Opinion

Is Your Favorite Author A Jerk?

In the summer of last year, V.S. Naipaul made eyes roll worldwide when he claimed that women writers (yes, all of them) are “unequal” to him, partially because a woman “is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing.” I had never read Naipaul before hearing his statements, and unless I forget about them, I probably never will. I suffer from an odd sort of reading quirk- if an author is alive, I am totally susceptible to the influences of his or her personality.

Another example: Orson Scott Card. I learned (from Twitter, natch) that he’s quite a homophobe. Anyone who rewrites Shakespeare to expose its purported gay agenda…that person is on a whole other level of delusional hatred. Despite the fact that I love Ender’s Game and want to hold it to my heart while singing in the forest accompanied by friendly woodland creatures, I now feel squeamish about buying any of his other books.

One more- Jonathan Franzen. I’m sure we’re all tired of talking about him, so I’ll just say that every time I read a thing he has said in public, that thing makes me less and less willing to slog through the rest of The Corrections (I mean really, anyone who makes Edith Wharton’s writing career all about how she was ugly and suffered from literary penis-envy…do I really want to read 600 pages of that guy’s thoughts? I do not.).

This quirktastic impatience I have for high levels of jerkiness from living authors does not, oddly, extend to dead ones. Hemingway was an alcoholic womanizer (see also Anderson, Sherwood) with a love for animal cruelty, but I can and do read The Old Man and the Sea every summer without guilt and have placed Ernest on my list of Authors Whose Entire Backlist I Must Read, Or Perish. Charles Dickens was an anti-Semitic adulterer. Virginia Woolf was also oddly anti-Semitic (despite being married to a Jewish man), and was snah-HOB-bee. W. Somerset Maugham slept with another man’s wife and may or may not have paid underage boys to…entertain his party guests (not proven!).

But I love all those dead people. Maybe it’s the separation of time that makes the faults of classics authors less actually irritating and more foible-licious. Maybe I’m more forgiving of racism and sexism in authors from times gone by because there’s always the excuse of social context- there’s no real excuse for homophobia or women-bashing these days. Maybe my dabbling in the locavore food movement during a short-lived hippie phase made me so source-conscious that it’s irrationally and illogically bled over into my reading habits.

It could also be because the works of classic authors are in the public domain and I don’t want my hard-won book-buying dollars going to someone who says jerky things in a modern literary world. It’s probably all those things, plus a dash of “classics are time-tested works of genius and who knows if J. Franz will still be relevant in 50 years.”

So that’s my idiosyncrasy of the week. It may change in 48 hours. Does who an author is as a person influence your reading choices? Is there some ethical line an author can cross that will make you wary of reading his or her work?