ender’s Game is about discovering that the Other, the person who is completely alien to your entire frame of reference and existence, is actually no different from you. It’s the moral of the entire Ender-Verse. Ender Wiggin would pull Orson Scott Card up by the scruff of his neck and say “How dare you demonize these people because they are different from you! Remember the Xenocide!”

So what’s a person to do? I own three copies of Ender’s Game (which I admit might seem* excessive, but one copy is my original beat up copy that will fall apart if touched again—also its signed, something one of my friends did for me before we knew anything about Orson Scott Card as a person, one is an e-copy that I now use as my reading copy, and the other is the copy I loan out). I already have my ticket to the first showing of the movie. Does this make me a bad person?

If JK Rowling was suddenly revealed to be a serial killer, does that change the fact that she impacted millions of lives for the better?

The answer is going to be different for everyone. By owning three copies of Ender’s Game, I’ve stopped dozens of other people from buying it. Because for over ten years now, everyone I know has read it by borrowing my copy. Granted they read it on my recommendation, but they read it without giving Orson Scott Card money. (Admittedly, since I’ve only known about the controversy for a short period of time, it’s not like I was actively doing this to keep him from getting money. I just really like loaning books and most people I know don’t like buying them. I have quite the extensive library.)

I don’t believe there is a wrong answer to this. Boycotting is a completely legitimate response. I also don’t think loving Ender makes you bad person. I don’t think that by buying a movie ticket, I’m somehow taking a stance against gay rights. Yes, Orson Scott Card is going to get money out of it (though I’m not sure how movie rights work. It’s possible he got paid a lump sum and it’s not based on how many ticket purchases happen), but so are dozens of actors, actresses, and movie crew. All of which support a wide variety of political, personal, and religious beliefs.

I’m not going to go see this movie because I love Orson Scott Card. I’m going to see it because I love Ender. Because knowing Ender Wiggin has made me a better, more compassionate person.

Ender Wiggin taught me the lesson that people who are not like me deserve to be loved, live their lives, and deserve our respect and compassion**. Because of him I can look at someone who does not seem to be like me--be they gay, transgendered, a different race, or a different freaking species--and understand that they are in fact like me. They just want to live and be loved.

Ender made me the progressive person I am. Ender taught me the lesson Orson Scott Card seems to not have learned. And Orson Scott Card’s vileness can’t take that from me.

So that’s my answer to the Orson Scott Card question. It’s ok if you disagree. Ender taught me about that too.

*I say "might seem" because I have a tendency to be this excessive with all the books I own. There was a time when I had five different copies of A Wrinkle in Time. I do have three copies of every Wheel of Time book (paperback, e-book, and hardback), and I have double copies of many many books. I'm a book collector. It happens.

**Yes, my parents taught me about this too, but part of how I learn is through stories. Remember the Loki thing? No matter how many times I was told not to be the prodigal’s brother, it took the story of Loki to make me understand. That’s just part of how I learn. It’s the power of stories.


  1. I think you've written a very well thought out piece here, and I can't imagine Twitter will kill you ;-)

    I wish I could always separate the person from their work. Sometimes, I just can't. The knowledge just taints whatever I see, makes me consider too much. I've actually never read Ender's Game (hope Twitter doesn't kill me know). I've got some thinking to do...

    1. Laura, never feel bad that you haven't read a book. Some of us just don't find things as early as other people.

      Should you want to read it but don't want to give OSC money, I suggest going to a used-bookstore. Author's don't get any money from books sold at used bookstores. Or you can borrow it.

      I do recommend it, just because it is a fantastic, deep, thought-provoking read, but once again, if you're choosing to boycott the book or movie, I'm completely ok with that too.

  2. I have always thought the way you exposed here, the fact that the author is crazy does not alter what I feel about the art. I had my first experience with this when I read some interviews with Alan Moore.
    But with OSC it seems different now. I love the Ender Saga and I think it's one the best stories I have ever read, nothing can change that. But, if OSC writes a new book, I don't know how confortable I am in buying it or recommending it. I know he is actively trying to excude people from our society and I don't want to contribute to that.
    I still cannot wrap my mind around the fact that someone so vile can write one of the most insightful and pungent stories about understanding others and accepting the difference in other beings.

    1. I haven't bought a new book from OSC in a long while, mainly because most of his recent stuff just isn't as good. So I wouldn't recommend buying any of it either.

      OSC is not the first artist to be a terrible person and make amazingly beautiful things. It's part of the contradiction of human nature. But I agree that it's very perplexing that he can create Ender and yet not understand the lesson of Ender's life.

      And as I mentioned in my comment above, if you do want to read his new stuff (though I don't recommend it) but you don't want to support him, used bookstores or borrowing it are the way to go. That's the only way where you can read the book and it not support the author. Even checking books out of the library actually supports authors (companies do keep track of those sorts of things).

  3. Well said! I 100% agree with everything you said. You know I share your love of the book but do not share Card's views. Thank you for putting this into words because it is exactly how I feel!

    1. You're welcome. I think there are a lot of people who feel this way, it's just hard on the internet to word what you're feeling without giving people an opening to attack you. Which is why I tried to make my post as thorough as possible. :)

  4. I think this is well spoken. I've been struggling with this conundrum myself, and I also own all of his writing craft books (sadly also very good). A friend of mine bought the book just before things went south and he is tempted to destroy the book.

    I told him not to. I don't believe in destroy art. I believe--vehemently at times--in free speech, even the speech I do not agree with. I am upset at what he's done (The dude is actively using his wealth to fund these AntiGay jerks!), but the book is really fantastic. You see, I am a third. I was an accident child, one who was thought to be worthless because I unnecessarily increased the over burdened world's population.

    Ender's Game was transformative for me. It helped me see worth in myself (stupid that I needed a book, but there you go, I did). And it has changed so many other people. In the end, I don't know how to address the Ender's Game problem. I think I'll eventually rent the movie. Maybe I'll go to the cheap seats theater, but it's hard to support something that gives him money to help fund the anti gay movement. I also feel like he's in the minority. Even if he has money, his voice is increasingly out of touch with us as a people.

    I still wish he weren't as vocal outside of his art. My work tends to have strong religious themes, but I have no intention of revealing my religious beliefs to the community as a whole. They are personal and they don't matter to my art. I wish OSC could be considerate enough to realize that who he is doesn't matter to the way his art has affected millions of people. But Ender's Game is incredible.

    1. It's never stupid that you need a book. Stories are supposed to be transformative. That is there power. Though I am sad you thought you were worthless as a child. I'm also a third, but didn't have the bad experience you seemed to.

      I think the "should authors express their opinions" question is another deep philosophical argument. I think there are appropriate forums for artists to express political/religious/personal opinions, and I don't think we should ever limit them that they can't (as I'm sure you agree). There have been dozens of times where I've rolled my eyes while an actor spoke out about political things, but as much as I sometimes wish they wouldn't, it is still their right to use their platform to get their message out there. And it is a fan's right to disagree and even boycott if they feel so led.

      But yeah, it's tough. Ender's Game is a truly phenomenal book. That's why this dilemma exists. If it was a terrible book, everyone would just ignore it.

  5. Another crazy artist that produced sublime work, in a different field: Richard Wagner. A racist, womanizer, agitator, cheat, larcenist - yes; but he created great art.

  6. EXACTLY. My first and only response to this whole mess was one of disbelief: "has he READ his own book??!?!?"

    The biggest take-away from the Ender series is "accepting the other as part of yourself".

    Ender himself would have broken Card's arm as he tried to pull the trigger on his ridiculous "overthrowing the gub'mint" fantasy, but then explained why he was being foolish and then given him a chance at reform. Because that's just how Ender rolls.