SEPARATING THE AUTHOR AND THE WORK, THE ARTIST AND THE ART

Bill Cosby, rapist

Michael Jackson, child molester

H.P. Lovecraft, racist

You know I don’t watch the TV news, so I’m happy to report that I have done no wallowing in the sick spectacle that has become of the once venerated Bill Cosby. I honestly have no idea if he’s guilty of any crime and though there are significant allegations against him, he has to be considered innocent until proven guilty—even if he’s a celebrity. But then there’s the question of “celebrity entitlement” that seems to be that if you’re rich and famous enough in America, you can get away with anything. Is this what happened with Michael Jackson? Did he buy his way out of charges of the sexual abuse of children?

Again, I have no idea.

And honestly, I’m happy to leave Bill Cosby to the relevant district attorneys to sort out, but I’ve also mentioned a few times in the last little bit that I’ve been listening to Marc Maron’s podcast WTF a lot lately. Recently, he spoke with comedian-turned-filmmaker Judd Apatow (who’s movies I love) about the Cosby scandal and Apatow had some very harsh words for apparently now former comedy icon Bill Cosby: “It’s like finding out our comedy dad is a really evil guy.”

What I found most interesting about what Apatow said when asked why he thought some people seem to be having a hard time believing these allegations: “. . . the same reason why people don’t want to believe that Michael Jackson ever did anything with kids. They just love Thriller and they don’t want to give it up.” But at the same time he also said: “Mel Gibson, for just making comments, was tossed from the business for years. They burnt that guy at the stake, for comments, and [the Cosby accusations] is actual violent acts.”

This certainly seems to indicate some kind of double standard in which Mel Gibson can go on a drunken, anti-Semitic rant and at least has to spend time in the penalty box, but someone who may have committed dozens of violent assaults over decades gets a pass. Could it be that it’s just easier to wrap our heads around Mel Gibson putting his foot in his mouth than America’s Favorite Dad of the 80s raping people? Probably.

Still, what does any of this have to do with writing?

This brewing storm with Bill Cosby and Judd Apatow’s comments on WTF acme together with an article I happened across by author Dana Staves on Book Riot in which she discusses her reading of the diaries of Virginia Woolf, who’s final entry, three weeks before her suicide, ended with: “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.”

This inspired Staves to respond: “We build up authors so that they become epic and mythic, each huddled away on their corners of a literary Mount Olympus, scribbling or typing. The place smells of coffee and books and anxiety. But in the end, they’re people, not gods. They’re people who must eat dinner and fear bombs and attempt to get a handle on cooking sausage and haddock. This is a challenge as big as writing The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway.”

All these things conspired to remind me of something I wrote myself, a few years ago, when a similar question, though thankfully sans violence, was being asked in and around the fantasy community. Leaving you to fill in recent events with Bill Cosby, or, for that matter, Gamergate and so on, I’ll present that article in its entirely right here:

H.P. LOVECRAFT: THE WORK VS. THE MAN

I’ve been not just open about the influence H.P. Lovecraft has had on me, and on The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff in particular—I’ve shouted it from whatever rooftop I could find (including this one). But lately there has been a lot being said about the late Mr. Lovecraft that’s made me, and a lot of other fans of this dark fantasy icon, a little uneasy. And that may be an understatement.

Though I can’t say I didn’t notice an underlying racism in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and for that matter, his friend Robert E. Howard as well, but even as a teenager (or younger) when I first discovered these authors, I put that down to the day and age in which they lived. These stories were written in the 1920s and 30s—much less enlightened times, some thirty years before the Civil Rights Movement brought about its massive shift in American society. In some ways, it was as though I thought of these men as some kind of primitives, communicating from a simpler, less civilized time.

But H.P. Lovecraft isn’t Homer, or even Shakespeare. Both of these men, Lovecraft and Howard, were Americans, living and working in the 20th century. And yes, Howard lived in Texas, a state not known in that day as a bastion of racial tolerance, but Lovecraft was a Yankee, and of the two, you’d think he would have known better. But he didn’t. He was a racist. I can’t and won’t deny that.

A lot of this started to blow up, by the way, just this past December [2010?], when the brilliant author Nnedi Okorafor wrote about her unease with the bust of Lovecraft that she was given—the World Fantasy Award—and the mixed feelings that that brought up in her.

Can I be a Lovecraft fan, and allow my own writing to be inspired by his, when it’s plain he held some beliefs that I find personally abhorrent?

Then something made me think back to when I first started at TSR and was talking to my then-boss, the late Brian Thomsen, and I mentioned that I was a huge fan of Harlan Ellison. Brian knew everyone, and had at least a passing acquaintance with Harlan Ellison, and let’s just say Brian had a few choice words for my idol. And Brian wasn’t the only one. Even other fans would tell me stuff like: “I like his stories, but I hear he’s a total dick.” My answer was always the same: “I don’t care if he’s a dick, his work is phenomenal. He’s the greatest short story writer in the history of mankind. Let him be a dick if he wants to be.”

But yelling at people (including, years later, me!) over the phone about some little detail of this or that, or loudly voicing his opinion for all to hear, is one thing, and being a full-on racist is another. Harlan Ellison is smart and funny, and he has something to say, and that sometimes comes from a place of anger and frustration, but not hate. Lovecraft seems to have been, by all accounts, a painfully mild-mannered chap, not at all like Harlan Ellison in temperament, and yet there seems to have been this underlying pool of race hatred there.

I can’t pretend to know why he was like that. Racists aren’t born, they’re made—educated in hate, intolerance, and bigotry. Somewhere in his life, H.P. went through that indoctrination, and never seemed able to change his ways. And that is harder to forgive than Harlan Ellison’s colorful but otherwise well-intentioned outbursts.

In a college film history class, we watched the unedited version of the seminal silent movie Birth of a Nation. This is the film that for all intents and purposes set the language for narrative filmmaking that’s still in practice today. But it is a full-on KKK propaganda piece that was so bizarre to watch it seemed as though it had to be satire—but it wasn’t. The film features the heroic KKK riding to the rescue of a nation in the grips of black-faced white actors acting like ape-men. It was bizarre and twisted, and it came out of the same era, a decade here or there, as H.P. Lovecraft. And yet there we were, in a college classroom in 1983 studying what was good about Birth of a Nation while trying not to concentrate on the content.

I want to still like and admire the quality of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, even if I have to do it while trying not to concentrate on the quality of the man.

Reading through that again now, a few years later, I feel exactly the same way about H.P. Lovecraft, who I referenced almost continuously in Writing Monsters, but there’s a big difference between being a white guy in the segregated America of a hundred years ago and a violent, conniving rapist for what may have been the better part of forty years. Maybe in 2115 people will be ready to watch Bill Cosby Himself and just die laughing, ignoring the footnote off to the side of the screen. Who knows, maybe the idea of rape will be as weird to people then as institutionalized racism is to us now.

We can only hope.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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One Response to SEPARATING THE AUTHOR AND THE WORK, THE ARTIST AND THE ART

  1. Pingback: DON’T WRITE ACCENTS PHONETICALLY | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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