The Orson Scott Card Problem

Through the Tollbooth welcomes new crew member, Jim Hill. Enjoy this post, and return for more thoughts on writing from Jim following his graduation from VCFA in January!

The Orson Scott Card Problem is a thing that breaks my heart. I’m sure you know what I mean. A Google search for OSC turns up headline after headline hammering him for his political and social views. For example:

Orson Scott Card’s unconscionable defense of genocide
Junot Díaz: “Orson Scott Card is a cretinous fool”

Yikes. His views on homosexuality, gay marriage, and other polarizing issues are well documented. Like many of his long time fans, I have a difficult time connecting the author of Seventh Son and Ender’s Game to these beliefs. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Old school editions, circa 1986

Old school editions, circa 1986

I read Ender’s Game during a road trip from Massachusetts to California in 1986. I read it twice. The first time I’d ever finished a book and started it again immediately. I was captivated. Brilliant concept, engaging characters, action, world building. And above all, humanity.

Sure the scenes at Battle School are thrilling and dangerous, but the scene that sticks with me the most takes place on Earth. Ender and Valentine floating on a raft and talking around the real issue. It’s a scene dripping with symbolism and theme and cracking good writing.

In anticipation of the movie (the one I’ve been longing after for twenty plus years), I decided to read it again. Only now I’m viewing it with my VCFA eyes. You know the ones that get implanted somewhere around packet four of your first semester and forever change how you read? They’re x-rays specs that can see the levers and gears of craft while reading between the lines. I know you have them too. Admit it.

Not surprising, the book holds up. In fact, my precious VCFA eyes are revealing why the things I loved twenty-five years ago worked. But–and this is a big but–I’ve discovered a new, unwelcome character in the book. The author. Or should I say the author’s public persona.

Get out my book, despicable man!

I have to fight the urge to hear the characters without underlining anything that could be even remotely interpreted as sexist, homophobic or outside of my own social positions.

It’s exhausting.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. There have always been authors with personalities that poison their work, but the internet’s ferocious appetite for outrage has amplified the effect.

I shouldn’t feel the need to apologize for enjoying any book. By any author. Heck, we just wrapped up Banned Book Week. Am I allowing social expectations to apply an unspoken ban, just because the author has made himself the tool-of-the-week?

OSC Autograph

And I’ve stayed out of the water ever since.

I guess this is me coming out as a proud Orson Scott Card reader. Now there’s a twist I bet he didn’t expect. OSC is one of the reasons I write. His stories take place on an epic scale in inventive settings told through the eyes of fully fleshed out characters. He writes across genres–science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the infinite gray areas in between–with equal skill. His books have made me cringe in fear, gasp in awe, laugh out loud and sob uncontrollably. The man can write.

But can I ever buy another one of his books in good conscience? I don’t think so. Because, as a long time fan, I actually feel a bit betrayed by Card. Maybe I’m naïve, or maybe the author-reader relationship is complex. What do authors owe readers? What loyalty do readers owe authors?

For me, OSC is the guy who literally wrote the book on writing. Two actually. I’ve owned Characters and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy for as long as they’ve been in print. Not counting the Elements of Style, they were my first craft books. Orson Scott Card definitely shaped my writing (now you know who to blame), and that’s a gift that I can never repay, except by writing to the best of my ability.

So what am I left with? Hate the sin, but the love the sinner? Awkward.

I’m going to do what I can to build a wall between every author and their work. Let them rise and fall on their own. Let the books speak for the books. And do my best to not get burned again.

Books don’t lie.

“The enemy’s gate is down.”

Jim Hill

Flaming Snot Rockets! Mild mannered designer by day. Children’s book creator by night. Jim writes middle-grade and YA stories with humor and heart. He graduates from VCFA in January 2014. You can find him online at his oft neglected website and on Twitter as @heyjimhill.

6 thoughts on “The Orson Scott Card Problem”

  1. Lyn Miller-Lachmann says:

    Congratulations on your selection for Through the Tollbooth, Jim! And a thought-provoking first article too. The controversy over the political affiliations–and subtle messages–of Orson Scott Card are reminiscent of those surrounding the French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine and the American poet Ezra Pound, both of whom supported the Nazis before and during the Second World War. Pound, in fact, was declared mentally ill and spent 12 years in an institution after the war. Perhaps attributing extremist views (particularly if violence and genocide are part of the worldview) to mental illness is a way of justifying an appreciation for Pound’s poetry, and the truth is, many of our greatest writers have suffered from mental illness. To some extent, it goes with the territory. I’m not willing to diagnose Orson Scott Card from afar, but perhaps an understanding of the mindset of some of our most brilliant writers will help to address the dissonance between an appreciation of the work and unease over the author’s behavior, affiliations, and public persona in general.

    1. Jim Hill says:

      HI Lynn! Thanks for the thoughtful reply. The history of art is full of artists with views that don’t always agree with the mainstream. I wouldn’t suggest any mental health issues for OSC. I do think it’s important to try and separate art from artist though – unless the material in questions is intended as out-and-out propaganda.

      It’s a tricky subject, but as artists I think it’s worth thinking about and discussing.

  2. Roy says:

    I found this very interesting, and I really don’t know how to think about it. I did a BFA in visual arts. I’m sure my history books were full of images created by bigots, zealots, fanatics, murderers, adulterers, and the like. But I only know a handful of their stories. When I see the work without knowing the person who made it, I can only interpret it through my personal experience. And so much of it is beautiful, and moving, and reaffirming. But, as an artist and writer, knowing the intent and thought that goes into every stroke of the brush, or a key, and the deliberate choices I make about what message I’m telling and how I’m telling it, I also have to wonder if his personal views are not lying beneath the surface as innuendo or allegory. My wife and I always argue over artist intent versus reader interpretation, and which is the view point that needs to be considered most. As the creative, I say intent, and if the reader doesn’t get what I’m saying, then I’ve failed as an artist. So the question is, what is OSC’s intent. Are his books manifestos? Has he gone on record, like certain clothing manufacturers and pasta makers, saying who can and can’t consume his products? Or has he divorced the two worlds? Did he simple do a great job at selling something commercial, while all his ranting and raving hate filled MSs sat in the slush of a publisher who wouldn’t touch the garbage? A ban on his books, or the works of anyone we objected to, wouldn’t just affect him. His family, his publisher and all their employees, the sellers, the people who were employed through the movie production, all benefit from the sale of the work. But then, maybe the publisher should never have touched any of his writing, so that someone who isn’t hateful could have published her great work, instead. Until I read this post, I had no idea about the man’s reputation. And I had never read his books. I don’t know if I ever will now. Am I an intelligent enough reader to see any hate and put the book down if it’s intolerable? Is it not enough to say, “Great author, terrible man?” I don’t know.

    1. Jim Hill says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I don’t think Card’s early work are manifestos. There are some later works that veer that way, but not all. He has a couple of new YA series out. I read one – Pathfinder – that didn’t have an agenda I could detect. Lots of very cool science fiction ideas, and storytelling though.

      As far as artist intent and reader interpretation, I think there will always be a chasm between the two. Readers can’t help but bring their own lifetime of experience to a piece.

  3. Cynthia Surrisi says:

    This certainly expresses my similar feelings and frustrating appreciation of Woody Allen.

    1. Jim Hill says:

      That’s an excellent comparison.

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