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Why You Might Ignore Your Favorite Author’s Jerkiness

Jeff O'Neal

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Jeff O'Neal is the executive editor of Book Riot and Panels. He also co-hosts The Book Riot Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @thejeffoneal.

Yesterday, Amanda wrote an honest, insightful, and wholly relatable post about why it’s a problem when you find out that your favorite author might be a jerk. My reaction, of course, is to pick a fight.

Let me rephrase, I am not trying to refute what she wrote; in fact I think many of us react this way to the revelation that a cherished author is seriously flawed. I do think, though, that there are good reasons to read people who think things you disagree with, who say things you don’t like, and who behave in ways you find reprehensible. Amanda’s author misbehavior falls into three broad categories, each with their own particular situations that are worth talking about.

In ascending order of jerkitude:

The Franzen Annoyance

Franzen represents the most harmless kind of off-putting author–those that have opinions that differ from ours, but about issues of only moderate importance. That Franzen hates Twitter or slags on Wharton is certainly irritating and might give us pause to pick up his books, but usually we can overlook these if the work is compelling.

I think these are the kinds of jerk authors we might actually go out of our way to read, as they offer us counter-opinions to our own readily established worldviews. If one of the reasons you read is to have your ideas challenged, your horizons expanded, and your intellect exercised, these are the best authors for doing that. (Side editorial: is it just me, or does it seem possible that the Twitter rage Franzen incited with his anti-Twitter comments stems not from a collective sense that he is wrong, but from an unwillingness to acknowledge that he could be at least partially correct?)

The Dickens Dilemma

This is the largest and most diverse species of wrong-headed writer, ranging from Plato (hates poets) to Hemingway (not super great to women). As Amanda says, these authors might have said and believed some pretty nasty stuff, but by being situated in the past, we feel protected from them. Just as we don’t worry about becoming or supporting fascism when reading about Mussolini, we don’t really think we are supporting or giving credence to the homophobia of John Updike.

Our book-buying dollars aren’t going to them, and we have sense of their status as literary artifacts. There may be a foul here, but there doesn’t seem to be much harm.

The Card Conundrum

Here’s where we really have trouble. A writer of great book has ideas that we oppose and find destructive. It would be easy to dismiss the book if it bore signs of the writer’s prejudice or malice, but in the case of Orson Scott Card and Ender’s Game, for example, it is difficult, I think, to detect any such contamination.

So we are left with the following problem: do we deny ourselves the experience of this books in the name of our own morality?

There are a few reasons we might go ahead and read the book:

1. There are ways of reading the book that do not financially support the writer. When it comes to the ideas of non-politicians, we have two ways of showing disagreement: we can verbally express it or we can express it economically. So, if your concern is mostly about giving someone money, used or borrowed books are a way around that.

2. Knowing what they believe is better than not knowing. Here’s the thing: some of the writers you don’t think about not-reading probably have some pretty nasty ideological skeletons. This is actually worse for your critical reading because you don’t even know what to look out for. If you are reading a book by someone with obvious, well-documented jerkiness on their permanent record, your critical consciousness will be up and active.

3. A great book exceeds its writer. I think it’s helpful too to remember that a writer doesn’t equal their work and their work doesn’t equal the writer. Art has a way of transcending the individual creator’s understanding. Good intentions can turn out to be dangerous or offensive and seemingly poisoned wells can produced clean water. Our individual moral sensibilities are no match for the complexity and mystery of literature.