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June 24, 2008

Filed under: fiction»litcrit

Wright Off

Proving that sometimes free distribution can yield benefits, Tor Books has been giving away one of their titles each week on Kindle. Last week it was John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos, the first part of a trilogy. Having just finished Nixonland, I was in need of some lighter fare, and I gave it a shot. Then, because I'm a sucker for pulp trilogies, I bought and read the other two Chaos books.

At that point, some parts of the narrative irritated me. So I decided to look Wright up, first via Wikipedia, which then led me to an interview with the man and his Livejournal. This may have been a mistake: both reveal Wright as a tremendously unpleasant person.

It's not just that he's a blowhard, because many writers are. And it's not just that he's my political opposite, or that he's zealously converted from atheism to catholicism. Those are jarring, but they don't break the novels. Reading his online rants, on the other hand, was more distressing. Wright refers to women with extremely regressive phrasing, including the description of women engaging in premarital sex as "unpaid whores." He's also fervently homophobic, referring to affection between gay people as (I quote from memory, but it's close) "something from which normal people naturally recoil in revulsion."

Understand that to me these are not "political" issues. CQ asks its employees, rightfully so, to avoid partisan debate. But I see these as questions of human rights: Wright is not even discussing something like gay marriage or abortion, on which unreasonable people might disagree. He's just outright stating that sexually active women and gay people are monsters.

Needless to say, my perspective on the books is now a little soured. I believe I told Belle I'd kind of like to pack them up and send them back to him.

I felt bad about this, honestly. I don't want to be one of those people who pre-judges their media consumption based on the personal leanings of the artist--reviewing movies based on the trailers, for example, as the hapless targets of Roy Edroso's Alicublog have been known to do. Good rhetorical practice is supposed to mean that the speaker's own views are irrelevant to the argument (although I am also partial to Daniel Davies' statement that there's no fancy Latin term for "giving known liars the benefit of the doubt").

And besides, fiction isn't an argument, is it? Surely it does fiction a disservice to throw it into a flat ideological viewpoint with the rest of the spin?

Well, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Fiction can, after all, be an argument. It can be powerful and appropriate--To Kill A Mockingbird comes to mind. Other times, embedding rhetoric in fiction can be disastrous. I'm as big a fan of Iain Banks as you're likely to find, and I probably agree with much of his politics, but even I am put off by his occassional injections of partisan speechmaking in his mainstream fiction--particularly to the detriment of The Steep Approach to Garbadale and Dead Air.

Indeed, I believe that even viewpoints I disagree with can support and enrich fiction. I started thinking last night about C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, for example. I loathe Lewis's non-fiction and essay writing, which I consider intellectually sloppy and manipulative. But I read the Narnia stories as a kid, even after learning that they're filled with the same views that generated Lewis's non-fiction output, and enjoyed them. I suspect I'd find them readable today. Lewis was not much of an original thinker, but he was a pretty good storyteller, and his ideology does give the books a richness--particularly since he seems to use them as much to explore that ideology as to expound on it. Understanding Lewis's perspective, even if one disagrees with it, allows the reader a deeper and more interesting perspective on the stories, but they're still fine children's stories without it.

The inverse of Lewis is Ayn Rand. Rand also espouses a philosophy with which I personally disagree. But she commits a greater sin: she simply can't write. Her books are compelling fiction the way a rainbow trout is a compelling public speaker. I don't hate Rand because she started Objectivism. I hate her because I read 700 pages of Atlas Shrugged, at which point I lapsed into a coma and had to be nursed back to health through gentle readings of early-era Heinlein.

Perhaps this is where I find most fault with the combination of Wright's viewpoints with his fiction. Without knowing how Wright looks at the world, his books are decent reads that suffer from some overcooked prose and cardboard characterizations, along with a few troubling details or plot devices (I felt similarly about his earlier work, in case anyone suspects sour grapes). Learning about his ideology (particularly his outlook on women--unsurprisingly, homosexuality is largely absent from the Chaos books) does not enrich the reading experience, but heightens those unsettling moments that might otherwise have been discounted in the final analysis: the disjointed sexual scenes and obsession with submission, the heroine's bizarre lack of personal agency (despite her idolization of great explorers), the reinforcement of domestic female stereotypes, shout-outs to Margaret Thatcher...

When I started looking for New Dissent links, one of the more insightful blogs I ran across was Ethan Zuckerman's "My Heart's in Accra." Zuckerman is interested in breaking people of their homophily--love of the same--and in that spirit he started the Global Voices Online aggregator of commentary from around the world. But of course, there's also a kind of homophily in American life--the kind of partisan cultural split hinted at by Nixonland. I am not terribly good at breaking out of that homophily. Too much of my non-fiction reading tends to fit my existing worldview, and I should probably work on expanding that range.

For entertainment, however, I've tried to be more open: I don't boycott movies because I disagree with their stars, or games just because I disagree with their representatives (Sins of a Solar Empire publisher Stardock is run by a rabid neo-conservative). Within certain limits, I'd hope to extend the courtesy of art over politics, as with Lewis. I've never been really sure what those limits would be--where I would draw the line at the cash register. I suppose if nothing else, I owe Wright thanks for helping to more concretely identify the boundaries I don't want to cross.

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