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The Garjectionist: Loving Problematic Books

Busy day today Beatdown. Today is the day I will finally compile the list of books with great female characters that y’all left us in the comments (A list which, from what I saw on Twitter, was more popular than the chat that preceded it. People loved! that! list!) and present it to The Rejectionist so we can randomly select one to read and talk about. In the mean time, here is a chat we had last night, about books that are problematic.

REJECTIONIST:: Dearest Garland! We are here to talk about heartbreak! The heartbreak of What Happens When You Love a Book that Treats You So Wrong! What happens, Garland?

GARLAND: You get upset. Like I did when I realized that my favorite authors were all uniformly horrible people. So I got new favorites. Happy ending?

REJECTIONIST:: Um, what if you still love the book, though? Like, a person can break up with C-Macs, and it might give that person a great sense of liberation. But then a person is rereading Lord of the Rings for the ten hundred thousandth time, and maybe that person is all like OH HOBBITS, ENTERTAIN ME WITH YOUR ANTICS and then suddenly she thinks OH SHIT there is a LOT OF BUSINESS IN HERE ABOUT SOME ARYAN ELVES AND SOME BLACK BLACK ORCS. I think old Tolks makes a point of denoting the swarthiness of evil at least once per chapter. BUT, HOBBITS

GARLAND: I think that there is a difference between critically engaging with a book and seeing all of its flaws and endorsing those flaws. If we only read things that had been approved as free of all fuckery, we’d have a false sense of what’s being published. Sometimes you find beautiful passages inside of books that have major flaws, because books are like people, they have redeeming qualities mixed in with their faults.

REJECTIONIST: Sometimes the Feminism causes in me such a lament! I can NEVER ENJOY A BOOK AGAIN! Once one starts seeing women and queer folks and people of color as human beings, one can never go back to those halcyon days of just wondering whether Frodo will dodge him some racialized Orcs in time to get to Mordor! It must be so peaceful, not worrying about complexity. But you are right; I will defend, say, Lolita with my dying breath, solely because it’s one of the most beautiful books ever written. So where do you, Garland, draw the line? What’s your personal quadratic equation of Beauty squared plus or minus the square root of Fuckery squared over A Book You Can Read Despite Its Flaws?

GARLAND: Here’s were we get into the calculus of conscience. If a book is about something that I feel is true, and is well-written, then I will deal with a certain amount of fuckery. But if the book isn’t about anything, or the fuckery is so exclusionary or ignorant or mean-spirited that it puts me off, I will stop reading it. I used to be very much into William S. Burroughs, but the sexual tourism and virulent misogyny finally made me realize that what he was doing wasn’t interesting enough to deal with how disgusted I was feeling afterward. Plus the constant CONSTANT reappearance of the death by hanging theme was a little much.

REJECTIONIST: Yeah, that sounds about right for me, too. I always think it is fascinating to get into the mathematics of those lines with individual Feminists, though, because what registers as redeeming value is so personal. And I make a good faith effort not to question other peoples’ boundaries of fuckery, even though IT IS REALLY HARD FOR ME TO UNDERSTAND HOW ANYONE COULD NOT FIND NABOKOV LIFE-ALTERING. I also tend to reread books I loved as a kid for comfort, and I extend a free pass to a lot of those texts; I’m not sure I would have the same adoration for Tolkien if I had come to him as an adult.

GARLAND: You know, I’ve never read Lolita? I have it with me, but someone pointed out a few weeks ago that Humbert Humbert is supposed to be viewed as a monster and I decided I might want to read it. I should read it and we should talk about it.

REJECTIONIST: You should! And we should! Lolita in particular is a fine example of a book that’s about a horrible person, but is written by someone who’s well aware of that fact. I can certainly understand, though, not being able to deal with it. I tried to read it for the first time when I myself was twelve, which I don’t recommend.

GARLAND: You have to know your limits. One book I finished which I really, really wish I hadn’t was Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse. I read a lot about people talking about what horrible experience it was to read, which it was, but it was also such a bleak book. It wasn’t about anything but horrible, horrible torture.

REJECTIONIST: I feel like Anne Rice covers the same ground with a lot less gratuitous violence and way better outfits. Although I do have a certain fondness for Poppy, as I distinctly remember her Sassy magazine One To Watch debut, in which she was wearing a green crushed-velvet babydoll with striped tights and platform Docs, and she talked about living in the French Quarter and being a Hot Goth Writer. I read that as a wee pup and thought YES EXACTLY THAT LIFE, THAT IS THE ONE I WANT. So, you know. That’s my boundary.

GARLAND: You and Sassy magazine.


GARLAND: I used to really like Chuck Palahniuk. And then I reread Invisible Monsters and saw that its depiction of trans identities is just about as insulting as you can get and that the whole book is about how disfigured or disabled people are invisible to society at large. It was at one time my favorite book, but his shit is much less credible now that I know real people that it hurts.

REJECTIONIST: Yeah, that whole empathy thing also really interferes with one’s enjoyment of modern literature. I will, as discussed, make allowances for what looks to me like Genius (again: personal, not quantifiable, in my view) but I do find it such a relief to open a book and realize from the first page that I implicitly trust the author’s politics, that the jokes aren’t going to be at the expense of my personhood or the personhood of anyone I love; basically, that I’m in good hands. It happens so rarely, and I think even more rarely in literary fiction.

GARLAND: Does any of this come into play for you when you are selecting MS to send up the ladder?

REJECTIONIST: Yes, absolutely. But you know, I don’t think I’ve ever pulled something out of the pile where I thought, This is incredibly written but loathsome, NOW WHAT. Luckily, so far it’s always been possible to reject on aesthetic grounds. But I will certainly reject things that I think have commercial potential if there’s pointless sexualized violence in them, or, you know, the character’s Latina girlfriend has a fiery temper and makes him fajitas and that’s her sole function in the book. Just doing my part for the revolution. Based on what gets published, I am not exactly at the forefront of a movement. DON’T TAKE MY HOBBITS, is the moral. You do know Garland is Elvish for “a person of fine opinions”?

GARLAND: Just as Rejectionist is Esperanto for “a person who tells stories of interest and also collects stacks of Sassy Magazine.” It’s a very efficient language.


  1. Paula wrote:

    I’m with you on “Exquisite Corpse.” I picked it up at the airport before a flight without flipping through it and I was so disgusted with it. I can tolerate violence but I refuse to tolerate sexualized violence.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 12:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Other Becky wrote:

    Never read “Exquisite Corpse” — thanks for the warn-away. I’ll quibble a little about Nabokov, though, and make the assertion that Pale Fire is actually his best work (OMGSOBRILLIANT!).

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 1:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Josie wrote:

    I now feel validated for never finishing Exquisite Corpse. I borrowed it from a friend who thought it was the best book ever written, and I just…couldn’t. I’ve always intended to finish it one day, but perhaps I won’t.

    When writing, a huge part of my editing process is making sure that internalized fuckery is taken out of the story. It’s a difficult process, sometimes. I can read over a sentence or study a character and go “Oh great Cthulhu WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?”

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Millicent wrote:

    I feel this way about Edward Abbey and Hemingway. Their female characters are empty shells (albeit hot shells), but they write their men so honestly and fully that I adore their books anyway.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  5. xenu01 wrote:

    I think what bothers me about Lolita is what people seem to take away from it.

    Unlike Heart of Darkness, about which you’re most likely full of shit if you seriously think you can get away with saying that the NARRATOR is racist, not the AUTHOR, I really and truly do understand and believe that Nabokov meant us to see Humbert Humbert as the creepy pedofile that he is.

    Unfortunately, the message that 90% of the people I talk to about it seem to have gotten from the book is, “teenage girls are sexy. Also sex maniacs. Naughty!”

    I have never NEVER had anyone say to me, “Lolita was rape. What happened to her was rape.”

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  6. sossajes wrote:

    you had me from OH HOBBITS. this same thing is something that’s been on my mind lately, and i’m trying to figure out how to declare an uneasy truce between my politics & my hobbits. i think, dear rejectionist, that you summed it up beautifully in your comment on personhood.i can’t really engage with a book once i feel that a character is being used as a stereotype to represent all of people who do X, or are X or whatnot.
    and garland, ditto on “invisible monsters”. i read it before i had developed much awareness of, well, anything but even at the time it left a bad taste in my mouth even though i thought it was well written.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  7. MsBlenkins wrote:

    I was kind of into Poppy Z. Brite when I was younger (I, too, was introduced to her via “Sassy”), but at some point her sex/violence thing really got to me, and I stopped reading her. (I never read “Exquisite Corpse”; I am thinking of that one novel where one of the main characters raped his ex-girlfriend, and also this one really, really icky short story.)I think I actually threw her books away when I decided I couldn’t read her anymore, which is a pretty drastic step for a book-lover like myself.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 3:17 pm | Permalink
  8. When it comes to writers like Tolkein and Lovecraft, I don’t feel like you can fairly judge them by the standards of now. They don’t write now, they wrote back when racism was de rigeur, they wrote when most people considered women little more than baby-machines…

    You have to take them as relics of that dusty (regrettable) past which is not so past as many of us would wish.

    It’s like trying to read authors from other cultures through the lens of our own. I love Nagib Mahfoub, even though the ending of Midaq Alley makes me want to throw things and scream, as a western feminist. He is a good writer, from a different culture. Tolkein and Lovecraft are also from a different culture (in time).

    Hopefully, that made some sense, if it didn’t, I blame cold medicine.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  9. RGR wrote:

    Ugh, love. I feel like we, as Feminists or People Who Like Social Justice or whatever, are always trying to tell people why we love Lolita and “no! it’s kind of not sexist! and it’s really good! and really he was just trying to show ______!” Because it’s just such a good book. But I would venture to say that it’s a good book not just because it’s beautifully written, but because it’s so well-crafted. Have you read ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’? It does a really powerful job in some ways of framing the book with ideas of a woman trapped by definition/representation/actual restraint.

    A few months ago I wrote something about dealing with this kind of phenomenon, specifically dealing with ladies as people or not-people in Dude Lit. I came up with a scale! It’s math. Feminism is a hard science.

    “It’s just that, in order to love something, you have to be able to determine how much bullshit is involved in it, how much of that bullshit is sexist bullshit, and what type of sexist bullshit you’re looking at, exactly.”

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  10. Nikki wrote:

    OMG PALE FIRE <3 <3 *faint*

    I find that I'll at least finish any book with an unpredictable narrative arc, no matter how problematic the characters get. Fortunately, authors who know enough to subvert the tropes of the genre they're writing in usually know enough to include actual interesting human characters.

    Maybe more accurately, if a plot bores me I'm 10x more sensitive to The Dudely, which is why I couldn't make through Ender's Game, despite the enthusiastic recommendations of all my sci-fi loving friends, who read it when they were 13 before they were critical. A dude? On a quest? To save the universe? No thanks!

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  11. Kirsten wrote:

    I’m a bit sad that I missed your earlier “list-compiling” post because I had so much fun reading through the comments and feverishly thinking of what I would add of my own; this is only my favorite literary topic of all time (that and defending “lyric” prose). So, just in case my comment has time to be added to this amazing list and conversation you sparked, I’d like to add: a hearty second for Marilynne Robinson and E.M. Forster. If someone held a gun to my head and told me to name the two best writers currently alive and writing in English, I would probably blurt out Robinson’s name and the name of Alice Munro. Munro is sometimes criticized for writing “depressing stories,” but I’d rather feel that soul connect with one of her ambiguous and glorious stories than read a thousand happy endings. I’m glad someone mentioned the Brontes and Austen. There’s a lot of proto-feminism going on there. I would also add their contemporary, George Eliot, especially in Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. Virginia Woolf is wonderful at painting the layers of human consciousness, female and male. Another contemporary author is Sarah Waters, who writes page turners with a lot of commercial appeal that just happen to be about lesbian and gender neutral characters, WHILE exploding the genre conventions of traditional Victorian, Gothic, and detective fiction. I could list dozens more, but since I’ve already selfishly hijacked this comment, I will force myself to stop here. But if I were going to add another man to the list, I would add Kazuo Ishiguro. Okay, stopping.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  12. ozymandias wrote:

    I… really don’t know.

    Because I love Fight Club, it is incredibly important to me, it changed my life– and Chuck Palahuinick is kyriarchial as fuck.

    And when I think about the books on my shelves, the books that I loved and wore out multiple copies of, how many of them passed the Bechdel? Not many.

    And don’t get me started on Glee.

    I think that the best way to think about it is that Not Being A Kyriarchial Fuckhead is like having a plot, or having character development, or having good prose. It is necessary (on a basic level) to have a good book. Some good books are weaker in one of the areas than others. And if you read a book young enough, or it hits enough of the sensitive places in you, then you’re likely to ignore that (on a reasonable level) the book is terrible.

    I also think there are different rules for artists and audience. As an artist, it is your duty to make your book as non-kyriarchial as possible, while staying true to the story. As an audience, you get a little more leeway, I think.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  13. Duckgirlie wrote:

    I have a lot of friends who’ve expressed extreme dismay when I tell them what a massive homophobe Scott Card is.

    I love Lolita, but it’s depressing how many people I speak too think that a) it’s about her seducing him, and b) that that makes a difference, when she’s *12*.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink
  14. 01d55 wrote:

    You have to take them as relics of that dusty (regrettable) past which is not so past as many of us would wish.

    What bugs me about the Relics Of The Past argument is that Vindication of the Rights of Women was published pretty much right after Vindication of the Rights of Man, i.e. contemporaneously with the French revolution. Yet The Past of which sexists of a certain vintage extends forward up to, like, 50 years ago? Or even more recently?

    Wollstonecraft put the truth in front of Her Time, and Her Time, and all Times thereafter, decided to go ahead and be Patriarchal assholes anyway. Therefore: Fuck His Time, and all products thereof.

    The same argument applies nearly all other elements of the Kyriarchy: There came a point where a bunch of philosophers came up with the ideas undergirding the ethical assertion that privilege is Not Okay, nobody really came up with anything to gainsay them, and then everyone just proceeded for around two centuries as if there was no contradiction between the consensus in favor of that philosophy and the practice of being goddamn awful to the greater part of humanity.

    What sticks out to me about Tolkein is the one scene where one of the sons of Gondor’s regent wonders if the humans in Sauron’s army aren’t basically okay blokes in a bad situation, because it is totally out of place. Nothing like that scene occurs before, no trace of the ethical and empirical framework that supports that way of thinking about your enemies in war appears again.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  15. Alithea wrote:

    Here’s the thing about Lolita; it seems to me that people who take away from it “Young girls are hot.” or “wow what a beautiful true love story” either haven’t read the book, are 12 or aren’t really smart enough to be reading the book in the first place. And I don’t think we can fault a writer for having readers not understand their book. Humbert is a *horrible* person who hates *everyone,* even Lolita whenever he notices that she’s an actual person. If you look past the amazing prose (which nabokov prods you into doing quite often) you notice these things. Obviously if someone doesn’t want to read it because the very thought of being in a pedophile’s head squicks them, that’s their choice but I don’t think the book itself is anti feminist.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  16. Jen F. wrote:

    I agree with Alithea on the Lolita issue. Any intelligent person will notice how desperate and angry Lolita gets almost immediately after things get obviously creepy.

    Also, I know the polls are closed, but Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North is liberating.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Permalink
  17. Lorelei wrote:

    I mostly read genre fiction, science fiction and fantasy and young adult books, and I’ve learned to just let go of many childhood favorites. I can remember liking them at the time, but everyone’s happier if I don’t expect to like them if I reread them. I’ve also developed a pretty good sense for avoiding the worst of stuff that would upset me, and try to actively support/promote diversity within the field, as that is a Thing that bothers me about the SF/F genres on the whole, yet I love them still. But recently, I made the mistake of trying Larry Niven’s Ringworld, because it is a Classic, and based on my relative success with Rendezvous with Rama, a similar “look at this mysterious complicated alien artifact” kind of story.

    And of course the main dude character is a totally condescending entitled jerk to the underdeveloped lady lead, and I expected that sort of thing and figured I could make my way through it. But then the protagonists find humans living on Ringworld, which, Niven quite clearly tells us, gets the equivalent of earth’s equatorial noonday sun 12 hours a day. And the people are all extremely pale. And that was the moment where I quit. I was like, Larry Niven, have you even seen a picture of a person who has been living in a tropical climate? Even the white people don’t stay pale long. And if a population has been there for untold ages, even if the aliens kidnapped them from northern Sweden, I don’t think they stay white people.

    So I guess that is my limit. Rendezvous with Rama had some gross bits about gender relations, but they were brief and incidental, and I found the actual Rama artifact fascinating. But if your overwhelming White Dudeness gets in the way of you understanding basic consequences of your premise, then I am done with your book.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink
  18. Andrew wrote:

    I don’t know how many of you paid attention to Poppy Z. Brite’s writing career post-Exquisite Corpse but she turned away from the violence and wrote three pretty charming novels about a gay couple who run a restaurant in the French Quarter. Then Hurricane Katrina happened and kind of destroyed her life, and she hasn’t written anything other than blog entries since. She’s apparently transitioning to male now, so I probably shouldn’t even be referring to her as “she” in this post.

    But anyway, those of you who hated Exquisite Corpse should probably check out Liquor before you give up on her work entirely.

    Friday, December 3, 2010 at 11:11 pm | Permalink
  19. L wrote:

    @Xenu #5 et al: it’s possible to read LOLITA somewhere *between* the “It’s rape” and “She seduced him” poles.

    If all you’re getting out of the book is “It’s rape,” then I’d say you’re missing the point the same as the “It’s hot” camp.

    Nabokov is a writer worthier of this sort of black-and-white reductionism.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 12:50 am | Permalink
  20. L wrote:

    *Worthier than. Sorry.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 12:51 am | Permalink
  21. Niveau wrote:

    Gahhhhh, this is so incredibly annoyingly totally true about so many books! And, honestly, in many ways, the entirety of my favourite genre. Well, not the entirety, but quite a large swath of it, and most of the popular books. Romance novels: awesome for fleshed-out female characters who get to have, enjoy, and want sex! Romance novels: so full of gender stereotyping and adorably disabled side characters that I regularly bang my head against a wall until it hurts, but the hurt is a physical pain and replaces the mental one that preceded it! And I want to go back and read the good parts, the emotionally compelling parts, and I don’t want to have to think about all the bad parts but they keep popping up and ruining my good scenes!


    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 12:54 am | Permalink
  22. scrumby wrote:

    This subject is the bane of my Sci-fi/fantasy loving heart. I’ve got my stack of old pulps which are wonderful in their terribleness but that’s not a line old loves can easily cross into. Someone’ already mentioned Card but what about Heinlein? “Stranger In a Strange Land” was so cool when I was like eleven; now I can’t even get through “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.”
    But in an odd way the loss of old favorites makes me appreciate the line-huggers a little more. Neil Stephenson writes in the dude-ly realm of cyberpunk and is a little over fond of ass-kicking fantasy girls but over time his women have grown from positive if shallow caricatures to actual people. I am comfortable reading his older work despite some of it’s weaker parts because I can see in it the beginnings of themes and concepts that flourish in his new stuff.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 1:05 am | Permalink
  23. Kate wrote:

    Dorothy Allison! Dorothy Allison! I missed the listing from a while back, but her characters! And her own life! Hard to read sometimes, hard to face the reality she dealt with, but amazing.

    Also, the short story “A Day” by William Trevor. He shows such care, such compassion, such tenderness in writing this woman’s life from one daybreak to sunset. And you can listen to Jhumpa Lahiri read the story out loud on the New Yorker’s website. So great.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 5:26 am | Permalink

    Nabokov’s use of language is brilliant in and of itself, but I can’t see how anyone would think it was a pro-molestation book. The narrator is a cruel, delusional narcissist.

    What really bothers me about this book is that it’s about a man who used all sorts of twisted coersion to molest and rape his stepdaughter, but the term ‘lolita’ in popular language is used to describe a sexy, seductive young girl.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  25. Laurel Spatz wrote:

    I don’t typically embrace moral relativism but in the case of some of the older classics I think it applies. Tolkein didn’t write from a racist perspective because of a conscious effort to support white power, he did it out of ignorance and the classic “light is good dark is evil” notion. I doubt he ever met anyone non-white and it’s entirely possible he did not even consider the race implications. If he wrote LOTR now, there would be no defense or excuse. He would have to be either incredibly racist or incredibly dense.

    Heart of Darkness felt more like an agenda book on a deliberate level to me and totally squidges me out. And Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while written to condemn slavery, certainly offers a very one dimensional view of race. In Stowe’s case, it was less forgivable since I expect that she had the opportunity to meet and talk with non-white people and persisted in seeing them only as “other” even while she embraced the idea that slavery is wrong. Opposed to slavery, but not prejudice. Orson Scott Card falls into the same camp. He is openly homophobic and deliberately inserts that attitude into his work without the excuse of ignorance. It makes it hard to enjoy.

    I guess I can enjoy a book that requires some forgiveness on the part of the reader but not one that blatantly expects me to accept a race or orientation in lieu of character development. Even if it is positive. I don’t want to be expected to conclude that the swarthy complexion indicates the presence of villainy or the keen fashion sense of the gentleman equals a pure and tortured heart.

    On a side note, estimating someone’s intelligence based on whether they liked a book or didn’t is a crutch. If they don’t like something I loved, it could be just that they didn’t like it. Not that they were too dumb to get it.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  26. ourlipsbend wrote:

    You two need to have so many more discussions on this site! I think they are quickly becoming just as awesome to read as Sexist Beatdown chats.

    Also, “DON’T TAKE MY HOBBITS, is the moral” might be my favourite thing anyone’s said on this topic ever.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  27. Lolita is good — just not nice. Anyone who thinks it’s about a sexually precocious young lady has not read it.

    I can’t quite give a free pass to anything I read — I can recognize the bits that suck hard, but I can still love them a lot. Sometimes. Sometimes I just end up realizing how bad it is (cough Heinlein cough cough).

    I refuse to read Ender’s Game. Not just a homophobe, but a misogynist. So no thanks.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink
  28. the rejectionist wrote:

    @ 01D55: Yep, for sure. I tend to disavow the “but they didn’t know any better” argument wholeheartedly. You don’t have to look that hard, at any point in the history of the printed book, for the people who are pretty loudly saying “HEY GUYS! OVER HERE, SOME PEOPLE WHO WOULD LIKE SOME EQUAL TREATMENT, THANK YOU.” As far as the twentieth century goes, I like to point people to The Master and Margarita, a book in which the lady character gets to have an adulterous affair, turn into a witch and fly around naked with her maid, party down with Satan, grant forgiveness to a woman eternally damned for killing her own baby, and thwart the literary establishment. Does she die at the end, as is the fate of the Strong Lady Character? Nope, she gets to live in sin, more or less happily ever after, with her writer manfriend. That book was written by a dude and published in 1927. So, you know. People were managing it.

    Ironically, Tolkien spoke openly against apartheid later in his life. I’m really not inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. BUT, HOBBITS

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  29. Raemon wrote:

    I fall into the “Orson Scott Card is a homophobe? Well, shit” camp. For the most part I don’t actually mind that. (I mean, I mind it, but the books for the most part aren’t about gay people one way or another, which isn’t great but there’s plenty of other good stuff going on that is worth reading about).

    But his later works have devolved increasingly into blatant political diatribes. All the smart characters have the same voice, and all come to the same conclusion, which they manage to find multiple reasons to repeat, over and over: “Traditional Marriage is awesome and fundamental to society, science says so!”

    I must say, though to the comment:

    >>>A dude? On a quest? To save the universe? No thanks!

    That is completely not the point of the book. I haven’t actually read Lolita, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that Ender’s Game is about saving the universe in about the same way that Lolita is about sexy teenagers.

    Ender’s Game is about a military manipulating a boy into committing genocide. The sequels are about the boy living the rest of his life with that burden.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  30. Alicia wrote:

    The antidote to “Ender’s Game” is Terry Pratchett’s “Only You Can Save Mankind.” Kid buys mysterious video game and starts shooting, only to discover halfway through the book he’s been killing real beings, and then he has to actually talk to them and help them survive and deal with what he’s unwittingly done. None of OSC’s “Ha! It’s all a trick! LOLZ!” nonsense.

    Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  31. k not k wrote:

    @ The Rejectionist: Agreed that the era when writers lived is not really much of an excuse for racist and sexist idiocy.

    And as far as Lovecraft, he was considered to be really racist by his contemporaries, too. So you know, sometimes people write cool fiction and are also total jerks

    Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink
  32. Other Becky wrote:

    Orson Scott Card isn’t just a homophobe, he’s, like, a homophobe squared. Or cubed. He did, after all, say (paraphrasing here) that any government that supports gay marriage should be overthrown by any means necessary. Scary stuff. Although, I have to admit, by the time he’d said that I was already liking his work less and less — that whole reproductive imperative, having babies is the entire point of existence thing just doesn’t work for me.

    But I still love Ender’s Game. Ender’s Shadow, too, but less so.

    Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink
  33. Raemon wrote:

    What amazed me about Ender’s Shadow was how convincingly he wrote an atheist character.

    Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  34. Elizabeth wrote:

    Re: aesthetics and politics. One of the more awesome truths in the Le Tigre cannon is that racist, sexist songs (by extension, books) are based on boring cliche. It’s offensive because we’ve seen it a trillion times already. And also, oh yeah, women.

    Monday, December 6, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  35. BrisVegan wrote:


    Like others, I loved his stuff when I was a teen. I loved that his characters questioned social mores and that his female characters enjoyed and initiated sex. As a teen in a fairly repressive household, the idea that a girl could make decisions, be kickass and not just marry some guy to be married was amazing.

    Now of course, I notice that all the women decide to have sex with the old guy (projecting much, Heinlein?), that everyone is white, hetero, obsessed with babies and rah-rah about the military. Some of the ablism is very scary too.

    I have also sworn off Orson Scott Card. Again, his early stuff seemed cool when I was 15, but it now seems sinister and the latest stuff seems like he is just forcing thin plots into his old worlds for cash.

    Monday, December 6, 2010 at 8:08 pm | Permalink
  36. tapette wrote:

    FYI: Orson Scott Card is the Twilight author’s favorite writer.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 1:25 am | Permalink
  37. K. wrote:

    So much to think about in this!

    Problematic writers I have loved (and, occasionally, continue to love):

    Francesca Lia Block: I grew up reading her YA novels about pun pals frolicking around Los Angeles in the heyday of hardcore punk and its aftermath, but it wasn’t until I got older that I started thinking about the way that Block engaged in some pretty fucked up stuff (particularly with regard to her POC characters & also her totally blatant body policing & fat shaming, which I assume stems from her own complicated history/personal experiences with disordered eating, but still.)

    Bret Easton Ellis: I can never really tell if Ellis’ brand of misogyny is the “smart, self-aware, hey there, just using my art to make a comment on society” kind of deal or if he just likes to write about sexual assault, coercion, and snuff films.

    Haruki Murakami: I love Murakami’s thoughtful, deadpan writing style & how it rubs up against the surreal nature of most of his stories, creating this weird psychic tension, but can’t help but notice that his books basically never feature female characters who read as living breathing people (unless you count “sexy psychic ladies” or “emotionally fragile” girls or “women in peril” as fully realized characters.)

    Re: Orson Scott Card, I first read Ender’s Game on the recommendation of my high school boyfriend (prototypical “smart” “outsider” “nerd” who felt that the book “spoke” to him.) I read Scott Card’s Ender books all the way up to Shadow of the Hegemon (book 6), even though the books were basically just vehicles for Scott Card’s Valuable Political Opinions. What I have gathered from this experience: Scott Card and my high school boyfriend? Both kind of dicks.

    What really interests me about this discussion are the questions of who we forgive and why we forgive them. I’m not especially proud to say that I forgive a lot of shit for a good story, but I do. However, I’ve noticed that I forgive different mediums to different degrees. I am probably most forgiving of comics (I let a lot slide in comics when it comes to fully realized female characters, depictions of women, author’s real life politics and attitudes, etc.), regular old books are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (though I tend to be more forgiving of fiction than non-fiction when it comes to the personal politics of the author), and zines… Well, zines are where I’m least forgiving, maybe because I see them as an arena where the writer has a great deal of control over the representation of themselves, their writing, etc.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  38. bex wrote:


    “I doubt he ever met anyone non-white and it’s entirely possible he did not even consider the race implications.”

    Tolkien lived in Britain from the height of the Empire through its dissolution, and his service in the Great War would at minimum have exposed him to various of the colonial units who served as well; I doubt that he managed to make it through 40-ish years of life without once encountering someone non-white. He may well not have made the connection between what he was writing and the lives of the people he’d met, but he might just as easily have been laboring under the “White Man’s Burden” and done it deliberately. In any case, I have a much easier time excusing him for his late-victorian sensibilities than I do Peter Jackson’s equally-creepy-without-the-victorian-excuse casting decisions.

    In related opinions, I find Orson Scott Card creepy with a capital creep. I’m convinced that if he wasn’t such a public figure he would have formed his own little FLDS compound by now.

    My biggest problem with Heinlein is not so much the writing itself as the fact that he was way more protective of the kyriarchical status quo than he gave himself credit for, and his followers all seem to expect cookies for it. “I like Heinlein, see, I’m totally enlightened! Now will you have sex with me?”

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  39. Drew wrote:

    The reason why Lolita is so profoundly resonant and transcends any offensive isms contained in it is Humbert Humbert is not portrayed as a cut and dry “villain,” but is humanized. Acknowledging that even the most wretched people in the world are capable of a wealth of emotions and actually getting a reader who finds his actions to be repulsive to empathize with him/her is a sign of beauty. For example, Stanley Kowalski is a brutish misogynistic man who Tennessee Williams has rape his sister-in-law. However, the brilliance of a performance like the one Marlon Brando had in the 50’s film version is that we, the audience get sucked into his charisma and charm and magnetism despite all of the things that we know to be true (he beats his wife, gets shithouse drunk every night and is a womanizer, on top of the aforementioned rape). I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t automatically associate the terribly racist/sexist/offensive act in a novel with it’s real life counterpart. It is a fiction and the whole point of good fiction is to take two-dimensional characters and transform them into fully fleshed men and women that causes you to view them in a different light.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  40. Victoria wrote:

    @Kate: Oh! “A Day” breaks my heart every time I read it.

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  41. Jude Brimstone wrote:

    I actually really like ‘Invisible Monsters’? But I didn’t read Brandy as any kind of representative of trans people, I read Brandy as ‘absolutely not a trans person’. He is a cisman whose particular means of self-destruction was to inflict transness on himself by changing his body to female. The idea of someone deliberately changing their body *away* from syncing up with their mind is, to me, truly disturbing, and Brandy’s shaky grasp on feminity is, to me, powerfully informative and intriguing.

    Not that the book is without its issues, just a different reading of it I guess.

    More on-topic, I am in love with the witty, largely comedic but occaisionally literary stylings of Scottish crime-comedy writer Christopher Brookmyre, and I think he has created some kickass female protagonists (one of whom not only has, but actually *lives up to* the name Angelique de Xavier), but it hurt when I realised that his Parlabane series didn’t quite pass the Bechdel test. The main character, Paralbane is a dude, but there are also two awesome female prots, the improbably named Dr Slaughter and a kickass lesbian cop, but they have one conversation and it’s about Parlabane.

    I also really wish *all* my favourite writers would stop pulling the ‘two kickass ladies? In one show? They must automatically hate each other’ thing.

    I did like how in the webcomic the Order of the Stick they at least had the conflict between the two most prominent female good guys be something with genuine substance – ethics, a topic which a Lawful Good celestial and a Chaotic Good thief have a lot to talk about. I also like how they stuck to their guns about having an androgynous character (Vaarsuvius) without making hir a punchline.

    Friday, December 10, 2010 at 9:20 pm | Permalink
  42. smirkette wrote:

    This post had me at HOBBITS! I’ve had the same issues with Tolkein–his crazy racism, the sparse female representation in his characters. But I love, love, love the books!

    I re-read the entire “Little House” series in college for both nostalgic and academic reasons (kid lit class) and was appalled by the overt racism. And realizing what an irresponsible, selfish schmuck Pa is to drag his family hither & yon without good reason other than colonialist-fueled wanderlust–that was horrible.

    And yeah, anyone who doesn’t notice Nabokov’s contempt for Humbert Humbert isn’t paying attention. The dude’s written to be a contemptible ass–hell, Humbert admits he’s a tool from the get-go! (off topic: so glad to see so much Nabokov love in the comments. He writes so beautifully, I want to frame his sentences.)

    Sunday, December 12, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  43. seujl wrote:

    A book I’ve recently planned to finally revisit is A Wrinkle in Time. Er, the whole series, really. L’Engle was definitely my favorite as an elementary/middle schooler, but I’ve been terrified to reread her since learning about her allegorical Christian intentions.

    I’ve never read Lolita because I’ve honestly always been turned off by what a lot of people “get” out of it (which is common, apparently). Reading the comments on this post has made me want to read it, though. I’m also one of those people who loves to read (obviously or covertly) privilege-steeped books precisely because of the potential readings you can do of said books. Sometimes reading a “great book” for the sole purpose of dismantling its “greatness” is super empowering, or a good way to get yourself into “talking back” mode when you’re feeling downtrodden. !

    Monday, December 13, 2010 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  44. canomia wrote:

    With Tolkien I think I just tried not to read it that way. The racist/sexist way that is. And, for whatever reason, it was easier to do that with the racism. It’s not this world and the different kinds of beings in it are not the same as in this world. And for me that was that. It was harder to ignore the fact that the only strong female character in the Tolikien universe really is Galadriel. And I loved Galadriel, her story was my favorite in The Sillmarilion by far. Eowyn was another favorite, also strong female. And I kept trying to make excuses for the fact that they were pretty alone. I still love Tolkiens work and probably always will but I can’t deny there are problems.

    Monday, December 13, 2010 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  45. canomia wrote:

    About Lolita. I’m a fan and I don’t have much new to say about the book. It’s beautifully written and very interesting and challenging to go into the mind of such a horrible man.
    I just want to recommend my favorite Swedish author Sara Stridsberg. Her new book is sort of based on Lolita, or inspired by it at least. I haven’t read it yet but I absolutely love her. She translated the SCUM-manifest to swedish and then wrote one of my favorite books and probably the most beautiful thing I have ever read, based on the life of Valerie Solanas, The Dream Faculty. It seems like all her three novels are translated to English to, Darling River is the one based on Nabokovs novel. Read it.

    Monday, December 13, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  46. Alian wrote:

    I haven’t seen any mention of Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, or Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Mercy and Anita are both problematic, but are also very strong female characters. I like that they actually discuss their issues with giving into social pressures, and challenging feminine norms. Mercy is better about it than Anita (and the Anita series varies on plot strength), but they both are good. But maybe these are too lowbrow. Did anyone mention Patricia McKillip’s Sunshine, or Marge Piercy’s He, She and It?

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink