Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Harlan Ellison, Cognitive Dissonance, and Defaulting to Openness

Harlan Ellison died recently. He was by many accounts (his own included, probably), a difficult character. While respecting his work, I was never a huge fan. I love "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream". Most of the rest of his stuff I can take or leave, and a lot of it I think is pretty awful. (Having read Dangerous Visions fairly recently, I was struck by the weakness of his own contribution to the volume when stood up against the other giants of the field, and it must be said that his mini-editorials almost ruin the entire project; but on the other hand, nobody else would have been able to pull the whole thing off, which I suppose sums up the man pretty well, overall.)

But already the usual suspects are starting to wring their hands about whether or not it's problematic to like Ellison's work because, well, he wasn't a terribly nice man.

What I think is this. Sometimes, very often in fact, you will in life come across people who don't share your views, who have done bad things, or who you otherwise consider to be odious for some reason, and yet are capable of creating or doing brilliant, amazing things. This will create cognitive dissonance, and that will cause you discomfort. How can it be that Eric Gill was a sex abuser of quite startling extent and yet created some of the nicest typefaces and most beautiful public art seen in the 20th century? How can it be that Gaugin created such wonderful paintings while simultaneously being, basically, a filthy old pervert and a sex tourist? How can it be that Orson Scott Card has Wrong Opinions but wrote something as great as Ender's Game? How can it be that Scott Adams has produced some of the greatest satire of the modern workplace while also being, well, really fucking weird? How can John Lennon have been so cruel to the people close to him? How can Richard Dawkins have written such fantastic books while thinking such objectionable things about people with Down's syndrome? The examples are endless. And you are going to have to find a way to deal with the issue, because if it matters to you that people whose work you admire also be good people who think the right things, your life will end up being greatly impoverished because - it turns out - extremely creative and capable people tend not to be perfectly nice all the time.

In some cases, escaping this form of cognitive dissonance is easy, because the person in question doesn't produce work which is actually any good. It's easy not to listen to Gary Glitter - as well as being a sex offender who has rightly faced criminal consequences of his behaviour, his music was crap.

It can also be easy when the person in question is dead. It's easy to use Gil Sans as your favourite typeface, because Eric Gill is long gone.

The hard bit is when you can't escape through either of those routes. Do you still want to enjoy Kevin Spacey's performance in Glengarry Glen Ross or American Beauty? Do you still want to enjoy the Harvey Weinstein-produced Pulp Fiction? (Assuming the two men are guilty of what they've been accused of.)

And don't hide behind the platitude that you can separate belief from action. The attitude often presented in these kinds of situations is: "Well, I don't mind what people think or believe, but I draw a line in the sand when it comes to actions." Yeah, right: so you'd be entirely comfortable supporting the work of an open, ardent and genuine Nazi or committed advocate of pedophilia provided they "didn't act on it"? What would make you dislike somebody enough that you would not want to associate with their art?

You have a choice, essentially, when approaching this issue, that comes down to a very simple equation. Do you want your default position to be open, or closed? Is what's important to you purity, or experiencing art? Do you want to focus your energy on avoiding what makes you uncomfortable, or accepting it?

The decision I have made is that it is better to default to the latter over the former, because in the final analysis purity won't make you a better person: art will. Purity has a superficial allure - it makes you feel as though you are contributing to a better world if you refuse all contact with anything produced by "bad people". What you are doing in fact is limiting your own horizons and narrowing your mind, creating for yourself an isolation chamber in which all you are ever exposed to is the product of the like-minded. It isn't necessarily easy. But I think openness is the better path to follow.

(A postscript: this interview about Harlan is worth a listen.)

56 comments:

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    1. He has some pretty clear cut views on homosexuality, which rub people the wrong way.

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    2. There was a big hoo-ha about him being against gay marriage a few years ago. Plenty of people would see that as being a "wrong opinion" I think.

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    3. Yeah, though "Wrong Opinions" (capitalized! OMG!) is one of those phrases that usually marks the user as a partisan hack.

      It's meant to take a derisive shot at anyone who disagrees by suggesting that they are a member of an Orwellian hivemind that only tolerates the Right Opinions.

      It's right up there with someone who talks about "Rethuglicans" or something. I'm surprised to see it here.

      You can make your point about Card by actually referencing his "negative views on homosexuality" or something without resorting to this sort of nonsense.

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    4. I was being ironical, Ivan.

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    5. I know -- that's how it's always used by the right in this context. Are you not using the term to poke fun at the furor that the left gets into about Card being anti-gay marriage?

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    6. You see what you want to see.

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    7. Draw your own conclusions, Ivan. I'm clearly a crypto-fascist Card sympathiser.

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    8. I don't think you are. That's why I posted that I was surprised to see that sort of stuff here.

      I guess it wasn't really worth bringing up. It's a relatively small thing, and now you're just being defensively vague and sarcastic. Sorry to have said anything.

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    9. I just don't have any desire to get involved in US culture wars stuff, Ivan. We need a lot less of that, in general.

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    10. I 100% agree. Again, that's why I commented on your use of the "Wrong Opinions" catchphrase.

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    11. And that's why I try to make fun of all that silliness where I can!

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    12. Adopting the phrases one side uses to mock the other is probably not the best way to stay uninvolved.

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    13. Why? Both sides deserve to be mocked. We're surrounded on all sides by po-faced pompous know-it-alls and the only escape is ironic detachment.

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    14. Because (a) mocking both sides in a fight will generally not keep you uninvolved -- in fact it will almost certainly do the opposite (as here) and (b) a sense of ironic detachment is not conveyed very effectively by simply repeating a standard attack that one side makes on the other.

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    15. I'm terribly sorry for not writing the post you want me to have written, Ivan.

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    16. Man, I must sound more dickish than I intend if this is the response I generate.

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    17. Well, on the internet someone is either more dickish than usual, or at the very least others read them that way.

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    18. I just don't particularly feel like being lectured about this. I know what I meant and I am perfectly happy with what I wrote. If you think that gets me "involved" in something well...I'm sorry, it really doesn't.

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    19. If you don't want me to tell you why I think something, don't ask me the question.

      If you think that using loaded rhetoric lifted from the US culture wars is a good way to stay uninvolved, please, carry on.

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  2. How can it be that someone more intelligent than you has an opinion that gives you an opportunity to virtue signal?

    How can it be that you are always right?

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    1. You must be more intelligent than me, because I don't understand this comment at all. Is this a new, higher form of trolling?

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    2. It would be difficult to write an opinion piece in any other fashion.

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  3. I'm slightly in two minds about this. As a general rule I'm not going to let someone's obnoxious political opinions or abrasive character stop me reading their stuff if they do good work. For me that might be a great author like HG Wells, or an interesting blogger like Justin Alexander.

    OTOH if they're a more extreme case of evil/depravity then I'll tend to avoid their work, I think there is a well founded feeling that the work itself will often be tainted - an author guilty of X sneaking pro-X messages into their novels, for instance. SF authors supporting the sexual abuse of children would fall into that category. I don't care about a typeface/font, but anything that bears the stamp of the author's personality I would be wary of.

    There are also marginal cases where the work itself is only mildly interesting, in those cases whether I read/buy the work would be influenced by how I felt about the author. If I like the author I might be inclined to support them (read their blog, buy their book), if they've given reason for dislike I would not. A Bryan Singer directed film might be watchable, but I'll tend to avoid it.

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    1. What I'm talking about is marginal cases really - that's why I'm saying it's a default rule rather than an absolute one. Bryan Singer is actually a really good example a marginal case. Is "The Usual Suspects" not worth watching despite its director? (Anything directed by Roman Polanski would be another really good example of a marginal case.) My personal preference would be to lean towards still enjoying the art. But there will be scenarios where what the person has done is so distasteful the default rule will fail. One example of that for me is Floyd Mayweather. I just can't get behind putting money in his pocket, despite the fact that I love watching good technical boxing.

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    2. I'm curious as to how Polanski, who drugged and raped a young girl, is considered a marginal case where Mayweather, who is guilty of domestic violence, is considered MORE distasteful? Beating your wife/girlfriend is clearly a fucking terrible thing but is it nearly as abhorrent as raping a child?

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    3. It's something about the fact that Mayweather is a pugilist and punches people for a living and yet can't apparently control his fists when it comes to people who can't defend themselves. I am not saying what Polanski did isn't disgusting and I suppose time might have something to do with it - I wasn't born when that happened. It's a complicated matter, this, as these examples prove.

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    4. Thanks Noisms - yes I guess I would watch The Usual Suspects again, despite the allegations against Singer (which being Hollywood I would tend to expect are likely well-founded - funny how he avoided #MeToo) and Kevin Spacey of course. My understanding is that Polanski definitely drugged and anally raped a 13 year old girl and crosses the line for me. Singer might cross the line too depending on what allegations come out later. Singer already seems to be in Harvey Weinstein territory really if the allegations are true, so it may just be the lack of widespread media coverage/outrage that keeps him marginal for me.

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    5. I don't know if it's just that everybody knew about Singer anyway so what would be the point in #MeTooing him?

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    6. It seems like Kevin Spacey will never work in Hollywood again, yet his gropings et al seem less than what Springer's alleged to have done. Spacey just got revealed at the worst possible moment, right after Weinstein, right at the start of #MeToo.

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  4. "Purity has a superficial allure - it makes you feel as though you are contributing to a better world if you refuse all contact with anything produced by "bad people". What you are doing in fact is limiting your own horizons and narrowing your mind, creating for yourself an isolation chamber in which all you are ever exposed to is the product of the like-minded."

    With all due respect your notion of 'purity', is very reductionist. If one chooses not to buy or praise e.g. Harlan's literature you might be limiting your horizon of experience, but you are also not financially or morally supporting a man who on many occasions behaved inexcusably. Same goes for the other examples you mention; if you buy and/or publicly praise art (or whatever) from a sex offender or an outspoken nazi, to stay with your examples, you are directly contributing to this person's success. Choosing not to do that isn't necessarily about feeling good - it may have actual material and political impact, at least if enough people were to do it.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing that only art made by what you call 'good people' should be enjoyed or experienced. That is an individual choice we all have to make and it is probably best made on a case-by-case basis. But arguing, as I understand you to do - and I may read you to narrowly - that ignoring the transgressions, legal and/or moral, by the creator of an artwork is per default the better choice isn't any more 'open-minded' than choosing not to. Doing that is just closing your mind to different experiences, i.e. often the experience of those mistreated. It's not a matter of 'purity' vs. experience. It's a matter of who you are comfortable throwing your voice and money behind and to what degree.

    On a side note: There is a lot of art in the world. More than can reasonably be experienced in a single life time. Choosing not to experience some pieces of art, for whatever reason, doesn't put you in an isolation chamber if you choose to experience something else instead. You don't have to stop watching movies if you don't want to watch one of Weinstein's, or stop going to exhibitions if you choose to refuse to pay to see pictures by Gaugin; just go to another movie or art exhibition...

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    1. My argument would be that genuinely exceptional people often do bad things or think objectionable ones. It's not at all uncommon. I don't think the route of purity is actually viable, let alone advisable.

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    2. Also, I don't really see the logic behind purity being "open-minded". It seems to me that it is "close-minded" on its own merits.

      I also think that it is possible to be both open-minded to the art and to people who are mistreated. Is it possible to enjoy Chinatown while also feeling very sorry for Samantha Geimer? Sure. They're not mutually exclusive.

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    3. Regarding your first point: As far as I know there is no scientific evidence, outside of anecdote, that exceptional people do bad things or think 'objectionable thoughts' more than any other people. They probably have an easier time being forgiven by the public and the legal system, but that's another matter. Assuming, without evidence, that talented/creative people are more prone to violence etc. than other people, by nature, is not doing anyone any favours (except maybe the actual perpetrators).

      Regarding your second point: I agree that it is possible to be open-minded to both 'the art' and people who have been mistreated by the artist. But feeling sorry for Samantha Geimer doesn't do anything, boycotting Polanski (or supporting/not opposing) his expulsion from the Hollywood Academy might. Refusing to do this is anyone's prerogative, but I fail to see how that is more open-minded than the other way around.
      If you want to support e.g. Geimer, and not just feel sorry for her, then contributing to Polanski's income by watching his movies or to his social standing by praising his talent, might at least, and justly so, be considered hypocritical.

      The point I'm trying to make is that I don't think your dichotomy is accurate; it is too reductionist because it fails to account for the fact that enjoying/praising art done by an artist who has done something wrong, is strictly to that person's benefit (at least while they're alive and profiting on their work). Openness to new experiences is not always good, and boycotting a certain artist doesn't necessarily have anything to do with a notion of purity - it might be out of support of the victims/survivors/etc.

      And again; not watching a certain work of art, however great it may be, does not practically 'narrow your mind' if you just watch something equally great instead. That's usually an option.

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    4. Evidently I have trouble being brief - sorry about that. By the way, I think we probably agree on most practical terms. I don't think I have ever consciously boycott any artist due to bad behavior (outside of their art) or politics, though I have a hard time watching stuff with Spacey or Depp at the moment and seeing Weinsteins name in the opening credits when I re-watched Django Unchained last week did put a bad taste in my mouth. However I do think not supporting them warrants consideration and not a per-default pass.

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    5. I think Orson Scott Card is an interesting example here. He is against gay marriage and apparently "acts on it" financially. But Ender's Game is a great novel that says, I think, hugely important things about war and childhood and violence that actually need to be heard. If you don't read the book or watch the film because you don't like his views, you miss that.

      Polanski I'll go back to. The Pianist is an important film inasmuch as any film can be important. If you chose not to watc it because you want to be "pure", I think in a small way you lose something. It's not a zero-sum decision is what I want to say. You are trading off one thing for another.

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    6. I think everyone tends to draw lines somewhere. Taking 'outspoken Nazi' - if Varg Vikernes was just a pagan white nationalist/separatist I might look at his game. It's his history of burning Christian churches and murdering a Satanist fellow band member that crosses the line for me.

      Conversely, apparently it turns out that Bill Webb of Frog God gets drunk and pesters women at gaming conventions (I might have guessed something like that when they came out with the all-female Virtue Signal edition of Swords & Wizardry, since virtue signalling & reprehensible behaviour seem to correlate so closely). That's not good behaviour from Webb, but it's not going to stop me buying Frog God stuff. Whereas if he did a Polanski it would.

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  5. I like your points here.
    I think there's an important difference between experiencing an artist's body of work before we learn about the person behind it, or vice versa.
    I rather liked Kevin Spacey's work. I cannot retroactively un-like it. I do have to make a choice between viewing any more of his work or not. Perhaps with time, I'll want to? I don't want to now, though.

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    1. The matter's further complicated by the fact that acting is such an ensemble task. I fucking love Glengarry Glen Ross. It is right up there in my top 5. Kevin Spacey isn't the entire movie, by a long shot.

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  6. This is such a cliché it is embarrassing to even comment on it. Yes, a good deal (although definitely not all) of great art has been created by people with fringe views or detestable behaviour. It is not as easy as separating the good from the bad, since many artists are driven by their inner demons when creating their masterworks. Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer, whose passion infuses his art. Villon's crimes and suffering are all over his poetry. Fritz Lang's sense of guilt is central to the genius of his films. That's how it is.

    And of course: most of the time this comes up nowadays is simply the application of fringe standards, by which nobody outside a narrow far-left vanguard is innocent. These purity standards, while they are being pushed loudly and aggressively, are unreasonable and eye-rollingly stupid. They should be ignored or actively rejected.

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    1. I agree with you in part about the second paragraph but I also don't think it's entirely possible to separate art from artist. It is much easier when he or she is dead, and all your examples are.

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    2. Distancing seems like like a better word than separating.

      For instance, I cannot unsee the racism in Lovecraft's works, but I can totally enjoy his better stories, probably because he's dead and even if people bring up his misguided views on social media, no one can do anything about it anymore. 'Cause he's dead.

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    3. Having just read the regular G+ hate-on on and boycott calls about some guy who dared to interview some other guy who had worked for a third guy (no, really!) who has bad politics, I suddenly feel a burning need to clarify: easier or not, it does not matter if they are dead or alive. Quality matters, so give me the good stuff.

      Yes, The Fearless Vampire Killers is one of the funniest movies out there. Alas, Roman Polanski is a monster. The two statements are both true, and there is no contradiction, because art does not work that way. No, those watercolours are still shitty, so Literally Hitler has no excuses. We will see what happens when, to everyone's surprise, Quentin Tarantino turns out to be a sicko. Will his widely acclaimed, era-defining movies magically turn into garbage overnight? Watch this space!

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    4. Do I want to know what this latest nonsense is about?

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    5. If you have seen one, you have seen all.

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  7. Kudos noisms for sharing this..

    I think true purity in human works is impossible as I think humans are both inherently good and inherently evil at the same time. I think it is possible to take a middle path within an individual's tolerance bounds, less a black / white and more of a grey / white, where grey is darker or lighter based on the consumer and the consumer's situation.

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    1. Yes, for definite. I distrust people who adopt absolute positions on it, I guess, either way.

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  8. Anyone with access to a library can read Ender's Game without financially benefitting Orson Scott Card. Same with The Pianist; if it's on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video or something, you can watch it without Polanski seeing a dime. I don't think people who choose not to financially support artists they find objectionable (let alone provably bad) are as deprived of their art, or good art in general, as you've argued.

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    1. To throw my hat into the ring here, i think the Library Bar (tm) might be a good compromise for a lot of people caught in the middle like noisms is: its still technically supporting the person since the library has to purchase the work, but its socialised enough that the individual contribution from any borrower is minimal.

      Its definitely a weird little conundrum for sure.

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    2. You do know that libraries pay royalties to authors?

      But the point isn't entirely a financial one. We live in a consumer society so it is natural to see things through that frame. But I don't massively care about the money. The people we are talking about here are all already rich enough to never have to work again. My concern is mostly a moral and spiritual one. What about your soul? Does it sit comfortably watching a Polanski film?

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    3. "What about your soul? Does it sit comfortably watching a Polanski film?"

      No, mine doesn't.
      Jonathan Haidt discusses the disgust/fear of corruption reflex as something that varies by person. I think I have it fairly strong; so more inclined to avoid 'tainted' material than some people.

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  9. When an artist has done bad things, I primarily avoid their art if any one of a few conditions is true or unavoidable to engage with it:

    1) If the glory, wealth, etc. they've received from their art has directly enabled their bad behaviour and I can't get access to it in a way that doesn't line their pockets, add to their public acclaim, etc. (e.g. Harvey Weinstein using his rep as a powerful tastemaker and producer to set up meetings with actresses where he could abuse them)
    2) If the art praises or justifies (not merely depicts) the bad behaviour (e.g. Woody Allen's Manhattan, which IMHO glowingly depicts an age-disparate relationship where consent could not be legally given by one of the parties)
    3) If boycotting, condemning or otherwise avoiding engaging with the work seems a viable mechanism to pressure the artist to act better in future (as opposed to punish them for past behaviour).

    I find those fairly consistent and easy to determine the application of. Other than them, I'll read all sorts of stuff by terrible people without confusing my reading of it with an endorsement of them.

    (Also, Ender's Game is schlock)

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    1. I wouldnt say schlock, but i think i can agree with the spirit of what you're saying; recently ive been thinking that its reputation is propped up more on it having fascinating (and slightly subversive when it comes to standard sci fi fare) themes that are easily expressed but still promote interesting discussion, in the same way a lot of messagefic is glorified by what it aspires towards instead of how it actually is

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    2. Ender's Game isn't schlock when you read it aged 12.

      I don't think those three conditions are easily complied with because these things are complicated: yes, Manhattan in a sense justifies "bad behaviour" but it's also a beautiful meditation on love. The closing 10 minute section is wonderful (and is much more subtle and complicated than just being a justification for "bad behaviour" in my view). I wouldn't want to have missed out on that film because of some simplistic application of a black/white condition.

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  10. This post really resonated with me.

    On the one hand it seems like we're living in a period of time where society is becoming more accepting of things I'd never thought I'd see in my lifetime...gay marriage, an African- American president etc. And less tolerant of things like sexual assault and harassment.

    On the other, it seems we've come to value the right not to be offended over the right to free expression. People on all sides of the political spectrum are increasingly calling for ideological purity, from both art and artist. As a writer and reader that scares me.

    I linked to this from my tumblr, where I excerpted your blog (which I hope is okay, if not I'll redact or cut it down) http://marksable.tumblr.com/post/175536063644/twiststreet-from-matt-ruffs-lovecraft-country.

    It was in reference to a quote a friend put up from a book I'd recommended to him called Lovecraft Country from Matt Ruff. The book recasts some of Lovecraft's stories in 1950s Jim Crow America, and is both an homage and a deconstruction of those stories.

    The quote, was an exchange between a young black science fantasy fan and his uncle and read:

    "But you love those stories," Atticus said. "You love them as much as I do.
    "I do love those stories. But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn't make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though."
    "But you don't get mad. Not like Pop does."
    "No, that's true, I don't get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes." He looked at the shelves. "Sometimes they stab me in the heart."

    I'm not sure you and Ruff are saying the exact same thing, but are certainly grappling with similar issues. As I said on tumblr, I come down on the side of openness over purity. There is value in reading stories (and authors), even ones who stab you in the heart."


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    1. I agree very much with your Tumblr post and I think the "stabbing through the heart" thing is an interesting way of putting it.

      I come back to The Pianist. It is still worth watching that film, and in a sense the experience is richer knowing that it was directed Roman Polanksi, because it reminds you that the texture of life is very, very thick and intricately woven and people can be both bad and good at the same time.

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