Problematic Creators: How Do We Interact With Their Work?
As we go forward in technological progress, we gain greater insights into historical documents and people’s lives. Documents once isolated to archives can be found online, and people reveal much about their personal lives and opinions online, creating a public record. Now, though in the past it was easy to be unaware of what others think or do, one’s actions are magnified for others’ consumption.
The purpose of this article is not to condemn a single artist as the worst person to exist or irredeemable. It is also not meant to tell anyone what works they can and cannot enjoy. The reader or consumer is the only judge of what they want to or will not watch, read or engage with.
What Does “Problematic” Here Mean? Is This a Part of Cancel Culture?
Problematic. A common word. There’s even a Tumblr page cataloguing celebrities’ actions. Orlando Jones, upon calling Sally Hemings the “original Olivia Pope” in reference to the character in Scandal, even submitted himself to the now-defunct Your Fave is Problematic. 1 Jones then apologized “without qualification or equivocation.”
Is your fave problematic? It’s possible. “Problematic,” stemming from the early seventeenth century, means “constituting or presenting a problem or difficulty.” 2 Here, it will mean a creator whose words or actions which have stirred controversy. Some of these accused actions are more severe than others, so proceed with caution.
This article is not intended to extensively discuss cancel culture—the name for when someone, typically on social media, is revealed to have views deemed negative, bigoted or inflammatory, and they are “cancelled,” which tends to come in the form of several public call outs or shunning. Most of all, the article will explore the relationship of the artist with their own work and the audiences’ engagement with both the creator and their creations.
The Quality of the Work
Some have defended artists who committed atrocious actions based off the merit of their work. Artists with such defenders are Roman Polanski, who raped a thirteen-year-old child, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, who molested children, including her own, but there are those that claim the artistic merit of Polanski’s films and the feminist nature of Bradley’s fantasy novels circumvent their behavior.
Polanski’s defenders include Guillermo del Toro, Meryl Streep, Wes Anderson, Whoopi Goldberg, Natalie Portman, Tilda Swinton, Darren Aronofsky, Martin Scorsese, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David Lynch, Harrison Ford, Woody Allen (shocker!), and more.
Ultimately, deciding whether the merit of the work overpowers the harm and trauma caused by a creator depends on the person interested in consuming the work. Boundaries differ, and for many, crimes such as child sexual abuse will forever taint an artist’s legacy and their creations. Can the ideas of a work surpass their author if the author did not live by them? When it comes to Bradley’s feminist reputation, the idea of equality for women certainly didn’t extend to the treatment of Moira Greyland, her daughter, who she molested from the ages three to twelve. It was also Bradley’s beloved reputation and influence that made Greyland afraid to speak out while her mother was still alive.
[O]ne reason I never said anything is that I regarded her life as being more important than mine: her fame more important, and assuredly the comfort of her fans as more important. Those who knew me, knew the truth about her, but beyond that, it did not matter what she had done to me, as long as her work and her reputation continued.
Jessica Jernigan explains her quandary in “The Book That Made Me a Feminist Was Written by an Abuser” 3:
This is, of course, a version of the question we’re all asking ourselves at the moment. How do we separate the artist from the art? Should we? Can we? I have found that my own answers vary. Woody Allen’s face makes Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Hannah and Her Sisters — all movies I’ve adored — impossible. I’m also done with Louis C.K., but I’m not even ready to think about the colleagues and collaborators — Pamela Adlon? Aziz Ansari? — who have supported him, even as I, myself, was long willing to let “rumors” be “rumors.” Losing Kevin Spacey isn’t hard for me, but forswearing Harvey Weinstein forever means forgetting about a long list of great movies. And Weinstein was a producer — a facilitator more than a creator. Is his connection to a film close enough to make that film anathema?
Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein seems to be a tipping point for sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, but we’re also seeing women and men come forward in journalism, publishing, and academia. The question of separating the abuser from his work metastasizes, and I don’t have any easy answers. Or, rather, I do have one easy answer: When someone says they’ve been assaulted, abused, harassed, I believe them. But I believe them, in part, because of lessons I absorbed from The Mists of Avalon.
So, what to do with this once-beloved book?
Is the Author Dead or Alive?
In 2014, the World Fantasy Awards faced controversy regarding their trophy, the “Howard,” which was a bust of Weird horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s face to commemorate the convention’s first appearance in Providence, Rhode Island, where Lovecraft lived most of his life. Controversy over the bust had occurred before when, in 1984, Donald Wandrei criticized and rejected the trophy for being an unpleasant-looking caricature, which is difficult to argue against.
Then, Nnedi Okorafor, the first black author to win the WFA “Howard,” expressed her discomfort of the award being in Lovecraft’s likeness because, despite liking his work, she knew of his bigotry and how he would have diminished her own humanity in his eyes. Okorafor said:
A statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honors as a writer. 4
This led to a petition by Daniel José Older to change the bust, and this did come to pass, though with backlash from individuals such as Lovecraft scholar and biographer S.T. Joshi.
H.P. Lovecraft, in his many letters to correspondents, covered a good many topics, but he also revealed his racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. While his views did shift over time, and he softened in his language, he never completely relinquished his prejudices.
While some arguments have pointed to his brief relationship with Sonia Greene, a Jewish writer of Eastern European descent, as evidence of his change, he considered her “one of the good ones” because she was assimilated. Not only that, but Lovecraft’s fervent racism took on an extreme when he moved to New York during the marriage and seethed almost violently at the diversity versus the more homogeneous, WASP-y population of 1920’s Providence.
To his wife, Lovecraft would also make remarks about Jewish people or even his Jewish friends, such as writer Samuel Loveman, who had no idea of Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism and homophobia (Loveman was also gay) but penned “Of Gold and Sawdust” after Lovecraft’s death to profess his deep hurt once Greene confided to him Lovecraft’s true views, in which the prolific Providence writer had said, “Too bad Loveman’s a Jew.”
Others may argue someone saying they are more open and accepting than a dead man come across as condescending, as there is no way to retroactively confront Lovecraft for his beliefs. At the end of the day, it is worthy considering, when we discuss the actions of an artist who has done harm, what we want to occur as a product of that knowledge.
When we bring up Lovecraft’s racism or a creator’s beliefs or actions, what do we hope to accomplish? Berate someone for liking the work of a person who has done bad things—or educate and have an honest discussion? The latter is emotionally exhausting and difficult with all the complexities of human beings, but it allows for the conversation to be more than the initial call out of calling something or someone bad. Calling something bad is not an insubstantial step, but the engagement and conversation can go further.
For every story, there is a counter-story. 5 If you support equality and despise bigotry, that is a start, but we must consider what we do with that sense of empathy and justice when we learn the how’s and why’s of prejudice, the terrible insidious nature of bigotry where even a talented or otherwise good creative person can have repulsive thoughts toward their fellow human beings. Where someone as timid and polite as Orson Scott Card—often defended for said demeanor—can be against equality for a group of marginalized people.
This is the sneaky power of prejudice, where a person can claim they do not hate and only love while seeing another group as less than human. An otherwise good person can be swayed to despise those who need the most kindness.
Many authors of similar renown had bigoted pasts: Flannery O’Connor, while stating she supported racial equality, would say racist jokes to bother her pro-civil rights friends and had a “hate the sin, not the sinner” response when a friend was kicked out of the military for being a lesbian. 6 Robert E. Howard, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Jack London, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound have all produced work meaningful to others but with prejudice either in the work, their personal beliefs or both.
And honestly, there’s not enough time to talk about the newer Romantics sans perhaps John Keats. If you have seen the name of Lovecraft’s childhood cat commemorated in “The Rats in The Walls,” there’s also the initial name for Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which comes from a minstrel song.
All these creatives are dead. Lovecraft died in 1939, and there is no Lovecraft estate; his original works, though the copyright has been at times disputed, are mostly in the public domain. The impacts of their works–however one may frame them–do not go away. Lovecraft was a complicated man with a difficult life; he suffered the loss of his grandfather and lost his childhood home. Because his grandfather’s finances were mismanaged, his mother was constantly stressed about finances and deteriorated, often taking out her frustrations on her son, who entered a suicidal breakdown in early adulthood and didn’t enter the workforce to ease the monetary burden. Both his parents died in a sanitarium, and Lovecraft lived in poverty, his poor diet contributing to his painful death from a rare cancer of the small intestine.
That being said, it is entirely understandable that speculative fiction readers and writers of color are uncomfortable engaging with the memory of someone who saw their identities as inferior and would have provided no sympathy toward them. It is a shame that a man who could be so warm and humorous with those he cared for could not feel empathy for others who were suffering because of institutional oppression.
As a queer and disabled person who is often confronted by homophobia and ableism/eugenics support in beloved classics, the author of this piece understands and empathizes with this reaction. On an emotional level, it is similarly understandable as readers who want to avoid Orson Scott Card for his homophobic beliefs.
The difference between Lovecraft versus an author like Card lies in that a) Card seems to be self-sufficient whereas Lovecraft was impoverished and died obscure and b) Card is alive and can still profit from purchases of his work.
Choosing to buy Card’s novels, even while verbally condemning his views, does offer monetary support, which may then, no matter how little, go to anti-LGBTQIA organizations. While unintentional, even if the cause is the consumer’s personal enjoyment, buying an artist’s work when they condone oppressing others may come across as tacit approval and rewarding their behavior.
There are messy cases, such as with Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose profits now all go to a charity for child abuse victims, but reading a story made by a woman who sexually abused her children can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth and sour whatever fictional narrative Bradley created.
On one hand, royalties on single copies are negligible when accounting for other expenses. A traditionally published author receives very little (perhaps ten or fifteen percent) when a copy of their work is bought.
On the other hand, Card might not be hurt by boycotting his works, but he certainly will not be helped, and those wanting to avoid his works need not worry about endorsing him in any way, though whether purchasing or liking a work by a living person accused of hurtful views and actions is an endorsement of those views and actions varies on an individual basis.
The question of “forgiveness” is complex and not easily answered, especially when some of those discussed here can no longer attempt redemption because of their deaths, and the hypotheticals of whether they would recant on their prejudices are ultimately fruitless. Also, forgiveness is not compulsory and someone who has been hurt is not obligated to give it.
Some also choose to not buy the work of an artist who has had controversy, dead or alive. While it is true this can slim the pool, there are many artists who are compassionate and open-minded people with no such scandals, and it is on the person who seeks to engage with art to choose what they can and cannot accept—and no one else.
The Severity of the Crimes or Beliefs
For H.P. Lovecraft, certain individuals, often fans, have argued that Lovecraft’s views were expressed in private conversations and personal letters. (Though he did admit to seeing lynching and violence against black people as proficient “extrajudicial” methods to protecting white people.) But if he wasn’t a member of the KKK or didn’t lynch anyone, he’s not that bad, right?
Well, this can be troubling because then one creates delineations of “bad” and “good” (or perhaps more appropriately “not-as-bad”) racism. It can lead to diminishing or outright dismissing the impact of certain acts of bigotry because it’s not as bad as the most violent culmination of systemic oppression, which is genocide. Framed like that, almost all views against other people can be deemed as okay.
Others argue Lovecraft was either as racist as anyone else during his time (to defend him) or more racist (to condemn him), but how does one quantify this in a time where indeed racism was rampant, but there were people like James Morton, Lovecraft’s friend, a vocal member of the NAACP? If Lovecraft is a product of his time, Morton is, too. Where exactly is the “line” where we place “racism that’s not as bad” or “racism that was ‘normal'” or “racism so much worse than ‘normal'”—thus implying some of the racism could be deemed more acceptable?
Some will defend the individual by saying they were joking, and that absolves them because they were not espousing genuine beliefs. At times, the accused will release an apology, and the reactions will differ wildly. The reaction to public statements depends on the way the apology is presents, whether the party accepts blame and aims to make amends going forward.
It also depends on the severity of the crime, which varies by person, as it is hard to sympathize with Kevin Spacey recounting his struggles to come out as a gay man when the catalyst of his statement involves his sexual assault of Anthony Rapp and others. Even a “my bad” would have perhaps felt less weirdly opportunistic. The feeling of accountability is lacking.
For some, there can be no attempt at redemption. David Foster Wallace, who stalked and abused Mary Karr and considered murdering her husband, threw a table at her, and attempted to push her out of a moving car, killed himself in 2008.
Whether one can know of these events and still want to read the creator’s work all chocks up to personal preference, as some can shake off a writer or actor’s personal life or identity better than others. Some may be able to watch an older Kevin Spacey film without thinking of the multiple accusations of sexual assault.
The Appearance of the Author or Artist’s Beliefs in Their Works
As discussed above, one can argue that simply because someone’s personal views are bad doesn’t mean their work is. Indeed, a good artist doesn’t necessarily make a good person.
H.P. Lovecraft’s work, for some new readers, might not strike them as openly bigoted, depending on where they start. Isn’t it just a bunch of cultists and tentacled space monsters? But beyond the poem “On the Creation of N_____,” written in Lovecraft’s youth, when one reads “The Horror at Red Hook,” with the condemnation of the “hybrid squalor” of Brooklyn, or “He” or “The Street,” the fear of the “degeneration” of pure Anglo-Saxon bloodlines—often framed with economically disadvantaged “hicks” or people of color as the enemy—presents itself starkly. There is also the description of Buck Robinson in “Herbert West—Reanimator”:
The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke.” The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so. He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. The body must have looked even worse in life—but the world holds many ugly things. 7
Also to consider is the depiction of people of color in “The Call of Cthulhu” with the main character’s relative being killed by a “nautical-looking negro” or the blatant anti-miscegenation message in The Shadow over Innsmouth. Yes, the one with fish people, although they’re more like fish-frog people. There are minor improvements, such as the neutral depiction of a black couple in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but no indications of Lovecraft undergoing a paradigm shift.
Orson Scott Card, however, does not seem to have extremely anti-LGBT themes in his work. Whether this influences one’s tolerance toward the work is, again, subjective.
Where does “Death of the Author” Fit in Here?
“Death of the Author” (or La mort de l’auteur, coined by Roland Barthes) wasn’t meant to explicitly pertain to discussing the problematic actions of dead authors or artists. It was an argument against then-traditional practices of using the authors’ biographical information to color the reading of a text.
That all said, Intent is relevant here because the author’s personal beliefs constitute as part of their biography and can shape their art. If we are focusing on the problematic nature of certain artists, bringing in the idea of simply ignoring any biographical context is needed.
For some people, not considering who created a piece is easy, while others cannot get past what the creator has done. Like many instances in this article, this boundary depends on the individual. For the sake of this article, the creators are not figuratively dead, really; this writing is part-analysis, part-necromancy.
When discussing the problematic nature of certain works, questions about how to change a work, accusation of trying to change an unpleasant history arise.
For example, some publications have changed the name of the cat in Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls.” There were debates on whether to omit the heavy use of a racial epithet in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or refrain from teaching the novel altogether.
Twain’s novel about Huck and a runaway enslaved man named Jim is not new to controversy; in 1885, librarians in Concord called it “trash” and “suitable only for the slums.” Meanwhile, there are claims that Lovecraftian fiction is antiquated or that his works should be forgotten because of the hateful subtext—or just plain text—embedded in many of his stories.
Consider the work of Disney, such as Song of the South, the crows (one named “Jim” in reference to Jim Crow laws) and workers in Dumbo, the Siamese cats in The Lady and the Tramp, and the caricature of a black dryad in Fantasia.
Lindsay Ellis, in her video essay “Woke Disney” 8, discusses the legacy of racism in Disney films, proclaiming that the modern remakes simply choose to ignore and erase the caricatures and jokes at the expense of people of color.
However, how does one keep the racism in but do it constructively when much of the racism in the original films involves caricatures? Perhaps a deconstructive take, such as a humanization of one of the black workers in Dumbo, would be an acknowledgment of the lack thereof in the original.
Disney remakes over-correct on “plot holes” more than genuinely facing issues in the original storylines, such as the inherit goodness of monarchy and the pro-segregation stance seen in The Lion King, where the lions are ruler divined by The Circle of Life and integrating the hyenas into society is seen as villainous and destabilizing.
Ellis is correct in pointing out modern Disney adaptations’ tendencies to use self-referential humor to depict the past actions of Walt Disney in a poking but not overtly critical light. The idyllic vision of Disneyland and such does not mesh with reality.
When exploring whether certain works have elements now deemed problematic, one must not confuse censorship and criticism as one. The criticism of a work’s prejudiced elements is not a proclamation that such a work should not exist and the artist should be barred from creating ever again.
At the same time, though these aspects of creative work are unpleasant, we must not shy away from pointing them out and initiating conversations.
The Issue with Putting Public Figures on Pedestals
On the Internet, often certain celebrities are deemed as “pure” and “too good” or “cinnamon rolls.” They become memetic. Now, it is Keanu Reeves and Jeff Goldblum, who might indeed be genuinely good people; parsing out a public persona and the individual’s true personality comes with its own struggles. This is not about them but the phenomenon in general.
However, a danger that comes with viewing certain individuals as uniquely un-problematic or pure is that they are often not; they are complicated individuals, and we may not necessarily know what goes on in their heads, nor should we expect to do so—and a pedestal is a long fall. As mentioned above, it was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s high reputation that led to her daughter feeling as if she couldn’t speak out because her mother’s positive influence trounced the extreme sexual trauma she caused; the victim felt less important and like they’d “ruin” something for those who loved her mother’s books, so she kept silent.
There are certain artists, such as David Foster Wallace and H.P. Lovecraft, who are considered strong influences in their genres—literary fiction and cosmic horror, respectively.
They are giants, and especially in the case of Lovecraft, he is immortalized. From Annihilation to Aquaman, one will find it a challenge to go far out of the way of any mention of Lovecraft’s influence on modern media. Cthulhu plushies abound.
A positive aspect of the Internet is that there is so much knowledge available at once, which might seem overwhelming, but this knowledge includes the writings and artwork of those who may not have been able to reach an audience before.
Lovecraftian fiction has given way to neo-Lovecraftian stories that explore the original author’s works while deconstructing elements from the villainization of immigrants and black citizens of New York (see Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom) to an exploration of gender and feminism in stories often absent of female characters with agency (see Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe). Consider reading from a wealth of authors who take celebrated work and excavate the more troublesome aspects to create liberating narratives.
Therefore, dismissing the legacies of problematic artists might be preferred by some, but these troublesome issues have led to great art that challenges and reframes these stories. Art often asks us to engage and inquire.
The answer: You can.
These are all considerations. In the end, there is no simple answer to whether one should choose to avoid the work of problematic artists. Frank discussions on an artists’ public beliefs shouldn’t be dismissed, but many do not think of those behind the pen, camera or computer, and there is no right or wrong way to consume a piece of art or a text.
Though it is often said that one can enjoy a work but they must be critical, no set criteria exists for how somebody engages with art. Art allows us the opportunity to learn how to survive and how to connect with others. Stories are biological imperatives for us, and the way we engage with them and their creators reveals much about what we deem important in our lives.
- “Your Fave is Problematic.” Tumblr. https://yourfaveisproblematic.tumblr.com/ ↩
- “Problematic.” Lexico. Oxford, 2019. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/problematic ↩
- Jernigan, Jessica. “The Book That Made Me a Feminist Was Written by an Abuser.” Electronic Literature, 2017. https://electricliterature.com/the-book-that-made-me-a-feminist-was-written-by-an-abuser/ ↩
- Power, Ed. “Loving Lovecraft: How an obscure 1920s author became the world’s favourite horror writer.” Independent, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/hp-lovecraft-colour-out-of-space-nicolas-cage-guillermo-del-toro-racism-a9141996.html ↩
- Martinez, Aja and Broussard, William. “Storytelling as #Resistance.” Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, 2018. https://diverseeducation.com/article/110251/ ↩
- Stein, Sadie. “Judging Flannery: Can You Love The Work And Not The Author?” Jezebel, 2009. https://jezebel.com/judging-flannery-can-you-love-the-work-and-not-the-aut-5192628 ↩
- Lovecraft, H.P. “Herbert West—Reanimator.”
- Ellis, Lindsay. “Woke Disney.” YouTube, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xU1ffHa47YY ↩
What do you think? Leave a comment.