Serious Business Tiems

So I’ve been sort-of-following the Thing About Heinlein, and by “sort of following” I mean that I read Jim Hines’s blog post about it, and then I went over to Tor and read half of a column and…just so you guys know? Talking about the Innate EvoPsych Differences Between Women and Men makes my head asplode, as the kids say. Let me just say that I disagree. Fervently.

Anyhow, I have not read a whole lot of Heinlein, being not so much into hard SF. The stuff I have read struck me as, yes, sexist–in a fairly condescending “ooh, look at the neat alien creatures that are women” way–though possibly, as others have pointed out, average or even forward-thinking for his time, which was a pretty damn sexist time. That point has been discussed elsewhere, and they’re good discussions, but the discussion over on Mr. Hines’s LJ raised a point that I’ve talked about elseblog before, and that bears repeating, I think, because I see a lot of defensiveness whenever someone mentions problematic content in the works of [Author People Like].

Here it is: you can enjoy fiction whose sentiments you don’t agree with.

You really can. I love Stephen King, but the man leans on the Magical X button and does not stop, especially in his early works. (Also, the “science and rationality are evil” thing bugs: yes, Stephen, you were a hippie back in the day, WE GET IT.) Of the main female characters in Dragonlance, the only one whose deal doesn’t center around a guy is Evil–and I won’t get into my feelings about the other women right now, because we will be here all day–but the world itself is a lot of fun, and I like the poetry. Lovecraft…changed the way we look at horror, and many contemporary writers–myself included–owe a great debt to his cosmology, but was the man racist? Oh my GOD.

I think that I can read any of the above without being a bad person, or a bad feminist. I don’t even think that I’m obligated to consider the issues at length, or while I’m reading the books in question–we, as a species, can overlook a lot, and sometimes that’s a good thing. I do think that I’m obligated to acknowledge the issues when they come up and why those issues might push a lot of people’s buttons, or to gracefully bow out of the conversation if I can’t do that, rather than trying to deny that they exist.

Your favorite writer doesn’t have to be a perfect, enlightened being. Your favorite writer doesn’t even necessarily have to be a good person, though it’s nice when they are–and makes me feel better about supporting them if they’re alive*–and their morals don’t reflect on you. People have a lot of reasons for reading what they read; other people know that. If you want to set out those reasons so people don’t assume you actually like the problematic bits, that’s cool, but admitting that someone’s screwed up on various issues doesn’t mean you can’t keep enjoying his or her work.

Those people who do get turned off by whatever-it-is? I’d imagine they’d rather hear a “Oh, yeah, I know he’s sexist, and I totally understand how that would put you off big time, but he’s such a good world-builder that I can’t resist!” than a frenzied defense. I know I would.

*I would have a lot more qualms about reading Lovecraft, for instance, if I thought I was supporting him by doing so.

Edited to clarify that it’s also a totally reasonable response *not* to read something because the sexism/racism/etc gets to you. The things I forget to add…

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About isabelcooper

I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam No Proper Lady, published September 2011 by Sourcebooks Lessons After Dark, forthcoming in April 2012 from Sourcebooks I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.
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12 Responses to Serious Business Tiems

  1. Kate says:

    Hear, hear!

    It’s things like…I don’t know, Orson Scott Card. I love Ender’s Game, and I find it hard to believe that someone who wrote Speaker for the Dead could be so WRONG about so many things when he opens his damn mouth. But his stories are amazing, and I still enjoy them. I just wouldn’t go out of my way to talk to the man at a party, because I’d probably slap him.

    Writers are people, too. They’re not perfect avatars for perfection and goodness; they’re screwed up and flawed and crazy like the rest of us. It makes me sad in my tummy to find out that a favourite author is, perhaps, a raging racist woman-hater who mauls puppies in his spare time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll stop enjoying his fiction. I’ll just stop being a fan of HIM…

  2. isabelcooper says:

    Thanks!

    And yeah. I don’t *buy* OSC’s books–when a living author gets to that level of sucking as a person, I don’t want to support him financially–but that’s a personal decision, and I’ll still get the first couple Alvin Maker novels from the library, because it’s a neat alternate history.

    It’s the “even a stopped watch is right twice a day” thing: the worst of us can still be very very good at something or other.

  3. Lonespark says:

    Yeah, totally with you on all that.

    I’ve read some Heinlein, mostly not the early stuff nor the hard scifi, most of it lent by a Libertarian Jackass Housemate. I didn’t like it much, but there were parts that were excellent. And I loved Friday. Yeah, there are problematic parts, but in that particular work I found the Cocky Heinlein Hero more palatable. (And then there’s Farnham’s Freehold. Vile, vile, killitwithfire. A possibly good point utterly failing to be made in the stylistic context. Bleah.)

    • isabelcooper says:

      I remember Stranger in a Strange Land fondly and vaguely (except for the bits about rape and, like, spanking); and The Puppet Masters a lot less vaguely *or* fondly. I like the central conceit of Number of the Beast, though I’d like it more if I didn’t now associate it with otakukin.

      But yeah. I feel like I should at least go back and re-read Stranger one of these days, or read another one of his books. Classics of SF and all that.

  4. Robert Mathiesen says:

    As someone who grew up in the ’40s and ’50s, let me just add that Heinlein was by no means as sexist as the majority of his contemporaries. Once he started writing about women, he soon got the reputation of a dangerous radical out to subvert the established sexual order. The average “man in the street” seemed to me to be far worse than H, and a good number of women of the era bought into all that cr*p also.

    The real Heinlein, like the real Marion Zimmer Bradley, was a rather different and much more transgressive person than his/her authorial persona. Neither one wanted the public to know much of anything about the real person behind the author, and took pains to divert attention away from the real person, in part by making the authorial persona sufficiently controversial to be a distraction.

    • isabelcooper says:

      I can see that, yeah. (Having read a bit of what else got published back then…good Lord.) The forties and fifties strike me as a singularly unpleasant time to have been anything but a white guy, and a not-terribly-fun time for that.

      But then, much as I enjoy writing about other time periods, I’d be miserable in anything before the late twentieth.

  5. iczer6 says:

    ‘I think that I can read any of the above without being a bad person, or a bad feminist. I don’t even think that I’m obligated to consider the issues at length, or while I’m reading the books in question–we, as a species, can overlook a lot, and sometimes that’s a good thing.’

    I think part of the problem is that a lot folks do seem to believe that liking someone’s works means you that you believe and support their beliefs. That you can’t like Heinlein with out being sexist, you can’t like Lovecraft without being racist. That sort of thing.

    • isabelcooper says:

      True.

      As with so much else, too, there’s a spectrum. I don’t associate liking Heinlein with sexism or liking Lovecraft with racism, as such, because neither their works themselves nor the culture around them plays up those angles. (With a few really fucking awful exceptions.) On the other hand, if I walk into a date’s apartment and he’s got Gor: Chains of Gor or Ayn Rand on his bookshelf, he probably should provide an alternate reason for liking them and fast, because…ew.

  6. alienbooknose says:

    I don’t understand why this is so hard for people to get. Maybe it’s because I have a decent background in media fandom, where that’s pretty standard? Picking apart the stupid *ist assumptions of one’s show is half the fun and all.

  7. hapax says:

    Apropos of this, I’ve just got a new ARC of OSC’s to read, and I’m kinda dreading it.

    On the one hand, I’ve never liked anything of his I’ve written. I am the rare sf fan who hates ENDER’S GAME, the huge fantasy fan who never even started ENCHANTMENT, because I’ve always found his stuff to be … icky. Sort of the written equivalent of Shoenberg’s music (think PIERROT LUNAIRE or BOOK OF THE HANGING GARDENS; just … Too Much)

    On the other hand, I’m aware now of all his (shall we say) problematic social views, and I desperately want to be fair to his writing without dragging in all that baggage (unless he makes me by bringing it up himself) …

    On the gripping hand, I don’t want to bend over too far to give him the benefit of the doubt, and end up being unfair to all the OTHER authors I review, of whose views I know nothing …

    On the hand that writes the checks — I need the reviewing money.

    • isabelcooper says:

      Hmm.

      Well, in this case, I’d say his views are kind of fair game because he’s brought them up in a public forum based on his identity as a famous writer. His level of name-recognition constitutes a pretty tall soapbox to stand on, and if he wants to use that for bigotry, I think it’s in no way unreasonable to have people factor said bigotry into their views of his books.

      Plus, you’re generally a good reviewer, so I think you could be pretty objective about things. If in doubt, I’d say post a disclaimer at the beginning: “I have personal issues with the public statements this author has made. I’ll try not to let this color my review, but it’s something my readers should know.”

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