Some notes on Card

Some notes toward the blog entry that I'm probably not going to manage to write about Orson Scott Card and the Ender's Game movie:

A gay friend of mine (in the '80s or early '90s) loved Card's novel Songmaster as a sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality. When we told him about Card's infamous essay “The Hypocrites of Homosexuality,” he told us that it was unfair of us to take that piece out of its intended Mormon-audience context. Later, though, he retracted his defense. [Note to the person in question: Apologies if I'm misremembering or misrepresenting any of that.]

I read Card's story “Closing the Timelid” as an excellent example of a sympathetic bi character. Then I read Card's author note about the story, in which he revealed that he had intended the character to be a reformed gay guy who'd seen the error of his ways.

A Card story in Asimov's—I think it was “Dogwalker,” in 1989—was, I think, the first time I had seen the word “catamite” used in modern fiction. It may also have been the last time. I knew the word, but I thought of it as archaic.

I've been surprised at the number of people who've written recently that Card has changed drastically since he wrote the first couple of Ender books in the 1980s. He's been outspokenly opposed to homosexuality since 1990 (the year of “Hypocrites of Homosexuality”) or earlier. It's true that he's gotten more outspoken and more extreme in recent years (what with the recent rhetoric about violently overthrowing the government), but his basic attitude doesn't seem to me to have changed. So if you bought and loved Ender's Game back in the day, you weren't supporting a great guy who later became a bigot; you were supporting the same guy he is today.

(About “Hypocrites”: it's pretty gay-friendly in some ways, and if Card had left it focused entirely on LDS issues, I would be a lot more sympathetic toward it and him. But he spent a couple of paragraphs in the middle talking about leaving laws against homosexual behavior on the books in order to “send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.” Card's introduction on the abovelinked page says that this was seen as a liberal, tolerant, and pro-gay attitude by his conservative Mormon readers, and that of course he wouldn't want to re-criminalize homosexuality now; that's as may be, but those paragraphs from the original essay seem to me to be a very clear statement that homosexuality should not be considered acceptable even in secular society.)

I've seen a bunch of people lately refer to Card as “Orson.” I suspect that they don't know that (last I heard) he goes by “Scott.” I think the goal of calling him by first name (in the contexts where I've seen it recently) is to belittle him, but fwiw, calling him by a first name that he doesn't actually use comes across to me as ignorant rather than mocking.

[Added about a week later: I had completely forgotten about his writing workshop being called “Uncle Orson's Literary Boot Camp.” So it may be me who's ignorant here. I should probably have just left this paragraph out; it's not really so relevant to the other topics.]

I think he's a superb writer. (Or at least was; I haven't read anything he's written in a while.) I've found a lot of his work compelling and interesting and moving. And, sometimes, politically unfortunate. I even liked the first Alvin Maker book, quite a bit, despite being dubious about the underpinnings and politics of that project. (Never got around to reading the others in that series.)

Others have told me his more recent books are not as good as his older ones; but I take that with a grain of salt, because in other contexts I've also seen people fairly often object on quality grounds to any work by any author they dislike, even work that I think is pretty good.

What readers see in a writer's work isn't always what the writer intended. That effect seems to me to be especially pronounced with Card. For example, he's written fiction that I see as more critical of religion than most nonreligious authors' works, and he's written fiction that I think is easy to interpret as sympathetic toward homosexuality; whatever his intent was with those works, some of us find value in them.

I went to a reading of Card's once. He was charming and well-spoken and engaging and interesting and likable. This does not, of course, mean that I approve of his politics.

A lot of my friends read Ender's Game in a single sitting. I think it took me two sittings.

And yet, although I liked the book quite a bit, I didn't love it as much as most others did. A key element of the ending was something I'd seen a bunch of times in science fiction. I couldn't visualize the computer-game stuff. I was uncomfortable with the use of the word “buggers.” And so on.

I also read and liked Speaker for the Dead even though a central plot element was another thing I'd seen many times in sf. I read Xenocide, but I think after that I more or less lost interest in the series; didn't read the other Ender and/or Shadow books.

(I think that before reading the novel of Ender's Game, I had read the original story that developed into it, but I don't remember my reaction to that story if so.)

I later came to be a little uncomfortable with various subtextual aspects of the books. Norman Spinrad's 1987 essay “Emperor of Everything” (originally published in Asimov's, later reprinted in Spinrad's collection Science Fiction in the Real World) talks about adolescent reader-identification power fantasies (and the Hero's Journey) in the context of several major works of sf, including the first two Ender books. John Kessel's 2004 essay “Creating the Innocent Killer” explores and criticizes the intention-based morality Card set up. I think that the many people who've recently said things like “I can't understand how the person who wrote these incredibly empathic and moral books could have turned into a homophobe” may not be looking at some of the subtext of the books.

That said, I feel I should repeat that I think Card is a really good writer. Most of his work that I've read has engaged me, drawn me in, made me empathize with the characters, made me care about the stories. It is, of course, quite possible to enjoy a work while abhorring the artist's politics.

I've seen several people say that they want to see the Ender's Game movie, but they don't want to support Card, so they're planning to see it in a way that won't benefit him financially, such as watching a pirated version.

My reaction to that is that I find it a little ethically dubious to read or view (and enjoy) an artist's work while going out of your way to ensure that the artist doesn't benefit from your experiencing/enjoying the work.

(Libraries and Netflix and borrowing-from-friends are all perfectly legitimate choices, of course, especially when one can't afford to pay more for a work. And it's perfectly legitimate for an artist to provide access to their work for free, such as by posting it online. But I'm talking about the special case where a reader or viewer experiences and enjoys the work while going out of their way to ensure that the person or people who created the work won't see any benefit.)

Basically, I think that artists deserve to be compensated for their work. If you don't want to support an artist, then I recommend not watching/reading their work, rather than trying to enjoy it without supporting them.

I also think that movies are a collaborative process. If you avoid giving Card any financial benefit, then you're also avoiding giving any benefit to the actors in the movie, to the director, to the studio, to the costumers, and so on. Of course, many of the people involved were paid a salary. But if the movie is perceived as a success, there may well be a sequel, and all those people will make more money; whereas if it's perceived as a failure, there likely won't be a sequel. (Which some of you may see as a good thing, of course.) For that matter, I imagine that working on a successful movie is better for one's later career than working on a flop, regardless of whether there's a sequel.

(Again, if your goal is to punish everyone involved by boycotting the movie in hopes of making studios less likely to do this sort of thing in the future, that seems totally defensible to me. But I feel like then trying to watch the movie for free undercuts that principled stand, especially if you enjoy it. It's saying “I like and appreciate all this work you did, but I'm going to go out my way to ensure that you're not rewarded for it.” Or “I love your work, but I want to do my best to prevent you from making any more of it.”)

There are also a lot of signals of success other than just money paid to theatres. I imagine that if a movie is wildly popular on Netflix, for example, then even if it doesn't directly make a lot of money via Netflix rentals, that sends signals about people liking it, which I imagine adds to the reputations of everyone involved. (I'm talking through my hat here; could be completely wrong.) So I suspect that the only way to watch the movie without giving any benefit to Card would be to first pirate it (which I disapprove of on general principles, regardless of who the author is), and then either not tell anyone you liked it, or encourage everyone to pirate it.

I also think that we make a lot of choices like this all the time. Every time we spend money, chances are pretty good that somewhere along the chain of people who supply whatever it is we're paying for, there's someone who vehemently disagrees with our politics. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do our best to spend money in ways that support our beliefs; I'm not saying that you ought to see this movie. But I do think that seeing the movie is a difference only in degree, not in kind, from most of the other money-spending decisions we make.

I feel weird saying all this. I do try to focus my spending in areas that I support politically, and I certainly think boycotts can be a good idea, if done well. The power of the mass market rising up in outrage can be very very effective. But I don't think the answer is to boycott something but obtain it via illicit means to avoid supporting the suppliers. Bad analogy time: Say you want to be careful in your chocolate-buying to avoid supporting slavery. In that case, doing things like taking lots of free samples, and getting your friends to give you their chocolate, and sneaking some out of the store, aren't necessarily good ways to support your cause.

Regarding what to do about the movie, see also Alyssa Rosenberg's post from back in February titled “An Ethical Guide To Consuming Content Created By Awful People Like Orson Scott Card.” Rosenberg notes, among other things, that there are various people associated with the movie who may be worth supporting (especially a couple of actresses and the director); and she suggests donating to other causes to offset your ticket price, and/or spending your ticket price to see/support other movies that do promote values we believe in.

Here are Rosenberg's more recent suggestions for five movies you could support instead of, or in addition to, Ender's Game. She points out that a hundred thousand people staying away from Ender's Game won't affect the movie's finances much, while a hundred thousand people buying tickets to equality-positive indie films might well have a big effect on those movies and on other future movies like them.

(Wrote most of this entry in early May, but didn't get around to posting it until now.)

3 Responses to “Some notes on Card”

  1. slithytove

    ‘Catamite’ is in ASoIaF. Satin, who winds up on the Wall, is said to have formerly been a catamite in Oldtown.

    Catamite is a great word! A lousy life (although it may have been better than many other types of slavery in the classical world), but a great word. I’d think it would be hard to write a novel set in classical Rome or Greece without using it.

    • Jed

      Thanks! I haven’t read A Song of Ice and Fire (had to Google the abbreviation to find out what you were referring to). I’m sure the word has appeared in other works of sf too–but I bet much more often in works set in historical or medieval fantasy worlds than in future-setting science fiction.

      The Google Books Ngram Viewer suggests that the word is slightly more common now than it was in the first half of the 20th century, but I suspect still very uncommon.

  2. plausible.fabulist

    We always write through a kind of alter ego, a character called “the author”. This is no less true for nonfiction than fiction. When you read a OSC character as sympathetically bi and then hear the “nonfictional” voice of Card telling you that he’s “cured gay”, don’t assume that Card’s answer is the right one even in terms of his own authorial psychology. We write from deeper places than our daylight selves approve. Kessel’s excoriating analysis of EG’s subtext is spot on, but an eruption of unacknowledged neediness and anger (“I want to be justified in killing”) from an author’s unconscious is just as likely to be matched by eruptions of unacknowledged compassion which the author would consciously view as unacceptable laxity. Consider the war between C. S. Lewis’s staunch and starchy conscious Anglicanism and the pagan excess bursting from every page of the Narnia series.

    It’s perfectly reasonable, of course, to be so grossed out by the opinions and posturings of “nonfiction Card” as to lose all sympathy for whatever greater wisdoms “fiction Card” may possess. (Or to not find any such wisdoms). But I think it’s an error to regard “nonfiction Card” as the ipso facto authoritative (see what I did there) key to understanding “fiction Card”.


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