Great stories by terrible people

Lately I’ve found myself reading (and enjoying) stories by authors who are terrible people. I usually find this out when I start reading reviews on GoodReads, or in a Wikipedia article because I’m curious about the author’s life. I find myself more than a little conflicted when I find out this type of information. Should I continue to read the book? Am I bad person if I enjoy it? Can terrible people create great art?

I think the answer to the last question is “yes,” though it can be hard to reconcile. In many of the cases I talk about below, the real life person and the stories they create seem to be in direct opposition. I would not support a living author who has done terrible things, but I do think, in some way, a great work of art can be a sort of redemption for a life ill-lived.

Here are some books and stories that I’m currently reading, have recently read, or have in my queue to read, all written by people I wouldn’t grace my presence with in real life.

H.P. Lovecraft: a known racist and elitist

I’m currently making my way through the “Complete Collection of H.P. Lovecraft.” An influence on writers as diverse as Stephen King and Jorge Luis Borges, Lovecraft was an innovator in the horror fiction genre. I find his stories interesting because he writes about big themes, not trivial horrors. There’s never just a flesh eating monster in his stories — it’s an ancient monster from the stars that is so horrific men die just with the knowledge that it exists. I get a kick out of the obscure words (and words I think he must’ve invented since I can find them in no dictionary), and I like the mood of doom he creates.

Marion Zimmer Bradley: accused of sexually abusing her children, as well as not reporting the sexual abuse perpetuated by her husband

I’ve been reading The Mists of Avalon on and off for a few months now (it’s over 800 pages). As a King Arthur buff and a feminist, it’s kind of required reading. While it’s not a book that I can’t put down (or I would’ve finished it by now), I am enjoying it immensely. This is one I have a hard time wrapping my head around though — in her writing, she seems compassionate to the plight of women who cannot control their own destinies…so why, why…?

Orson Scott Card: opponent of gay marriage and rights

Card is the author of the science fiction classic Ender’s Game. I have not read this book (yet), but I did enjoy the movie. This is another one that seems contrary to what he’s putting across in his fiction. The story, to me, seems like it is a lesson in NOT discriminating.

Sir Thomas Mallory: all around scoundrel

For this one, I’m going all the way back to the middle ages. Mallory was the author of Le Morte D’Arthur, a seminal work of Arthurian literature that the vast majority of modern day King Arthur interpretations is based on (including The Mists of Avalon). He wrote this book in prison, where he was serving time for theft, kidnapping, and rape. In continuing the theme — his life was lived in a far different way than the chivalric ideals he wrote about. I find it easier to forgive him than the others— partly because of the passage of time, and also because some scholars believe that he may have been falsely accused of his crimes.

What do you think? Do you find less pleasure in reading a book when you find out the author is not a good person? Do you think great art transcends their lives? Continue the conversation below.

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