J.K. Rowling is one of my favorite living authors. Her Harry Potter series is amazing, of course, but I also like her downbeat The Casual Vacancy novel and love her compelling crime series (written under the Robert Galbraith pen name) starring the pictured-above private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.
So it was especially disappointing to learn that the mostly liberal, very philanthropic Rowling — almost always tolerant and humanistic in her novels — seemingly has some backward views about transgender people. Here’s a story from two days ago:
That once again brings up the subject — which I’ve covered before — of reading authors we might disagree with on some very important issues. Do we want to spend time with writers who have views that are racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and/or whatever?
It’s a good question, partly answered by the fact that some authors with backward views keep those views out of their novels while other authors intentionally or subconsciously include those views in their fiction. Also, whether or not one keeps reading those writers can depend on how much you like their work. And of course there are few authors out there whose opinions any particular reader will 100% share. (I did reach that 100% threshold when proofreading my own two books before they were published. 🙂 )
Anyway, if I like a novelist’s work enough, I’ll keep reading them even if one or some of their views bother me. For instance, Rowling’s fifth Cormoran/Robin crime novel — Troubled Blood — is due out this September and I eagerly plan to read it. But I’ll feel some guilt doing so that I never felt before when enjoying Rowling’s superb writing.
I made a different decision with Orson Scott Card. I read one of his novels, which I liked but didn’t love, before learning that he was virulently/publicly anti-gay. Even though there was little indication of that in Lost Boys, I figured why bother reading more of Card’s books — there are countless other authors out there to try.
I reached a similar conclusion regarding the sexist Norman Mailer and John Updike — I just didn’t like their work enough to keep reading them after one book apiece. Ernest Hemingway’s sexism is also off-putting, though my feelings are mixed enough about him and his novels that I’ve read three of them.
Authors such as Jack London and H.P. Lovecraft are well-known for their racism (quite a lot of it in their personal views and some in their fiction), but I like their novels and stories enough to have read many of them despite my dismay over their bigotry.
I’ve also kept reading iconic 19th-century novelists such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott despite some anti-Semitism in their work. It helps a bit to remember that they were “of their time” — anti-Semitism was pretty blatant in the 1800s, though the great George Eliot broke that mold with the memorable Jewish characters in her fabulous Daniel Deronda. It also helps that Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Scott were masterful novelists whose anti-Semitic moments in their writing were nowhere near constant. With Dostoyevsky, it was basically some occasional asides in his novels. With Dickens, it was mostly the Fagin character in Oliver Twist, which the author later revised to make less objectionable. And Scott’s painfully stereotypical depiction of the money-lender Isaac in Ivanhoe was counterbalanced by the sympathetic, three-dimensional depiction of Isaac’s daughter Rebecca.
The “of their time” factor is of course also in the debate mix when seeing racism, sexism, and homophobia in older novels. Also, we should always think about whether authors are bigoted people themselves or are not-bigoted people periodically depicting bigotry in their fiction.
Finally, I have a little more tolerance for intolerance from novelists than from politicians, who have such direct lawmaking control over our lives. If those pols are very intolerant people, they won’t get my vote.
How do you feel about authors who espouse prejudiced views in real life and/or in their novels? Do you continue to read them or not?
My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.
In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about two huge Black Lives Matter rallies/marches in my town — is here.