I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot recently, firstly for some obvious reasons (a certain movie) and secondly because of some of the things I’ve been discussing with my students in my American Literature course. And one of the questions that keeps coming up for me is this: how do we know when we have crossed the line by holding a writer accountable for the controversial things they write?
As an example, I am currently teaching Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Wild Meat and Bully Burgers. This particular novel is not all that controversial, though it certainly has its issues, but her later book, Blu’s Hanging, was the cause of much controversy in 1997/1998. The Asian American Studies National Book Award she received was later annulled after public outcry; many critics and academics have written about the incident since. One of the problems Asian American (and other) critics had with the book was its representation of Filipinos in Hawai’i (they are dirty, morally questionable, violent, and/or pedophiles) and the complete absence of indigenous Hawaiians in the novel. Effectively, critics charged Yamanaka with failing to self-censor herself in a stereotypical context; in other words, if you’re going to write about racial stereotypes with serious intent, it behooves you to treat the targeted characters in non-caricature form. Yamanaka would later say that “the distinction between the narrator and the author is not being made.”
I won’t pass a judgment on this particular situation, as to do so would be beyond the point of this post. Rather, I want to talk about Yamanaka’s response to the critics, and discuss its relation to the politics of this author / work separation with which our community seems to have such difficulty. As far as I can tell, there are two primary situations in which the anxiety over this separation occurs:
- When an author’s public statements (external from the book proper) are controversial; and
- When an author’s fiction works/characters are controversial.
Yamanaka would fall into the second category, as the controversy surrounding her work has to do with what is in the work, not her external writings. Orson Scott Card, however, would fall into the first category. Arguments about Orson Scott Card’s public statements have raged on and off for the last decade, and the recent release of the Ender’s Game film hasn’t helped these arguments die down. For me, OSC’s politics would be inconsequential if not for that fact that he appears to believe he has the moral authority to force everyone else to live like him, going so far as to say, at one point, that revolution against a pro-gay government might be necessary. This seems, in my mind, infinitely different from someone like Brandon Sanderson, who has publicly said he doesn’t agree with gay marriage but also doesn’t believe in institutionalized religious marriage either. I can respect Sanderson’s opinion because it appears to be said in good faith, without any intention of forcing that belief on others. For that reason, I’m not inclined to toss Sanderson’s books aside.
Yamanaka, however, seems to have been criticized merely for presenting fairly racist representations of certain Asian groups. It’s not clear, based on what I know, that she believes the things her characters say. Even if she did, the only way I could judge her on that fact is if I know about it; otherwise, I don’t feel justified in passing judgment. And yet, for simply writing these characters, Yamanaka has been the focus of condemnation by certain offended groups (based on good premises, mind, as racial stereotypes are not to be scoffed at). The problem for me is that Yamanaka is not her characters. If we judged people based on the characters they write, we’d have to assume some pretty horrible things about some of the best writers in human history. Sure, some of those assumptions might turn out to be true, but a lot of them would be dead wrong. Yamanaka, as such, falls into a group that has been criticized simply because of the fiction they write, not necessarily because they are supporters of a controversial belief.
For me, I’m willing to give a lot more slack to an individual whose fictional writing contains controversial ideas, in part because what one writes in a given work is not necessarily a reflection of the author’s personal opinions. As an example, I am currently writing a book from the perspective of a terrorist (it’s a far future space opera / military SF thing); if you asked me my personal opinion about terrorists, I’d tell you that I don’t support terrorism in principle, even though I can sometimes understand the reasons behind it. This is a drastic simplification of my position, mind you, so don’t take this as a fully developed thought. The point is this: I may be writing a terrorist character, but that is not necessarily a reflection of my actual views. The novel is an attempt, in part, to create a character who you understand, even if you don’t agree with him (and I don’t, because he does some pretty terrible things). If you held that book as a representation of who I am, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would actually like me. I mean, honestly, a terrorist supporter? Ick.
That’s a distinction that Yamanaka attempts to identify in her response, and one which critics (most outside of academia) needed to make. This is not to suggest that someone like Yamanaka doesn’t deserve criticism. While I think Blu’s Hanging is an exceptional book, it also contains many stereotypes which can be harmful when normalized in a given culture. If the dominant image of a marginalized group is purely negative, the impression given to the broader culture is equally negative. But that’s a flaw in the work, not with the author as a person. Even if it were an unintentional flaw in the individual, it would be one of ignorance, not deliberate offense (usually, but not exclusively). And failing to make that crucial separation means one is likely to fall prey to emotion, not arguments from a (at least vaguely) rational position. Emotion is good, of course, but it also clouds judgment and can sometimes make honest discussion difficult, if not impossible. You can see this anywhere on YouTube, where Person A asks a question of or provides information to Person B, and Person B responds not with an attempt to address the point, but instead with an assault on Person A. These are almost always emotional outbursts, not arguments.
The point is this: sometimes, it is necessary to make a separation between the work and the author, as failing to do so can mean we are attaching motives and ideas to people who may think exactly the opposite. We’re unlikely to get that information in a scenario where acceptance is possible if we get too caught up in the moment. Sometimes, the separation is an acknowledgement that people are flawed — we make mistakes and learn from them.
And so here are a few questions for you all to think about:
- How do we keep that distance apparent while also criticizing a work for its serious flaws? What is the danger of failing to actually keep this distance?
- Is it possible to separate the author’s work from his or her personal opinions, whatever they may be, and if so, how is that made possible? Are there exceptions? How do we justify those exceptions?
———————————————-: I’ve got a few articles I could point you to. If you’d like to see them, email me. : I won’t get into to much detail here; instead, I will point you to Stina Leicht’s opinion here, as she and I are pretty much on the same level when it comes to OSC’s politics. : These could probably break down further into fiction/non-fiction, as the ability to separate the author-in-person from a non-fiction work seems impossible. : Captain Obvious. : An example within our community is Victoria Hoyt’s Save the Pearls. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will say that the problem with Hoyt, for me, is how she defended herself or was defended by others. While Hoyt may have meant her book as a critique of racist culture, it instead became yet another space where old wounds were opened. The deliberate insensitivity on the part of the Hoyt’s defenders may have been cause enough to stick the whole situation into the first of my anxiety-driven problematics above. : The learning part is key, though. It’s one thing to make a mistake, but it’s entirely another to make no effort to learn from it. This is especially so in social contexts. It’s easy to learn not to stick your hand too close to a rotary saw, but it seems more difficult for us to learn social lessons. I’m not sure why.