Do Novelists’ Personal Beliefs Affect Your Opinion of Their Work?

Orson Scott Card at Life, the Universe, & Ever...

Orson Scott Card (Image via Wikipedia)

So I’m about 50 pages into my 20th book of the year, Ender’s Game, and coincidentally I ran across this column on the Huffington Post about the author Orson Scott Card. Since I’ve never read Card’s books, I had no idea that he was a Mormon who was staunchly against same-sex marriage. Given what I knew about Ender’s Game, that it was a sci-fi story about a boy genius soldier, I didn’t think Card’s religious views would play much of a role.

And yet, in Chapter Three, Graff tells Ender that his mother was a Mormon and his father was a Catholic. Because of their upbringing, they love their third son even though most families are permitted to only have two children. But they also hate Ender, because he is an everyday reminder that their family does not fit into this society.

I admit that after reading the HuffPo column, I am more aware of traces of religious bias than I would be if I hadn’t read it at all. For example, when bully Bernard is ridiculed for supposedly watching the other boys’ butts, I wondered if this scene promoted homophobia by declaring that being attracted to the backsides of the same sex is somehow wrong and worthy of mockery.

Am I reading too much into this? I just started the novel, so those who have finished it probably have a better idea of its themes. But at least this article got me thinking: Do I like or dislike certain books, just because I like or dislike the author’s personal beliefs?

The answer for me is sometimes. I love pre-modern literature, which is mostly written by racist, sexist, homophobic men. But I just chock it up to the time period and take their words with a grain of salt. And because I can’t go back in time and get to know them personally, how am I to be sure that people like Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain were racists? Anyone who has taken any literature courses knows that autobiography definitely plays a role in a person’s writing, but that you cannot assume that every word of theirs is autobiographical.

On the other hand, I can either love or hate a story whether or not I like that writer’s opinions. My favorite novel is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, who is a devout atheist. You cannot ignore his anti-religious messages in the story, which is exactly why I adore it. His modern adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost demonstrates that churches are corrupt and that there is absolutely nothing sinful about experiencing puberty and sexual awakening, despite what the clergy brainwashes children into thinking.

And because I’m secular myself, I am extremely wary of books with religious messages. I enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, but I agree with Pullman that the books send the wrong messages to kids. I refuse to read explicitly Christian literature now, even if it’s disguised as fantasy.

This is why I have a hard time swallowing The Twilight Saga. As a hopeless romantic, I gobbled up this forbidden vampire/werewolf love triangle. But anyone who claims that Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonism doesn’t affect the story is sorely mistaken. If I had a young daughter, I don’t think I would want her reading a story in which the female protagonist marries at 18 to have sex with her overly controlling, jealous boyfriend. Not to mention, Bella gets pregnant after said sex and refuses to terminate the pregnancy even though the vampire-hybrid fetus is killing her from the inside out.

Feel free to agree to disagree, but Meyer’s anti-choice, anti-premarital sex viewpoints, as well as Twilight’s inherent misogyny, do not an excellent novel make in my humble opinion. And I realize that Pullman’s atheistic epic turns a lot of people off as well. I guess the point of this post is that we should be grateful that we possess the freedoms of speech and press, because even if we disagree with an author’s values, that author has every right to include those values in their novels. And nobody’s forcing you to read books you don’t agree with.

So what about you? Do novelists’ personal beliefs matter to you? Are there certain books you can’t stand or just can’t get enough of on the basis of values alone? Let’s get a debate going, guys!

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13 thoughts on “Do Novelists’ Personal Beliefs Affect Your Opinion of Their Work?

  1. This is a great question. I think that yes, an author’s personal beliefs certainly affect their work. However, I don’t think that means we can’t read and enjoy their works if our beliefs don’t match theirs.

    As far as Orson Scott Card, I knew he was Mormon but did not pick up on that at all in Ender’s Game (or some of the other Ender books). I agree that Stephenie Meyer’s beliefs were slightly evident when she had the characters wait until marriage to sleep together. Overall, though, I did not feel like the books had a spiritual feel or agenda. There are other authors whose beliefs seep into their stories much more, such as Madeleine L’Engle.

    I love Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. They are so deep, so multi-faceted, and so well-written. Plus I LOVE YA fantasy – although I would argue that those books are not truly YA because of their sophisticated content. While I know he is an atheist and there are definitely anti-church ideas in the books, I still love them. I can’t say I agree with all of the philosophies behind the stories, but I definitely think they are great books to read, think about, and discuss.

    I find it interesting that you call yourself a “secular” person. I’ve heard people say they’re atheist or agnostic, but never “secular.” I consider myself a pretty spiritual and even religious person, but I still do a lot of secular things. As an ESL teacher I work with people from all kinds of backgrounds and religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and as a writer I interact with a variety of people – atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, etc. I go out to bars and have drinks. I read regular “secular” novels (not “Christian fiction” – I think those books are poorly written and sappy) and nonfiction books.

    I also tend to believe that everyone has a spiritual awareness, even if they do not believe in religious establishments. Have you read Eat, Pray, Love? The character went on a spiritual journey of sorts and experienced a couple of different “religions” or belief systems, but ultimately I would not say she was not religious OR secular. She spiritually aware, she was trying to find a bigger meaning for life, but she was not adhering to any faith or religion specifically.

    Looking forward to your reply! I may put a link to this post on Twitter. I have lots of reader/writer “friends” (some are real life friends, some are just cyber friends) there that would like to weigh in!

    • Thanks for such an in-depth comment! I think you’re the first person to notice that I call myself “secular.” Honestly, it’s just my euphemism for “atheist.” I’m a loud and proud atheist with my family and friends, but I didn’t know how ‘out’ I wanted to be in this blog, so I just use the same terms I use at work, like “secular” and “irreligious.” I find that being subtle about my lack of faith is easier for people to swallow, but I’m certainly not ashamed to identify as an atheist.

      I think everyone enjoys self-reflection and finding their place in the world, but I would disagree that everyone has a spiritual awareness. After de-converting in high school, I have never felt the need to rely on supernatural ideas to explain human behavior. I never understood why our desires to find love, happiness, or inspiration has to be labeled a “spiritual” journey. Of course, maybe if I believed in the concept of souls, I would think differently.

      As for Ender’s Game, I have about 100 pages left to read, and Card’s Mormonism does not play a major role at all. Instead, I love its themes of militarism, power, and freewill. How do you hold onto your humanity when everyone around you is trying to take it away and turn you into a savage beast? I have to admire Ender’s resilience, because I would have been broken down early on!

      Please share this post and any of mine! I would love to hear everyone else’s opinion!

      • I honestly have not given much thought to atheists feeling unaccepted or discriminated against. (I do live in the Bible Belt, though, and a lot of people around here are at least nominal Christians. I can see now that an atheist in the South could feel out of place!) I really appreciate you opening my eyes to that. (Just read your Hitchens piece, too.)

        Glad you’re enjoying Ender’s Game. I loved the scenes in the zero gravity Battle Room as well as the social aspects of “military school” and how the other kids dealt with Ender’s genius/advanced skills and how Ender responded to that. Be sure to read Ender’s Shadow also – it is somewhat of the same story, but told from the perspective of Bean.

        • As a Californian, I don’t suffer as much discrimination as those of the South, but as a Californian of the Central Valley, I suffer more than those on the West coast. But you make an interesting point: I hope that people don’t have to give much thought to atheist oppression, not because people ignore our rights, because religious discrimination has been erased entirely. One can hope anyway!

          I’m loving Ender’s Game and cannot wait to post my review! I’ll make sure to check out Ender’s Shadow too. It wasn’t until I started reading the novel did I realize that it was a series. I’m intrigued about the difference in point of view!

  2. P.S. I did post a link to this on Twitter. 🙂

    I again would encourage you to join Twitter if you want to get more readers. I was very dubious of it and after about six weeks on it, I almost quit, but didn’t, and now I have found a lot of new readers, as well as people who blog or write about things I’m interested in.

  3. “I refuse to read explicitly Christian literature now, even if it’s disguised as fantasy.”

    Oh… that’s a shame. Though perhaps no good literature wears anything as a disguise, anymore than good art of any kind wears a disguise. Maybe this makes my previous suggestion difficult for you to consider – hopefully you’ll reconsider in time. 😛

    “His modern adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost demonstrates that churches are corrupt and that there is absolutely nothing sinful about experiencing puberty and sexual awakening, despite what the clergy brainwashes children into thinking.”

    That’s quite harsh. I think it’s maybe a little too harsh in fact. Clergy not only fail to brainwash children (normally) but moreover if they are Catholic Clergy then they explicitly teach that sexual awakening and puberty are good things, as John Paul II’s theology of the body implies. The author’s implications are, I think, straw-men: straw-men who are too often taken for granted to represent most clergy.

    I think you are right that the authors bias obviously can strike a chord in us one way or another depending on whether we are in fundamental agreement with them or not. However, ultimately, good art is about beauty goodness and truth, and therefore somebody is likely to appreciate good art wherever they recognize in it something beautiful, something good, and something true. For example, it is probably my Christianity which makes me so fascinated with figures like ‘Golum’ in the Lord of the Rings, who is an image of hell. He can no longer say “I am”, but only “we are” since he has identified himself with the ring, by investing his love in the ring, instead of in something which can reciprocate that love, and in reciprocating might lend him his identity. The word itself ‘Golem’ comes from the Jewish myth of the un-man. Obviously the use of such images reflects for me not only a tragic form of beauty, but also reflects a very deep truth about the human situation and experience of love. Obviously my reflection would be much more shallow, or worse perhaps antagonistic, if it were not for my being in fundamental agreement with the author on this issue. What is curious is not how many Christians feel that the Lord of the Rings is beautiful art, but how many people who don’t have particularly religious convictions often come away from reading Tolkien’s masterpiece feeling as though, somehow, it was a better reflection of the real world than the way we often imagine the mundane world we inhabit.

    In any case, this post asks a great question, and my answer, for what its worth, is that we will only be able to recognize the beauty, truth or goodness which exists in some piece of art to the extent that what it expresses can be recognized by us as beautiful, good, or true.

    • Ok, I have three responses to your comment:

      1. When I say “explicitly Christian literature,” I mean novels with an obvious religious agenda like the Left Behind series. Of course, I don’t mean pre-modern classics with Christian themes, such as those of Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Milton, or Dante. If I refused to read literature written by Christian authors, obviously my reading selection would be very small!

      2. My comment about The Golden Compass was meant to be harsh, because if you’ve read the novel, you’d know just how caustic Pullman feels about the Catholic church. The clergy in the book are so inhumane that they rip children from their daemons (animal manifestations of their souls) just so they won’t be able to experience sexuality. I know that not all Catholic priests are this vile, but the rampant sexual abuse and pedophilia in the church is more than just a straw-man argument. As for the church supporting sexual awakening, I would argue that its support is very limited, since it still refuses to accept pre-marital sex, contraception, and homosexuality–views I believe stunt sexual development, encourage discrimination, and keep women submissive to men.

      3. I also love The Lord of the Rings, and can understand how readers can make religious comparisons. However, even though Tolkien was a devout Christian, he said repeatedly that he hates when his stories as seen as allegorical. He did not want Gandalf to be compared to Jesus, or Sauron to Hitler. That doesn’t mean the comparisons don’t exist, but I am loyal to authorial intent. LOTR is certainly a beautiful masterpiece which exemplifies courage, friendship, and the power of good, which is why I don’t think people need to read it with a religious perspective to enjoy it. Interestingly enough, Tolkien played a role in C.S. Lewis’ conversion, and yet Lewis is the one who chooses to insert Christian messages into his fantasy series. Tolkien’s lack of agenda made LOTR more universally enjoyable than The Chronicles of Narnia, and when combined with the fact that Tolkien was a much better writer than Lewis, it’s no surprise that LOTR continues to dominate as fantasy fans’ favorite story.

      Thanks for the comment, and feel free to stop by anytime on my blog!

      • I have a few brief things to say by way of reply, since I can’t seem to help myself. I’ll take your points in turn.

        1. I am glad to hear it, and in that case my suggestion still qualifies as what you both can read and what, I suspect, you may enjoy very much reading… Left Behind is very poorly written, and I think part of the reason it’s not beautiful is that its theology is so naive.

        2. Obviously sexual ethics is a pandoras box and it’s hard to know how to speak to it without exploding into arguments of every kind. However, I want to make a few brief but strong remarks. The first is that it has been painstakingly demonstrated now, more than once, that pedophilia is not only not more common among Catholic priests than say protestant ministers or indeed the worst group of all: high school teachers, but that the cultural clerical-phobia has been unjustified for some time. If one is going to launch a complaint against the Catholic Church one has to at least get right what kind of complaint is legitimate: the legitimate complaint (which is not, by the way, without an answer) is that the Catholic Church as an organization had covered up such instances of pedophilia by putting priests through psychological rehabilitation and then letting them move to new parishes where they would become repeat offenders – all the while considering it an issue of legal or moral confidentiality that the priest had been convicted for something like pedophilia before. That is the complaint, and it is a serious one, but the ratio of Catholic priests who are pedophiles compared to those who aren’t Catholic priests and are pedophiles in the same culture and at the same time, serves to demonstrate something in the favor of the Catholic Church; or else more modestly at least it serves to demonstrate that the problem is first of all cultural rather than theological or ecclesiological – consider for instance where the priest scandal is at its worst, in Ireland. Consider then how many Irish pedophiles there are who are not members of the clergy. Isn’t it striking what one finds? What intelligent person doesn’t already know this, and know it very well – or else at least is not at pains to find it out if they were simply to look it up? Moreover the studies to which I refer are non-partisan (that is, nobody should be caught saying the very foolish thing that the findings of Oxford university sociologists, for example, which demonstrate these things, are biased towards the Catholic Church). Now, I need to add all the caveats that I am not offering any kind of apology for those truly wicked priests who have hurt the ‘little ones’ or even an apology for the way Bishops have handled various cases of pedophilia, and indeed I do not object to the world being particularly scandalized as Catholic priests for such atrocities, making more of a fuss about them then high school gym teachers. But to pretend that pedophilia is not an outrageous minority among Catholic clergy is not only naive, it is harmful ignorance which hurts not only those who believe it, but the majority of priests who are genuinely good caring religious people. As a Catholic, I find that this issue generally doesn’t interest me as much as others because bad arguments hide behind it, and it isn’t any kind of philosophical argument itself either way at all – but I hear it so often that I suppose it’s not surprising I sometimes feel the need to speak to it soberingly. Perhaps that’s enough from me on that point and I’ll simply move on soon to a lighter comment about sexual ethics. My only concern as it relates to the literature you mentioned is that, on this issue, Pullman is, in his fiction, simply helping breed contention and antagonism against the Catholic Church without caring much about whether it is deserved, and for that I find his art less genuine (perhaps even tasteless). I also don’t know if you’re aware, but his use of the word Daemon goes back to a pre-Christian use of the word as a sort of demi-god or guardian angel, and thus there is an implicit criticism even in the use of that literary trope suggesting that Christianity in particular (and not just religion in general) has so disparagingly confused humanity by demonizing what is really rather good.

        You say “As for the church supporting sexual awakening, I would argue that its support is very limited, since it still refuses to accept pre-marital sex, contraception, and homosexuality–views I believe stunt sexual development, encourage discrimination, and keep women submissive to men.”
        I suppose I agree with the Catholic philosophy of sex (which is impressively persuasive) which suggests that things like pre-marital sex, for instance, are not liberating in the end at all; that when it all comes out in the end, and in the final calculation, it isn’t healthy either for individuals or for civilization. That it takes a rather distorted view of anthropology to think that it does, not to mention an ignorance of our cultural experience in the wake of the sexual revolution. I think in order to understand (which is a pre-requisite of agreeing with) the Catholic sexual teachings, one has to understand how the Christian anthropology is characteristically different from, say, a secular anthropology. Only when one can have both in view is one in a position to choose between them in a responsible and informed way. I submit that the Catholic anthropology is not only more reasonable and profound, but also that it entails such things as not having pre-marital sex (which is the equivalent of a false speech-act) nor using contraception (which is the same again) and so on. People may avoid such a view of sexual ethics because they would rather it not be true, but I have never encountered anybody who encountered it in a serious philosophical way without either becoming Catholic or else coming away with a much more profound respect and understanding for the concerns the Catholic Church has. Here, instead of rehearsing arguments which would make this response too long, I would instead just invite you to read at your leisure and think about some papers in the philosophy of sex:
        http://blogs.princeton.edu/anscombe/resources/links-marriage-and-sex.html
        and especially, because he’s my favorite, Pruss here:
        http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/ap85/papers/unity.html

        The claim that such a view of sexuality and sexual ethics aims to encourage discrimination, stunt sexual development or is in any way repressive towards women could not be further from the truth. Moreover, the claim is always only and ever made by those who haven’t bothered to read anything about the Theology of the Body or Catholic sexual ethics in general, and for that reason alone is difficult to take seriously.

        Perhaps I’ll leave it at that for now.

        3. On a lighter note: did you know that Tolkien gave C.S. Lewis a copy of the Lord of the Rings to read, and Lewis got back to him by saying that it was “good beyond hope”, yet, when Lewis handed Tolkien the Chronicles of Narnia to read, Tolkien got back to him saying “You shouldn’t publish this”. Tolkien was a fascinating person. In his correspondence letters he answers, as you point out, people who tried to interpret the whole story of the Lord of the Rings as Christian allegory, and he felt strongly that his art was beyond that. However, notice that he also responded when people proposed things such as that Gandalf, Frodo and Aragron represented the threefold ministry of Christ as priest, prophet and king, that that could very well be true, but that it wasn’t his conscious intention. Tolkien invited readers to discover how deeply his novels expressed a peculiarly Catholic world view, but never wished to admit that, at any moment, it was merely allegory. I also think some credit has to go to C.S. Lewis, as nobody else in the history of religious literature has ever been able to create a compelling fictional character which reflects the character of Jesus of Nazareth as it exists in the religious imagination. I don’t think for a moment that when I say that Golum is a perfect image of hell that Tolkien intended allegory here, but I do think it is quite right to say that Golum really is an excellent Christian image of hell which Tolkien provides us with.

        If you’re at all interested, I recommend checking out and listening to one Catholic philosopher, Peter Kreeft, in his explorations of Lord of the Rings and Christianity, which one used to be able to find on his website, but which, I think, one can still find for free on itunes.

        In any case, I realize that some of what I say may surprise you or scandalize you (though I can’t be sure which parts, as I shouldn’t assume too much about you without knowing you better) and I recognize how emotional people can get over such issues. Therefore I can’t end without noting that I hope what I write is well received, and that my comments are not born of any antagonism or ill-will. I’ll leave it at that for now.

        • Oh, trust me, I’m not easily surprised or scandalized, and I understand how polarizing these issues can be. However, in my closing remarks on this post, I take issue with your statement:

          “The claim that such a view of sexuality and sexual ethics aims to encourage discrimination, stunt sexual development or is in any way repressive towards women could not be further from the truth. Moreover, the claim is always only and ever made by those who haven’t bothered to read anything about the Theology of the Body or Catholic sexual ethics in general, and for that reason alone is difficult to take seriously.”

          Obviously, I’m not a theologian, but I do specialize in mass media, PR, etc. and like most people, I derive my opinions from what is put forth by media outlets. And there’s a reason why secularism is on the rise: organized religion, in general, suffers a horrendous reputation. I’m a Republican, but I’m aware that the GOP is heavily mocked (and rightfully so) by being out-of-step with the public. I find the analogy fitting for the church. Regardless of how you justify your religion (which you have every right to do), most people who disassociate themselves from the church do so because it no longer fits their modern lifestyles.

          The Bible is heavily misogynistic, racist, and homophobic, but I expect that coming from scripture written thousands of years ago. I also acknowledge that you’ll disagree with that statement, since most can cherry-pick and re-interpret to their liking. However, to say that I’m ignorant for believing such about the Bible or Christianity as a whole, will not gain the church a steady following. I’m not a biblical scholar, but reading the Bible is the number one reason why I de-converted. And just as you have the right to not take me seriously because you find me theologically uneducated, I have the right to not take you seriously for ignoring or denying what I think is the church’s fatal flaw: its inability to change its rigid, hierarchical structure and outdated ideologies.

          And the sake of alienating my readers and possibly risking my future career as a journalist (since atheists are still the most distrusted minority in America), I would prefer to continue our religious debates on your blog and literary ones on mine. Make no mistake, I’m not offended by your comments and appreciate your honesty (I hope you feel the same!) I would just hate to isolate those on my blog who just want to discuss Ender’s Game and Twilight, if you know what I mean!

  4. Sure, I understand and I appreciate your comments. Perhaps I’ll have to find a way to post a response on my blog. Also, I hope that I didn’t come off quite so badly as some of your comments indicate – I hope that I did not imply that I thought your views were not worthy of respect because of your lack of background in theology, that would be quite wrong of me. Rather, I meant more modestly that your criticisms, common as they are and so often presented in the mainstream as they are, are difficult for me as a theologian to take seriously given that the criticisms never fail to completely and stubbornly ignore any kind of sophisticated response. There comes a time when one is discouraged because no matter how many times a solid argument is made, it is constantly ignored and treated as though it didn’t exist at all – but this is, I think, the fault of the various media outlets, and not their audiences. Don’t think for a second that I don’t take you very seriously – I wouldn’t be responding if I wasn’t willing to do at least that.

    Thank you very much for your courtesy, and I hope we can continue to have such discussions whenever you like, on my blog. I also hope that our conversations don’t end up doing anything like ruining your reputations as a good professional journalist in the United States- but of course if it did, you could always come move to Canada. 😛 Up here even Theology majors who aren’t atheists or agnostics are in the minority. 😛

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