Think of your favourite author. It doesn’t have to be a Christian author. It can be a classic literary figure or a popular novelist. Consider how their work has moulded and influenced you, entertained and delighted you, from an impressionable young age even up to the present.

Now imagine discovering that in their private or public life, they turn out to be a rather unsavoury person. They’ve behaved badly, treated others poorly, perhaps done things harmful or even illegal. Does this change how you view their writing?

This is the dilemma ­– and the disillusionment – that all too often confronts those of us who love books. We live in a fallen world and as the cliché goes, our idols (even our literary ones) are bound to have feet of clay.

Sometimes, however, it’s more than just their feet and they’re made of stuff far more unpleasant than clay and we’re left bewildered and wondering: How could such beautiful words and ideas flow from such a bitter source? Can we ever even look at their work the same way again?

It’s a daunting proposition, this matter of distinguishing between a writer and their work, one that’s fraught with a fair degree of subjectivity. Suppose, for example, that the author you admire isn’t a bad person after all. However, you find out that they espouse certain beliefs or political opinions with which you vehemently disagree. Would the value of their writing diminish in your eyes on that basis alone?

Orson Scott Card

A few years ago, a popular media blog tackled this topic, asking readers how they’d respond if they found out something unpalatable about their favourite author. To keep things civil, the moderator asked that names not be named, and that respondents consider only authors who’ve said or done genuinely bad things, not those with whom the respondents happen to disagree ideologically.

Right away, someone brought up Orson Scott Card, a science fiction writer best known for his classic novel, Ender’s Game, which was made into a big-budget movie. Card is also a Mormon who has spoken out in support of traditional marriage and against same-sex unions. Although his fiction writing has nothing to do with LGBTQ issues, that didn’t stop activists from demanding a boycott of the film based on his book.

It also didn’t stop the blog discussion from descending into a flurry of name-calling and vitriolic personal attacks against Card. One respondent declared that they’d thrown out all their books by Card, adding that as a rule they never throw out books – although they were willing to make an exception in Card’s case.

A few voices attempted to steer the conversation back on course, pointing out that Card’s personal beliefs didn’t fall within the scope of the discussion, but these got shouted down or ignored.

Anne Perry

Then someone else brought up Anne Perry. A veteran author of Victorian murder mysteries, Perry was herself convicted of murder at the age of 15 after she and her best friend killed the friend’s mother. After serving five years in prison as a minor, she was released, changed her name, travelled the world for a time and eventually began a new life as a successful novelist.

The reaction on the blog to Perry was quite different than the one Card had received. In the first place, the reader who brought Perry’s name into the discussion made no personal attacks against the author. She didn’t boast about destroying Perry’s books. She merely stated that she could no longer bring herself to read murder mysteries that were written by a real-life murderer.

Fair enough. Nevertheless, rather than offering empathy, the other blog participants turned on this reader and attacked her. How dare she judge Anne Perry? Doesn’t she realize Perry has paid her debt to society? Her hang-ups about Perry’s work say more about her than about the author.

So then, separating a writer from their work is indeed a highly subjective affair. If our blogging friends were to be believed, a convicted murderer who writes murder mysteries should give no one the slightest moment of pause. Conversely, a religious person who supports traditional family but writes science fiction unrelated to these views should still have his books banned.

A handful of principles to keep in mind

We’re left to wonder: Are there in fact any fair-minded, even-handed, reasonably consistent principles we can apply to questions such as these? There are a few.

First, it’s impossible to completely separate a writer from their work in the absolute sense. An author’s worldview will by necessity inform their writing, to whatever degree, whether consciously or unconsciously. It’s just wise discernment to keep this in mind.

Second, having said that, it’s also only fair to judge a piece of writing on its own merits, apart from the personal beliefs of the author. These two principles should always be held in balance, or even in tension, if need be. Card’s work should no more be dismissed out of hand by secularists just because he supports traditional marriage, than by Christians just because he’s a Mormon.

Third, building on the previous point, there’s a vital principle in writing that description does not equal advocacy. An author can write about any number of topics (murder, for instance) without either approving or condemning them. We especially owe this consideration to a writer like Perry, who by all accounts is remorseful for her horrific youthful crime, and like the rest of us, is not beyond redemption.

Fourth, at the same time, if we can’t read something in good conscience, we probably shouldn’t read it at all. Scripture tells us that anything we can’t do in faith is sinful for us, and to paraphrase Martin Luther, it’s neither wise nor safe to go against the leading of Scripture and conscience.

Fifth, God is the source of all creative talents, including the ability to write. And He pours out these gifts generously on all sorts of people, both good and bad, just and unjust. We honour our Creator when we recognize and appreciate His creative gifts, regardless of their human agent.

In the end, we might not be able to recover our innocent sense of wonder that we had when we first encountered a writer and their work. But we may yet be able to show respect to that writer by enjoying his or her work to the glory of God.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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