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"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"N" is for "Not"

Let me pose a question:

A Question

What's the difference between Daniel Tosh telling a rape joke and Louis C.K. telling a joke about white privilege?

Pretty loaded stuff for a Wednesday morning, huh?  I'll get to the answer in a minute, but to give you some time to ponder that, let me tell you a story.

A Story

When my very first book was published, and I didn't (to be honest) know my ass from a hole in the ground, I had a phone conversation with a publishing professional.  We were getting to know one another as we'd be working together, and discussing our overall vision for the book.

We got to discussing the part which everyone loves, or at least, which stands out, of my first novel, which is the brothel scene.  Basically my hero, an intelligent zombie, goes to an undead whorehouse, where they have mix-and-match body parts.  I asked what she thought of that scene.  Her response?

"Honestly, I worried you have a bunch of dismembered bodies in your basement."

I don't really remember how I responded at the time.  I probably laughed it off, not knowing or not thinking any better.  

An Answer

Okay, remember that question I posed at the beginning?  Obviously, this is just an answer, not the answer.  But if you ask me, Tosh telling a rape joke is insulting because Tosh is a callous hack who cares more about shock value than anything approaching artistic integrity.  Artistically speaking, he's the kid on the playground with such low self esteem he eats worms for nickels.

Now, Louie on the other hand, is a diligent craftsman who has spent decades establishing his credentials as a thoughtful, intelligent comedian.  His show has dealt responsibly with issues such as rape, racism, homophobia, bullying, drug abuse...basically any substantive issue of the day he has dealt with substantively, if not hilariously. 

The difference, in a word (well, two words in Latin) is bona fides

A Saying

There's an old saying, made most famous, of course, by Star Trek VI: "Only Nixon could go to China."  Essentially, Nixon had made a career as an anti-communist.  He had established his bona fides as early as his high school yearbook, where he was voted "Least Likely to be a Communist."

So when Nixon met with Mao Tse-Tung to attempt to normalize relations, no one could accuse him of kowtowing to the communists.  (This was during the Cold War, and this sort of thing was all Very Important Business, apparently.) 

This sort of thing is apparently still pertinent today.  There are people who question the president's intentions when he's negotiating with Iran because they don't trust his bona fides.  Or when an important senator talks about being inclusive even though he's made a career of excluding people, it rings false.  It happens all over.  What you say, what you promise, what you do, is all at least partially colored by who you are.  Which can lead to tribalism, but it can also just lead to considering the source.

In fact, that reminds me of a second old saying:

A Second Saying

"When you've established a reputation for waking up early you can sleep until noon."

The Moral of the Story

The lady who I had talked to had a boss.  And it turns out her boss had a policy, unbeknownst to me (and, to be fair, quite possibly unbeknownst to the offender - I have to assume she wasn't being malicious) that the artist is not the art, and you can't treat us that way.

Horror authors like me shouldn't be accused of being serial killers.  Just like romance authors shouldn't be accused of being cheaters.  And if there's a racist character in a book, it's entirely possible (in fact, pretty goddamned likely) that the author is shining a light on racism, not that he or she is racist.

Now, are there exceptions?  Yes, of course.  "The Birth of a Nation" was just a racist director directing a racist movie.  Shit like that happens.  Which brings us back around to bona fides.

A Rule of Thumb

I say, when in doubt, just remember that an artist is not the art.  You need to judge both.  But you need to judge both separately.  I think Ayn Rand is an execrable human being, possibly the worst person who ever lived.  (That can be a subject for another blog post if there's interest.  Remind me in the comments if you care.)  However, I can't say that her novels are bad because of it.

Then again there are great people who make shit art.  There's an old Monty Python sketch about how Jesus may have been the Son of God, but he was a terrible, terrible carpenter.  I think Bono does great charitable work, all over the world, for AIDS and water research and all kinds of things, but I deleted that godawful new U2 album from my iPhone as fast as my fingers could allow.

And a third example, perhaps the most perplexing of all.  Orson Scott Card is a terrible, terrible person.  And yet...ENDER'S GAME is a brilliant book.  One of the greatest science fiction novels ever written.  I'm torn, honestly torn, on how to consider any of Card's work.  But the easiest way to do so is to separate the artist from the art, judge them each, and then decide what you can or can't live with.

A Second Question

Supposing you didn't like The Avengers: Age of Ultron, considered it sexist, maybe even misogynistic, but bearing in mind what you know about director Joss Whedon's bona fides...what is your final judgment on the matter?  (Feel free to let me know in the comments below.  Or in a storm of vitriol on Twitter.  Whichever floats your boat.)

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