Saturday, July 5, 2014

Amazing Author, Horrible Person

Walter Breen wrote under the pen name
J.Z. Eglinton in his book defending pedophilia.
Despite being dead now for fifteen years, Marion Zimmer Bradley caused quite a stir on the Internet this last month. It all started with a tribute piece on Bradley, in honor of her birthday on June 3. The piece lauded her many books and contributions to the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) field, and while it seemed innocent enough, the SFF community had good reason to remember the darker side of Bradley. In short, Bradley not only married a man, Walter Breen, who molested children at SFF conventions, but she also helped cover up his crimes, and apparently even edited his writings on pederasty.

This has all been long known, ever since the mid-80’s when Breen was tried and sent to prison. You can find Bradley’s own admittance to knowing about her husband’s crimes from her depositions at the same time, found here. So it wasn’t surprising that when ran its tribute piece that a few bloggers would run counterpoint pieces, most notably, Deirdre Saoirse Moen, who sparked a fierce debate in the comments section of her post. It was there that new details emerged. Bradley’s own daughter posted in the comment section, calling her mother the true villain in her life, not Breen. “I do not think she loved anything or anyone,” her daughter stated, and then in a subsequent blog post, Moen quoted the daughter’s biggest shocker: Bradley herself had molested her and many others.

As you can imagine, debates raged on both Moen’s blog, as well as on places like Do Bradley’s horrible actions in life negate the value of her books? The Mists of Avalon was a watershed feminist novel. How, as readers, do we reconcile the difference between Bradley the author and Bradley the person?

I had already been struggling with this idea since when I first learned of Bradley’s depositions about eight months ago while attending the SFF convention FogCon. I’m familiar with literary theory and the prevailing idea that we should separate an author from her work, but I simply couldn’t read Bradley’s work anymore without thinking about the author as a person. And I’ve had similar struggles with other authors, namely H.P. Lovecraft, who was a well-documented xenophobe.

So what do you think? Can we separate author from person? And what other authors are out there who have written amazing literature but were despicable humans? Please chime in. I’ll actually be teaching a class on this topic this coming semester and I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

Garrett Calcaterra is an author of dark speculative fiction. His newest book, Dreamwielder, is an epic fantasy novel from Diversion Books. He is currently working on the sequel to Dreamwielder and an unrelated sci-fi novel. Learn more at


Anonymous said...

As a literary scholar, I have into this dilemma often, in my own work and with students. In breaking with the New Criticism, literary theorists urged us to disconnect the author from the work but also to read the work in light of its cultural context, as if it were a piece broken out of the steam of History's flotsam. Yet, in certain forms of post- theory, like postcolonialism, the author's identity once again seems to matter, as identities matter to how we write upon ourselves and engage in competing discourses with one another across and within cultural divides.

So does it matter that Marion Zimmer Bradley is valued as writing feminism while living what some might consider the opposite? That depends on whether one thinks the author's identity matters as a starting point for speaking to a cultural moment. There were a couple of major scandals, for example, in which authors of often taught, politically charge autobiographies were found to have faked them, to have woven together other people's lives into a composite account, which they present as their own. The works still gave a compelling picture of suffering and injustice in that part of the world, but the life through which these were projected was a lie. In this case, we have an author who has projected a certain feminist ethos into an embodiment of fantasy. It's not the embodiment that's the lie, but the projection itself. What do we do with that?

I think what so many of us struggle with here, though, is a more basic issue. We have enjoyed spending time with the thoughts, with the imaginative products, of a someone we now abhor. Many victims of molestation have had the same experience. Their perpetrators were often charming and attentive. They provided victims with what felt like a welcome experience, until it wasn't. And I have to say that to some extent that is how I feel about MZB's fantasies. I can't entirely separate the work from what I know about its author, and especially any ability to engage in a pleasurable dialogue with either.

Garrett Calcaterra said...

Thanks so much for your insights. I think you nailed it in describing the personal connection we build with the books we enjoy, and how discovering something horrible about the author mars that relationship. Any other authors come to mind who were despicable people?

Peter Hogenkamp said...

Thought provoking post, Garrett. In the great majority of books I have read, the only thing I know about the author comes from the About the Author section. When I then read the book I like to add some flesh to this skeleton, getting to know the author by the way he or she writes. Having read The Mists of Avalon years ago, the person I constructed was a lot different (and more likeable) than the one I just read about. To be honest, I feel a little slimy right now. So, that answers your question--no I can not separate the author from her work--and begs another: how many other authors have I drawn improperly?

Kriss Morton said...

Very much a thought provoking post. Truthfully NEVER heard of this but I came into Zimmer-Bradley back in the mid - 90's via FIREBRAND then fell into Mists of Avalon. Oh my word would be HPS be horrified if she realized this at the time, being she is Dianic! I do not believe it devalues the work, it may make me rethink rushing to give an author my money. I know Orson Scott Card was always a favorite and I have a hard time separating myself from his stance on homosexuality, but it is transference and I feel I shouldn't.

When I was growing up with trade paperbacks being my way of reading and no indie publication period, we didn't have the intimatcy with authors we have today. Even Trade authors are going the route of becoming more engaged in their readership so their personal lives tend to blend with their works and we in turn consider them as a whole. When I brand an author, or start work on their brand, it is the author first his or her face as a social media avatar, not their book... he or she is the brand not their books it is he and she and their books, a whole package. The world is changing now that anyone can publish!

Again great article!

Garrett Calcaterra said...

Thanks, Peter. Here's a few other names people have thrown out via FB and Reddit: William S. Burroughs, Jack Henry Abbott, Angela Carter, Orson Scott Card, Lawrence Durrell, Tennessee Williams, Graham Green, Ted Hughes. (Note: I haven't vetted all the names yet to validate their horribleness.)

Garrett Calcaterra said...

Thanks, Kriss. I agree that the relationship authors and readers build is becoming more personal as the publishing world changes, and that makes it harder to overlook despicable traits.

Can you clarify for me, who is HPS? It's probably stupidly obvious, but it's not coming to me at the moment.

Anonymous said...

The very successful Roald Dahl would now be labeled as an emotonal and verbal abuser of those around him. See:

Susan Clayton-Goldner said...

I'm almost reeling from this, Garrett. And I'm trying to figure out what I want to say. I do write about things I'd never do--like murder, sleeping with a best friend's parent, or kidnapping. And I hope my readers realize from the slant I take, that my stories are not my reality. And yet, as the writer, the stories are my reality in that they are often my nightmares. I conceived of the kidnapping story while I was babysitting my husband's 3-year-old granddaughter. I sat at the edge of the playground, watching her and I was suddenly consumed with a terrible fear. What if someone took her while she was under my care? Would her parents forgive me? Would my husband? I wrote the kidnapping story (not because I'd ever do it but) because I wanted to understand what it felt like to do something like that. I wanted to motivate it. Make it mine. It's a very complicated question. And it will haunt me for awhile. Thanks (I think) for posting it. :)

Garrett Calcaterra said...

Thanks, Susan. I think everyone has thoughts about doing horrible things, particularly writers, and I'd argue that writing about them is a healthy outlet. But for an author to do heinous things in their actual life is a completely different matter.

Garrett Calcaterra said...

Thanks for the suggestion and the link. I'll have to look into Dahl a bit more.

Susan Clayton-Goldner said...

Yes, Garrett, I completely agree with what you say. It's just that the question at the end had to do with separating the author from the person. And it sent me off on a different slant--made me think about my own writing. For a famous author to do heinous things in their actual life is perhaps more terrible because of the huge impact they've had on others. You wrote a very thought-provoking blog.

Peter Hogenkamp said...

I am sorry to hear that! Roald Dahl is an author dear to me, and I can not imagine the person who created Matilda is a jerk. Bummer.