Saturday, July 13, 2019

Great Book, A-hole Author: Should we judge writers for their work and their lives?

author Dale Peck
Ernest Hemingway was an alcoholic animal-hunting macho lout. Gertrude Stein supported fascism. Nicolas Sparks owns an allegedly bigoted Christian Camp. And now we have Dale Peck, a gay author whose bitter essay on openly gay Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was so reviled that its publisher deleted the Op-Ed within hours of publishing it. But should we judge such authors' works by their behavior outside of their literary works?

One could start with the earliest classic stories by Homer and judge Greek culture for its dubious ethics about sexual relationships between men and boys.

Jumping forward several centuries, similar critiques can be made about author Horatio Alger and his series of books about strapping young boys who enjoyed the support of rich older men. Sexual favors lurk between the lines in many of his tales. And the author, according to Wikipedia, in 1866, "had been charged with 'the abominable and revolting crime of gross familiarity with boys.' Alger denied nothing, admitted he had been imprudent, considered his association with the church dissolved, and left town."

Switching gears to machismo in men of letters, Ernest Hemingway was known to drink to excess, shoot off guns and be abusive to women. Does that mar the legacy of classics like For Whom the Bell Tolls?

Gertrude Stein
As for lesbian poet Gertrude Stein, a pal of Hemingway, her sympathies for the then-growing Nazi regime are well documented. This article by Barbara Will for the National Endowment for the Humanities tells of the poet's support of the Vichy regime.

"Throughout her life Stein hewed to the political right, even signing up to be a propagandist for an authoritarian, Nazi-dominated political regime," writes Will. 

Also, "Most of Stein’s critics have given her a relatively free pass on her Vichy sympathies. Others have tried to ignore or justify equally inexplicable events: for example, Stein’s endorsement of Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934, or her performance of the Hitler salute at his bunker in Berchtesgaden after the Allied victory in 1945. Until recently, in fact, the troublesome question of Stein’s politics didn’t really figure in debates over her legacy—as opposed, for example, to the vehement debates surrounding Mussolini supporter and modernist poet Ezra Pound."

Will also mentioned Pound."The modernist writer Ezra Pound took a similar tack in his propaganda on behalf of Mussolini. In his book Jefferson and/or Mussolini, Pound credited Italian fascism with bringing back “Jeffersonian” economic and agrarian values to the modern world."

This, course, omits the facts that Jefferson, a politician and author, was also a slave-owner who fathered children with a female African slave. Are we to disdain Jefferson's eloquent writings as hypocritical? Should we tear down monuments to him, as many Southern cities and universities have done with statues commemorating Robert E. Lee and other Confederate historical figures? Need we remind adherents to the Civil War, waving their 'Old Dixie" flags from their truck beds, that the South lost the war?

Pete Buttigieg
A Grand Old F(l)ag
But concrete monuments, bronze statues and tattered flags are slower to fade than a vicious opinionated attack on a living politician, which brings us lurching forward to contemporary times, with Dale Peck and his "essay" on Pete Buttigieg.

As BackToStonewall reports, "The New Republic published and has now deleted an 'opinion' article on Friday that included shocking and incendiary commentary of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s bid for the 2020 presidency. 

"The article, written by gay writer Dale Peck, was titled 'My Mayor Pete Problem.' It included asinine statements made by the author about Buttigieg’s sexual life (whether he was a bottom) and repeatedly referred to him as 'Mary Pete.'

"Peck’s badly written assessment of Pete Buttigieg, claimed 'Mary Pete is a neoliberal and a Jeffersonian meritocrat, which is to say he’s just another unrepentant or at least unexamined beneficiary of white male privilege.' The posting spread quickly across the internet where it received widespread criticism from many readers and members of the LGBT media."

LGBTQ Nation writer Daniel Villareal: "The article was barely up for one day before finally being removed from the site last night. In a note upon the article’s page, New Republic Editor Chris Lehmann wrote, “The New Republic recognizes that this post crossed a line, and while it was largely intended as satire, it was inappropriate and invasive.”

Full disclosure: I worked with Dale Peck from 1989 to 1990 at OutWeek, the seminal leftist pro-activist LGBT weekly magazine. Among his other duties, Dale proofread my nightlife listings back then. We attended ACT UP meetings and may have even dated a few of the same guys. 

While I was still struggling with my first few novel drafts and short stories (with the encouragement of Publisher Kendall Morrison to use my work computer for my personal writing), Dale was on the way to getting his first novel, Martin and John, published.

Working at OutWeek gave me my first chance to find my writer's voice. My first expansive feature, about gay cartoonist Brad Parker, was edited by no less than the late Sarah Petitt (her NY Times obituary). We were young, ambitious, brash and outspoken, going boldly forth as we fought the AIDS pandemic and got our first taste of writing experience.

But ten novels later, one would think Peck might have learned a bit of restraint, even after he gained a dubious reputation for writing scathing reviews of classic novels. To pose as an arch contrarian is one thing. To attack a gay politician who's already getting flack from right-wingers and liberals alike is another.

Not to defend his 'essay,' but I did understand a small bit of what Peck was trying to say. I recall dating men in the later 1980s whose politics turned out to be strictly 'Young Republican.' They were handsome, I like men in suits; sue me. Politics in New York at the time (like now, still) made for strange bedfellows. 

With the dust having settled over Peck's essay, Jezebel's Rich Juzwiak takes a wider perspective in a way that is more reasoned, and in less vicious prose:

"Peck wasn’t only performing his culture by reading Buttigieg, he was upholding an age-old divide that dates back to the origins of gay culture, back when the radical ways of the Gay Liberation Front, which formed immediately after Stonewall, contrasted with those of the integration-oriented Mattachine Society. In a 2018 self-described manifesto called “The Future of Queer” that ran in Harper’s, author and professor Fenton Johnson described the shift in power over the next few decades that resulted from AIDS taking out a lot of the radicals."

I explored that in my third novel, Cyclizen, where an ACT UP alumnus and bike messenger has a dubious affair with a corrupt financial underling. My second novel, Monkey Suits, more clearly shows the rift between the serving and ruling classes of 1980s New York (and poked fun at now-presidential candidate Marianne Williamson). 

My other works merely recount each political era with brief references to who's president, and reminds the reader of the main character's usually Democratic stance, if any. Predictably (I suppose), the few 'villain' characters are bullies, homophobes and fundamentalist Christians.

The reaction to Peck's screed is both about style and content. Some critique it for being poorly written, something better presented at an open mic night. Others consider the historic relevance of an out gay man running for president. He served in Afghanistan, so merits 'mainstream' acceptance. But leftists and antiwar activists may not care for his having participated in a corrupt invasion of a country, now twelve years long, the purpose of which is global dominance and destruction. Gay conservatives pounce on such writing as proof of 'leftist infighting,' or something (I refuse to attempt to parse their duplicity).

Do I care if people whose politics I abhor read and like my books? Only if they use their stance as an excuse for disliking my work. And that's becoming more common in this heinous age of blatant Republican corruption. Comments and reviews of articles and books have increasingly become a soap box for biased opinions and flame wars, or actual violence.

So, will the controversy over Peck's "essay" harm our appreciation of his ten (so far) novels? Deserved critical praise precedes his latest writing stunt. Of the books of his that I've read, he pushed narrative, transcended traditional tropes in gay-themed literature, and deserves to be read. 

...unless you're gay, or Jewish.
The No Book
An author whom I feel no longer deserves to be read is bestseller Nicholas Sparks. Even before the news of his Christian school trying to boot an LGBT student group became news, I disliked the treacly, simplistic and gay-absent stories in his books.

I recall a summer several years ago when, while helping my late widowed mother clean a lot of stuff from her home, I gathered books to donate. She tried to protest my tossing a worn copy of The Notebook in a box. The book offered her nostalgic hope for the loss of my dad. I understood, and didn't dump the book, despite jokingly calling it "The No Book." (But when we sold her house, I was happy to toss it in the "free" box at our yard sale!).

If you really want to write a best-seller, make it a simplistic vapid love story about straight people. If you really want to play to a certain fan base, be a right-wing bigot. That seems to have been Sparks' strategy.

The Daily Beast reported: "Since 2014, members of the Epiphany School’s Board of Trustees, including Sparks, have been locked in a legal battle with the academy’s former headmaster and CEO, Saul Benjamin, over what the latter describes as a pattern of harassment, racism, and homophobia. “Sparks and members of the Board unapologetically marginalized, bullied, and harassed members of the School community,” Benjamin’s attorneys wrote in the complaint, “whose religious views and/or identities did not conform to their religiously driven, bigoted preconceptions.'"

More: "Sparks chastised the former headmaster for “what some perceive as an agenda that strives to make homosexuality open and accepted.” In another, he put forward a motion to ban student protest at the school, an impulse that came directly in response to two lesbian girls planning to announce their orientation during chapel. In a third, while listing complaints against Benjamin, he cites “misplaced priorities at the school level (GLBT, diversity, the beauty of other religions, as opposed to academic/curricular/global issues, Christian traditions, etc.).” 

Nasty stuff, eh? Unless you think that way, in which case, yay, you've got your fundy Trumpian hero author! Will the truth of Sparks' rightwingery lose him sales? Probably not, as readers on the other side of the political spectrum probably read better books, not Sparks' Chik-Fil-A of literature. 

When I first read about the Sparks controversy (It was apparently old news, but had resurfaced in media the way certain stories do), I impulsively posted a link to a Facebook author group. This is one of those seemingly innocuous general groups, not LGBT-specific. I'd posted a few links to my book promos with no complaints or negative reactions, despite my latest, Now I'm Here, featuring two gay guys in an embrace. Authors post their book covers and get a few likes. No biggie.

No Go Zone 
To be fair, one of the clearly stated rules of the group is, "this is a no go zone for talks about politics or religion." But the flame war that ignited over -without comment- my sharing a link to an article about Sparks' school controversy truly surprised me.

The dozens of "authors" who immediately pounced on it with comments like, "Good! Gays are against God's will!" and "It's his opinion" were surprising. These people write books? Well, of course, so do many churchy rightwingers.

But then I realized that without context (the question I'm asking here), I opened myself up to personal attacks from the anti-gay members of that Facebook group, and there are plenty! So I amused myself by looking up a few of the most bigoted commenters, blocked them on Facebook after seeing their feeds consisting of almost nothing but pro-Trump memes and deranged babbling conspiracy theories. One "Author" had penned a book on knitting, but shared a disturbing amount of photos of her gun collection. "Second Amendment, F@ck, yeah!" Blocked, and blocked.

Trumpian douche in the group, not censored
So I deleted the thread. Then someone else started another flame war, without my participation, about the group's "censorship." Actually, the gorup allowed insipid pro-Trump horribly designed memes like the one at left (WTF?).

No, I self-censored my thread, because one thing I've learned is that it's best to not lure psychopathic Trumpian gun-toting fundamentalists with too much time and lots of guns on their hands.

Which is why I just don't get Peck's reason for writing his 'essay' about Buttigieg, nor The New Republic's editors for publishing it. I hope people will read Peck's fine novels without hatred, but that hope seems to have faded. He seems to have deliberately asked for vilification.

But as artists, are we supposed to hide our true beliefs to gain more fans?

As for Sparks, he later apologized for being a bigot. So now we're supposed to like his trashy books? Or are his anti-gay readers now supposed to dislike him and/or his books? Are we supposed to boycott the work of actor Ryan Gosling for starring in the (equally treacly) film adaptation of The Notebook?

It would be nice to separate the art from the artist. But literature is (for now) penned by human beings with faults, biases and sometimes, complete and utter stupidity. And their stupidity can spread like a wildfire, electronically, at least. One dumb comment, let alone an entire essay, can get you pilloried online.

But if you think I'm a jerk for writing this, I hope you'll still read my books.

1 comment:

  1. Other writers- gay or not- who could be horrors- alcoholic or not : F. Scott Fitzgerald; Truman Capote; William Faulkner; Ayn Rand; Charles Dickens; Dylan Thomas; Hunter Thompson; Dr. Seuss; Roald Dahl; William Burroughs....... but, agree that the debate over separating the art from the artist is always a topic that's worthy of discussion.