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The Politics of Fandom

Should artists’ politics matter to their fans?

If an artist whose work you admire makes a public statement you’d consider problematic, what steps should the conscientious fan take in response? If the artist later attempts to contextualize or otherwise explain their comment, what impact should that have on your view of things? And how much should context (historical and otherwise) matter in these evaluations anyway?

This topic has been on my mind a lot in the last week or so, but it’s hardly a new one. I think its most recent really large-scale airing in the genre-fiction community happened in summer 2013, when the Ender’s Game film came out and a substantial portion of the SF/F fanbase considered boycotting it in response to author Orson Scott Card’s very public opposition to gay rights and gay marriage. Our household elected to respect the boycott and not see the movie, but I’ll freely admit that most of the “oomph” behind that impulse came from Husband. My opinion at the time was that once a work’s out in the world, it should stand on its own merits and its author’s politics shouldn’t play into how people interact with the piece. In the last year, that opinion’s started to change.

Part of that relates to a conversation I’ve recounted elsewhere on this blog about whether or not storytellers should feel obligated to simultaneously be activists, and the potential power of stories as myth-making. Discussion of those issues is ongoing around the web, and it’s crossed my plate in a few different ways over the last couple weeks. One was this article by Daily Beast contributor Arthur Chu, posted in response to the tragedy at UC Santa Barbara, about how many pop-culture depictions of “nerds” seem to give them special license to hassle women because it’s funny or endearing. Another, which took me longer to sort out, started when I read about a newly-beloved author’s participation in the problematic Nebula Weekend 2014 panel on writing diverse cultures (again, I wasn’t present for these events; the link to author Sunil Patel‘s account of what happened is here). From initial reports, it seemed like this author, whose books I’ve only recently discovered and have since been buying en masse, had expressed some pretty problematic views both at the panel and later through social media about how the whole discussion of representation in genre fiction was making them uncomfortable and they shouldn’t have to deal with these issues. However, as I dug deeper into the conflicting accounts of what happened, I became convinced that this person had made their initial slightly-problematic statement in innocence and then made a good-faith effort to correct course when they realized the spiral they’d fallen into. As I state for students in my course syllabi, we all live in the social world, and sometimes we’re going to slip: thus, speak with good intentions, and assume that others are doing the same.

Those sorts of issues — the sort where people misstep without realizing they’re doing so — make up one face of artistic politics, and there it seems to me that the important thing is how the artist responds when the situation starts to spiral out of control. The other piece touches on artists’ more intentional actions — and these, to me, seem grayer. I first thought about this a few months ago when I heard a KQED Forum hour discussing the recently reemerged abuse accusations against Woody Allen. The callers I heard seemed pretty divided on whether the accusations should impact how people view Allen’s movies, particularly if the truth of the situation is never conclusively proven. I found myself wondering whether storytellers’ offenses are held up under a different light than those of other kinds of celebrities (politicians, say, or athletes); while the accusations against Allen are particularly heinous, there are certainly any number of public figures who stand accused of all sorts of questionable things without their occupational talents being called into question.

Another example that crossed under my eyes recently was this post from soc/pop culture blog Racialicious about HP Lovecraft’s racism (possible trigger warning for racial slurs and general offensive language). Drawing on examples from Lovecraft’s stories as well as his personal correspondence, this post makes a pretty strong argument that Lovecraft’s views were extreme even by the standards of his time. And as the post’s author, Phenderson Djeli Clark, puts it:

Most whites of his day likely held poor views of ethnic and racial minorities; however, most did not speak (quite repeatedly) in such vile and at times frightening exterminationist language.

For historical authors like Lovecraft, of course, the issue’s slightly more theoretical: the author himself isn’t around to attempt explanations. In that case, I think the approach I might use is the same one advised by blogger Rachael in her awesome Social Justice League post (which I’ve linked to here before) on being a fan of problematic things: acknowledge Lovecraft’s extreme views in the same way you’d acknowledge that ASOIAF’s Dothraki are a rather one-dimensional, stereotyped culture. Be prepared to engage with others who want to talk about them.

With living authors and artists, things get more complicated. Living people always have the potential to say or do something new that others are going to find troublesome, and in the modern age this has gotten a lot easier. I think it’s great that the Internet connects fans and creators and lets me have Twitter exchanges with Real Authors (read: those whose books have gotten past the draft phase); I also realize that it complicates authors’ lives immensely. The warnings we’ve all gotten about how even those who opt out of Facebook can’t really opt out (because your friends will tag and talk about you) go up by orders of magnitude for anyone with a public presence. I’m not sure where that leaves either authors or fans, in terms of setting ground rules for how to handle this.

I think, in the end, I’m just going to step back to what I say to my students, as guidelines for authors and fans alike. This is a big, messy world we’re all existing in. Speak (or write) with good intentions. Assume the same of those who seek to enter dialogue with you. And be prepared to listen.

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2 Comments

  1. It’s unfortunate that the lives artists lead have any influence on how audiences relate to their works. I don’t think it should make any difference, but obviously it does for some consumers. For one thing, not all art springs directly out of an artist’s life. Sometimes works are made up from pure speculation, created as practice in a new style, or as an adaptation from other sources. People create for many reasons, and they behave and misbehave for many reasons too. And authors still have a right to have opinions, including unpleasant, offensive ones.

    I don’t personally have a problem with considering someone an a-hole, and still being able to admire something they create. I understand not wanting to enrich Card by buying a ticket to a movie adaptation of his work, but the action was a futile gesture. The film had eight producers (of which Card was one only by virtue of allowing his name to be in the titles), and he was already paid through the fee for allowing the books to be adapted. He didn’t write the screenplay either, director Gavin Hood did. So boycotting didn’t hurt Card as much as all the others involved in the production, which ended up being a $125 million return on a $110 million investment – a moderate success at best.

    If you intend to hurt Card financially, you have to refuse to buy his books. Then again, if you check them out from the Public Library, he’s already been paid. See how hard it is to be effective by boycotting?

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    • Thanks for your comment, Mikey. I completely agree with you that artists have the right to their own opinions, whether their fans approve of those opinions or not; I also think you’re completely agree that artists (and maybe especially writers) play with ideas in their writing, and that not all those ideas correlate with the author’s personal views. I have a writing book whose author makes the argument that the most important thing first-time writers need to remember is that your protagonist isn’t you, and that you need to let them have their own thoughts and reactions to things.

      That said, I think that many fans (particularly in this age of conscientious consumerism and Internet transparency of public figures) are struggling with exactly the conflict I laid out in this post, of what to do when a beloved artist does something that bothers them. Boycotting’s one approach; trying to engage an author in dialogue is another; drawing a line between their work and their views is a third; but like I said in the post, there doesn’t seem to be a perfect solution to the problem.

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