Feet of clay, death of author

Problematic personal behavior on the part of a creator does not mean I can’t like what they create.

This is a thing I tell myself a lot.

Me with Sir Patrick Stewart

“Can you hold this–?” “No.” “O-oh.”

I’ve had the good fortune of meeting or interacting with a few people who were responsible, in whole or in part, for movies or books or stories that I grew up with. When you meet people like that, you have this image built up in your head of how they’ll be, constructed from the work of theirs you’ve consumed and the stories you’ve heard of other people meeting other content creators. Who hasn’t heard stories of, say, Patrick Stewart hugging a survivor of abuse during a panel, or authors who give life-changing advice to fans? We feel like, through their stories, we’ve come to know them, and they’re wonderful and magical and supportive, just like the stories they told us.

Truth is, they generally turn out to be human.

One recent example: I met an older gentleman who wrote a story formative to my youth; he was lovely to me, gave me some words of wisdom, all the good stuff. And then he was casually rude to someone else in line, who had waited hours to get a book signed, just like I had. He was, I was shocked to discover, still fundamentally an old-school white guy who was just as capable as any of us of being thoughtless. (Not to mention he said some things that made me think he isn’t as enlightened as he thinks he is.)

On Tumblr I follow a few content creators, including ones who created work that I love, and will always love, work that molded core aspects of who I am. And sometimes these people post stuff about their fandoms, or their work, or politics, or whatever, and I just stare at my screen in bemusement. How can they think that what they just wrote is okay? How can they behave like that? How can they be so entitled/defensive/condescending/rude/thoughtless/wanky?

This is the danger of meeting people in the flesh, of being privy via social media to their unvarnished opinions and ideas: you discover that they have blind spots and foibles, like every human out there. It can be very disillusioning, especially when the person in question is someone you look up to.

Now, being human does not give anyone a right to be cruel to others or anything like that, certainly, but it does mean we’ve gotta cut other people some slack when they do stuff that just strikes us as kind of dumb or thoughtless or disagreeable or that doesn’t align with the image we have of them in our mind. They’re human, infinite in faculty, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals, but still in the end a quintessence of dust, fallible, changeable, unreliable. There is no human out there who agrees with you on everything. That’d be boring. And wherever you are on your journey, there are a lot of people who aren’t as far along as you — who maybe haven’t even started their journey yet. It’s important to remember that there was a time when you were clueless and dumb, too. And if you’ve gotten better, so can they.

But most importantly, to me, just because a content creator is a jerk in some way doesn’t mean you can’t find value in their work — because some of them are, irreparably, jerks. Stephen Moffat, for instance, has said some a lot of blatantly sexist things and I don’t like him much as a person at all. But there are lines and stories he’s written on Doctor Who that resonate deeply with me, that inspire me as both a writer and a human. Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, they’ve all said and done things that make me think that I might have a beer with them, but I wouldn’t want to sit down to a full Thanksgiving dinner. But I still love “Leeds United,” and American Gods, and Buffy. They gave me valuable things. They changed me. Lewis was a racist and Pullman is a misanthrope, but Narnia and His Dark Materials made me a better person nevertheless. I can dislike the author’s behavior, personally, politically, whatever, and still like their work.

What you or I or anyone else gets out of a work is between us and the text. Authorial intent and authorial shooting-their-mouth-off-on-Twitter are secondary.

Now, if a creator’s behavior turns you off of their work entirely, that’s legit too. I’ve got my own red lines where, if I learn that a creator is doing or supporting something I consider actively harmful, I’m done with them. This issue came up for a lot of people recently during the lead up to the release of Ender’s Game. Orson Scott Card is, we have come to learn, the kind of person who donates to the National Organization for Marriage and writes weird homophobic retellings of HamletFor many, myself included to a certain extent, that taints his work. For others, Ender’s Game as a work will always be a powerful, important book to them, and OSC’s personal and political life doesn’t change that. Both of these reactions are completely valid.

And, you know, people are capable of changing and learning. A friend of mine once made a compelling argument that you can trace Stephen King’s evolving understanding of people who are not white guys like himself by looking at the increasing complexity of his black and female characters (in 1983 he freely admitted he wasn’t very good at writing women or black people; by 2004 Susannah Dean, black, female, and disabled, was as complex and fully-drawn a character as any of the white guys in The Dark Tower). Diane Duane is constantly revising her Young Wizards series to address things like autism or sexuality as her personal understanding, and the world’s understanding and acceptance, of those things becomes more nuanced. Tavis Beacham did a pretty good job of being called out on unintended racism. They’re all still far from perfect, but they’re working on it.

People can get better. But if they don’t, that doesn’t invalidate what you get from their work.

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