In the comments on my post about preparing your child for the coming anarchy an interesting side conversation broke out, one that I thought deserved its own post. The consensus of the commentary on that post was that reading was an important skill to encourage critical thinking and an interest in the world. Then controversy arose when one commenter called Orson Scott Card “a Motherf*cking Bigot” and I agreed. I said:
I couldn’t believe it. After reading Ender I was like “This book is great! Who is the authour?” and turns out he is a hardcore Mormon religious nutbar. I almost regret looking it up because now I find it hard to enjoy his other writing.
An artist’s work, his art, is what matters. All the other stuff that he does is irrelevant. Judging Card or Lovecraft for their political views is like saying that a brilliant brain surgeon’s work is diminished because he cannot make a good ham sandwich. Further, artists are often weird, out of step people.
Thus the question: should the ideological and political background of an author influence the reading of his work?
I think this is an interesting line of debate, and would like to continue it here in a new thread. Below the fold I have reproduced the relevant comments from the parenting post. Read through and post your thoughts below.
@Lex Art for art’s sake is one thing, but any critical assessment of literature must take account of an artist’s background and worldview. Obviously, some background is more relevant. To take your example, I would have no problem with a ham-sandwich challenged surgeon, but would have a BIG problem if he thought there was an afterlife and any final responsibility or “judgement” of his scalpel-hand laid with his imaginary friend in the sky.
Let me qualify my previous statement about the brain surgeon, I think it came off a little too broad. Whether or not the surgeon’s background is religious or not doesn’t matter. What would cause me concern is if his previous record wasn’t sterling, and he tried to console me before an operation by telling me that everything will be all right because Jeebus loves me. That, in my opinion, would make his background relevant.
I think some of Card’s later works, those dealing with Ender’s guilt, reflect this point of view.
“Lovecraft for their political views is like saying that a brilliant brain surgeon’s work is diminished because he cannot make a good ham sandwich.”
Different with Lovecraft. Many of his works have clearly racist descriptions of Africans, anti-interracial marriage themes, etc. Also, when you know that he is paranoid about “ghastly” foreigners polluting pure American blood, you have little choice but to read his stories about creeping demons from across the sea, the stars, or dark conclaves of “alien (foreign in this case) filth” kidnapping American children, much differently. It might be different with Card, but with Lovecraft, it is in the work and the biography just makes it more obvious.
“… any critical assessment of literature must take account of an artist’s background and worldview.”
I don’t agree. The work can be assessed as it is, without any reference to the author, who he is, where he came from, or what he claimed to be doing. Often I see elaborate works of biography of authors, which is not bad, but most of us would be better off reading their books.
Do you really thing a surgeon who was, say, a practicing Catholic would do a worse job, or be less likely to try to keep you alive, than an atheist?
Do you really think a surgeon who was, say, a practicing Catholic would do a worse job, or be less likely to try to keep you alive, than an atheist?
That is not at all what I am saying. I am talking about when it is appropriate to examine the background of the “artist” doing the work. In the case of the surgeon, if he is doing a good job, no problems. If he has a string of bad cases we are bound to ask “Why?” If I find out that he is a recently converted Buddhist and believes whole-heartedly in reincarnation, I might surmise that he doesn’t take his job in this life seriously enough. I know that sounds like a stretch. I am just trying to use the metaphor that we established earlier. There are millions of Catholic medical practitioners doing a great job in the US today. That I would not, and could not, deny. That said, there are many cases of religious worldview interfering with medical practice. The recent case of the Oregon couple who relied on prayer instead of medical care comes to mind. This is why the case of Francis Collins is so worrisome. I think many scientists thought that the “Gog and Magog” years of Bush were behind them, then this guy comes around.
Anyways, back to your comment “The work can be assessed as it is, without any reference to the author.” On this sparse level, you are absolutely right. A work should stand on its own, and work on its own internal logic. But not all novels are “Lord of the Rings”. To analyse shortcomings we must go beyond the text. I think that is the point where we look to background, intellectual and political environment, etc: when there seems to be a leap of logic that does not make sense based on the text alone.
Not sure what your reference to the Lord of the Rings means. If any book needed the biography of the author and a study of its influences, it is LOTR.
The idea that the focus should be on the text is not some knuckle-dragging view. Cleanth Brooks and the new critics took this view, as did, in a different way, Leo Strauss and his followers, and in yet a different way, certain postmodernists (whom I only know indirectly) who treated the text almost as a found object and claimed (I think rightly) that the author’s statement of what he was doing or trying to do in a particular writing is entitled to know special privilege. What he wrote is what is on the page and either successfully speaks for itself or it does not — at least in the case of artistic literature that has no ulterior object beyond artistic gratification.
The value of this approach is that the reader does put himself in a false, presumptuous stance of thinking that he knows better than the author what the author wanted to say. Take the book seriously as it is. The personal psychology of the author is a distraction and in any case can never really be known, whereas every word and comma and space and paragraph indentation of the book is fixed and known and shared.
An over-focus on the author’s political views, sexual orientation, favorite kind of ice cream, etc. Is less useful to understanding the book than reading the book, and if it is good, reading it again carefully.
Lovecraft could have been a fascist, a communist, a drag queen, a successful insurance executive, or a war hero, and we may learn the odd new, stray fact about him personally — but “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is immutably the same, whoever and whatever the author was.
I would say “to analyze shortcomings” we look at the text and say, based on aesthetic judgment, that it is or is not well executed; or based on moral criteria, that it does or does not depict something in an offensive way, or make an argument whose ethical thrust we disagree with. Possessing these criteria is in a sense “going beyond the text”, I suppose. Again, the milieu of the writer may be of interest, much less so his specific biographical details.
All that said, a “fannish” devotion to a writer’s works usually leads to a fascination with his personality and biography, though it is usually a let-down, since most fiction writers spend their time writing, which is boring to read about.
But, this question of how to approach a book is all a matter of personal style, I suppose.
“Lovecraft could have been a fascist, a communist, a drag queen, a successful insurance executive, or a war hero, and we may learn the odd new, stray fact about him personally — but “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is immutably the same, whoever and whatever the author was. ”
I don’t agree. If Hitler had gone on to become a famous stand up comic and advocate for harmonious race relations, we would read Mein Kampf as parody, no? On a similar level, if Anne Frank had survived the war, would her diary really mean as much to readers? Could it possibly? Some works gain their aesthetic interest because of how they fit with an author’s biography.
While the “nothing outside the text” readings are valid as literary criticism, I’m a historian and tend to approach works of literature as both aesthetic and historical documents and according to the mainstream of humanities empiricism/pragmatism/positivism, text and context have to be considered together. I think that this is the way that most readers approach literature – assuming that we get something of what critic Umberto Eco called “the empirical author” meant when writing.
“word and comma and space and paragraph indentation of the book is fixed and known and shared. ”
But the meanings of metaphors and themes are by no means shared or fixed. In addition, the “nothing beyond the text” style of criticism also denies the idea of words possessing authentic shared meanings, negating, in effect, the idea that the words of the text have verifiable meanings (or signifier / signified relations) outside of the text either. Is the “intent” of a work / author knowable? No, on a philosophical level it is not something that is objectively empirically verifiable. Can we get some insight into meanings at the time that the work was written? I believe that we can and that this can be an important experience.
M-Bone, Lovecraft, unlike Hitler, never killed anybody. Mein Kampf is a political tract meant to have a political impact. Mein Kampf, unlike “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, makes no sense divorced from purpose and context.
That is a totally different question from “understanding” a work of fiction.
I do not say “do not read biography of authors and pay no attention to context.” I disagree with the comment that it is necessary to do these things with regard to literature. I go further and say that a lot of time and energy is expended on matters that are ancillary to the literature and do not do much to illuminate the value and impact of the literature.
So, I still say that if we knew nothing about Lovecraft’s biography and private views, his stories would have the same merit they do on their own terms. Further, the fact that the man had bigoted views, not uncommon in his day either, does nothing to diminish the value of his writing now. The same is true of Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen and Flannery O’Connor and any other fiction writer whose work has artistic merit but whose moral or religious or political views are at odds with current, poliically correct orthodoxy.
So, to bring this back to the point of the post, when your child is old enough to like H.P. Lovecraft — age 12 or so — go ahead and let him read it if he wants to.
Looking forward to Younghusband’s post.