I’ve blogged about good writers who were bad people before. What do we do when we discover that one of our favorite author isn’t a stellar example of a human being, or perhaps holds beliefs that we personally find abhorrent.
To recap, I had three basic criteria I keep in mind when I am trying to judge an author’s personal shortcomings.
1) Are they still alive? Will the money I spend to support this author end up going to causes I hate?
2) Are they a product of their time? Certain language, concepts and practices might be abhorrent now, but writers in other times and cultures might simply be describing the world they saw around them, rather than expressing a viewpoint. Many older works contain flagrant sexism, racism or homophobia because that was part of those societies.
3) To what extent does the author’s personal flaws affect their work?
I’m going to break down number three because there are two sides of that issues, and because it’s gotten a lot more complicated for me personally since that first post.
The first side of the third issue is whether the flaw is an active one or a passive one. What I mean is this; let’s say a romance writer you respect reveals that she’s never written an interracial love story because she’s uncomfortable with idea of interracial love?
Personally I’d be disappointed with that author. The attitude, I think reflects at least some level of bigotry. However does that ruin my enjoyment of her other works? Probably not.
Now let’s say it came out that the same author was giving donations to a racist group. How would you feel about that? I would be offended.
That, too me, is the difference between an active and a passive flaw. One represents an unchallenged bias, the other active racism.
The second half of the the issues is the extent to which the flaw directly involves the work in question. A writer who drinks, cheats on his/her spouse, is a bad parent, etc, these flaws may have little to do with their writing. A racist, sexist or homophobic writer might, either consciously or subconsciously include these same messages in their works.
There is a goodreads discussion about sexism in Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s one of the longest, most involved discussions I’ve seen on that website. My last comment on thread was simple; whether you agree or disagree, the main premise of the thread has answered itself. “Were you bothered by the sexism?” Yes. Clearly a lot of people were bothered.
But Heinlein isn’t the reason we are revisiting this blog.
H. P. Lovecraft is.
Virtually unknown in his day, H. P. Lovecraft is now considered one of the greatest early gothic horror writers. His best known character, the dark god Cthulhu, has grown to practically be a household name. One character, Herbert West, Re-Animator, got a cheesy movie in the eighties. An evil tome, the Necronomicon, another of his creations, has become a popular part of our cultural legends.
The problem with H. P. Lovecraft? He was a racist.
We could take the easy way out. He’s dead. His works are all in the public domain, which means no one benefits from his writing. (In fact, if you paid for his writing, you got duped. Several fans have released complete collections online for free.) A quick look at his biography shows that he wrote many racist diatribes to friends, but did little to publically support his racism, mostly due to his poverty rather than a lack of desire to act on his racism.
But we aren’t taking the easy way out on this one, so let’s press on. Was he merely a productive of his time? Apologist would like us to think so. But it’s a real stretch. Mark Twain used the N word, because that was the common word in his days. Despite this, he portrays Nigger Jim is a relatively positive light. Over a generation later, H. P. Lovecraft’s racism is far more apparent, more so than almost any contemporary writer. Reading his works today, it regularly smacks you in the face. In the Re-animator he describes Herbert West’s second experiment on a black boxer in the most offensive terms of being “gorilla-like” after his re-animation. Xenophobia permeates one of his most famous works, the Shadow over Innsmouth. What makes the inhabitants of Innsmouth so scary is their foreignness.
It would be easy to try to divorce Lovecraft the man from Lovecraft the writer, or to minimize the racism of his work by arguing it was the times, or a small part of the work, but none of these answers satisfies. Or we could simply reject Lovecraft altogether, let his works fade into obscurity.
But Lovecraft’s flaws and his contributions are intertwined. Lovecraft’s xenophobia informs his works in much the same way that Edgar Allen Poe’s depression and drug abuse permeate his works.
Horror works because it touches on primal fears. Drug abuse, depression, madness, fear and anger, a good horror writer explores them all, in ways that makes us uncomfortable but ultimately enlightens us. Racism is cultural, something that must be learned. But Xenophobia is not, it’s inherent in all of us, like it or not. We fear the unknown, fear people who are too different from us.
Lovecraft shines a light on the xenophobia of the mind, he plays on it. The Shoggothi’s architecture itself inspires terror simply because it doesn’t follow the rules of Euclidean geometry. It feels alien. The people of Innsmouth don’t look right, and it triggers subconscious alarms for casual observer.
This where I start to get conflicted. He himself seems to have been unmoved by his own works. As much as I would love to see his works as some attempt to force us to confront our own bias, it’s not. He really thought that way.
It would be akin to discovering that Ken Kesey supported lobotomies and meant One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to be read in that light. Or that Nabokov was pedophile. Or that Orson Scott Card is actually the warmongering colonel of Ender’s game, not the hero. (Wait, that last one might be true.)
In the end, I think of Lovecraft as a cautionary tale, like an addict that never recovers. We can see his descent into xenophobia, be moved by it, but hopefully be moved to avoid our own. Or maybe I am just fooling myself. Since his works are in the public domain, you can read them yourself and come to your own conclusions.
By the way:
I have written my own homage (sans the racism I hope) to Lovecraft’s work and to the worlds inspired by it. It’s one of my Mondamin adventure books, apocalyptic novels that feature the same set of characters in a variety of apocalyptic settings. In A Fishy End some of the characters in the neighborhood get sucked into the ancient cult of Dagon and mayhem ensues.