Reader Request Week 2014 #6: Enjoying Problematic Things

H. Savinean asks:

I would like to hear your thoughts on liking problematic things, e.g. media with historically accurate but objectionable portrayals of gender/race/etc., media with no historical excuse for the above, media that simply ignore women and people of color, comedians/actors/writers who plant their feet firmly in their mouths way too often… It’s something I spend a fair amount of time on.

Oh, boy! A can of worms! Let me just come over and open it!

Let me skip lightly over what “problematic” means in a larger sense and suggest that for the purposes of this piece, the word means “work/people I have issues with for some substantial and to me relevant social/moral/ethical reason.” With that understood:

I think it’s fine to like or recognize the value of problematic people/things. I think it helps to additionally recognize two things: One, that the person/thing is problematic, regardless of the fact that you like it; two, that the fact you like it doesn’t mitigate the fact that it is problematic. You can hold the two thoughts in your head simultaneously.

So, an example from my own personal problematic files: Chinatown. Fantastic movie, and the guy who directed it drugged and raped an underage girl. The film is a classic and Roman Polanski should have gone to prison. That the film is one of the best films of the 1970s doesn’t change the fact that Polanski is also a rapist. Should you feel uncomfortable about Polanski and his actions? Yes you should. Can you acknowledge Chinatown is still a substantial piece of work? Yes you can.

Another example: Triumph of the Will, by Leni Riefenstahl. For reasons relating to cinematic technique, one of the major films in cinematic history — echoes of the film pop up everywhere from Star Wars to The Lion King. For subject matter, an unapologetic celebration of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg and of Adolf Hitler, it is literally horrifying. Riefenstahl herself: A brilliant filmmaker and forever (and rightly) tainted by her association with a genocidal regime; one of the first great women directors, who unquestionably lent her considerable talents to the furtherance of evil. Can we appreciate the craft she brought to the film? Absolutely. Should we argue that this craft mitigates the purpose for which it was used? Absolutely not. Should Riefenstahl’s embrace of the Nazi party be excused because of her cinematic talent? Not in a thousand years.

And so on. I used two examples from film, but examples can be found in every field of creative endeavor, including — obviously — writing. Likewise, Polanski and Riefenstahl are easy examples because of the unambiguous nature of their actions, but for every clear cut case like theirs, there are a thousand less clear cut — or at least, less clear cut to you. Someone else might disagree, occasionally emphatically.

If you accept that you can both appreciate a problematic work/creator and recognize its problematic issues, there are a host of other issues for you to consider. Some of them:

* Should you support the work with money? Example: Would you pay to own a copy of Chinatown, or merely watch it when it came on television?

* Do you differentiate works from different eras in the creator’s life? For example, if you have a favorite book and over time the creator turned progressively homophobic, can you cherish the work written before that transformation, or do you judge it by the author’s “final form,” as it were?

* How much weight should you give to historical context?

* How much do you care about a creator’s personal life?

* Does it matter whether the creator is living or dead?

(The latter, incidentally, is one I think about a lot. I anecdotally noted a resurgence of Michael Jackson’s music in the common culture after his death, and I hypothesize that his passing removed a lot of the “squick” factor related to his possibly entirely inappropriate relationships with kids. It’s easier to get into a “Thriller” zombie line if you’re not worrying about what Jackson might be doing at one of those Neverland slumber parties, etc.)

Cards on the table: I like a lot of work I think is problematic, and I like more stuff that other people would find more problematic than I do, because they have different standards and life experiences. There’s other stuff I don’t like because I find it too problematic, but I also acknowledge there’s room for hypocrisy in my choices there, too. For example, I find some of Chris Brown’s work catchy but I’m not going to give him my money because he beat a woman and by all the evidence I can see he doesn’t especially regret having done so. On the other hand, in the early 70s Jimmy Page knowingly had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl — that’s statutory rape despite the girl’s then-consent — and I own a whole lotta Zeppelin (on the other hand, I haven’t bought any since I found that bit out. Even so).

Does this dichotomy reflect my judgment regarding their respective actions, some latent baked-in racism, my preference for rock over R&B, or the fact one was just a few years ago and the other over before I even knew about it? You got me. Mix and match. And while you’re doing that, I’m gonna have to think about it some more myself.

Which I think is a thing worth doing as well: When you like a problematic thing, rather than reflexively defending it with the “I like it and therefore it can’t be bad and why are you making me feel bad about it,” response, go ahead and ask yourself why you like it even though you acknowledge it’s got problems. You might find after questioning it, you like it less — or more, because you’ve thought it through.

As a final thought here, I think it’s probably likely that some readers of mine find my work problematic for various reasons — either for what’s in the text of the work, who I am as a person (as far as they know from my public presence and/or their private interaction with me) or some combination of both. It’s part of the territory of being a creative person. Are they wrong for doing so? No; you have to accept that everyone comes to your work with their own perspective and will have their own criticisms of it (and you), some of which you will disagree with, or find to be a feature rather than a bug, as it were.

If the reader can simultaneously hold in their mind that they enjoy the work and find it problematic, I appreciate it. If they decide they can’t and drop me from their cultural diet, then that’s fine, too. We all have to make choices. I’d hope that choice comes after some thought on the matter. Ultimately that’s all you can ask for, as a creator of possibly problematic things.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)


Reader Request Week 2014 #5: Hitting the Lottery

Dan Miller posits an event:

You just hit the lottery big time – say $200M after taxes. You can now write exactly what you want for the rest of your life. What will you write? What will you not write? How much time will you spend writing (vs. goofing off, vs. managing the charitable foundation I suspect you’d set up…)?

This is a fairly unrealistic scenario involving me, as I don’t play the lottery, for the simple reason that I understand statistics well enough to know that lotteries are an extraordinarily poor investment. I also find the idea of preying on people who don’t understand statistics as a way to compensate for a sensible taxation scheme a bad way to run things. So the chances of me buying a lottery ticket are small; I think in the history of my life I’ve bought one. I did not win.

(I don’t count the local fundraising sort of lottery here, where the prize is, like, a homemade cake. But I don’t count on winning those, either.)

But let’s say for the sake of argument that I was gifted with a lottery ticket, which turns out to be the winner, and my net after taxes is $200 million. What will this mean for John Scalzi, the writer?

In one sense, it won’t change much. Dan suggests that having that much money will allow me to write whatever I like, but the fact is, I already do that. I write science fiction because I like writing science fiction. I write the occasional non-fiction book and have never had a problem selling those. I write here on the blog because it’s fun (and without the intent of making money from it, although that will sometimes happen). I don’t need to win the lottery to write what I want.

To be clear, there are other things I think about writing up — I’ve noted before I’d like to try a non-sf-related mystery or YA novel — but the thing keeping me from doing those is not money (or, more broadly, economic pressure) but time. I’m already a full-time writer by profession; $200 million won’t free me from the shackles of a day job. It won’t buy me any more time. What it might do is allow me to shift priorities, so I put something on my schedule in a different place in terms of production. But it doesn’t change what I want to write, or my ability to write it. So, again, in that respect, $200 million doesn’t change much in my life as a writer.

But let’s not be stupid: $200 million would be a life-changing amount of money for everyone who is not already a billionaire, and I am not a billionaire. I write what I want now, but I also write because it’s how I make my living, and $200 million would mean I would never have to worry about making a living again, ever. So the real question would be: Would I still write as much, or at all, if I had the financial wherewithal to do whatever I want?

My first blush answer would be “probably,” because I like writing and I get antsy when I don’t, and it’s not like I’m writing six books a year at the moment anyway; I’ve published twenty(ish) books in fourteen years, which is a pretty manageable schedule of production, even if one has otherwise given one’s life over to idle luxury. But I also have to admit that I don’t know. I admit to being lazy. $200 million purchases quite a lot of laziness. I might give it all up for lazing by the pool whilst servants peel my grapes for me.

There is one way to find out: Quick, someone give me $200 million!



Actually (and here we go off mostly on a tangent to Dan’s question, but I can do that because I can write whatever I want, remember) I don’t think a sudden windfall of $200 million will do anyone, including me, much good. We all know the tales of people who have won the lottery who a few years later are dead broke and desperately unhappy, because they didn’t know how to handle the money and because they very quickly learned that money changes how people look at you and what they want from you, which makes it difficult to trust people, even those close to you. I would like to flatter myself by thinking that I could handle such a massive influx of money well, but alas, I am as susceptible to base human stupidity as anyone, so it’s entirely possible I would do something stupid. Again, the only way to tell is to get that money in my hands and see what I would do.

Since I don’t have that money, and I can therefore be fairly rational about it because it’s an entirely theoretical construct, here’s what I’d like to think I would do with $200 million if it dropped into my lap:

1. Take some portion of it and use it to set up a very comfortable annuity income. Off the top of my head, say, $1 million a year. If I and my family can’t live within a million dollars year, I suspect I am doing something very wrong with my life. I assume I will be crafty here and create the annuity so that it compensates for inflation, etc. But even if not, a million a year should go a long way likely for the rest of my lifetime.

2. Take another portion of it and set it up as a general trust fund for my extended family to encourage education and entrepreneurship, i.e., help pay for college and businesses they might create. No trust fund babies, but a leg up in getting a place in the world.

3. Take the largest portion of it — at least half — and use it to create a charitable organization to address issues that find important. Off the top of my head these would include local education and community infrastructure, arts, literacy and hunger.

There would be a point to doing things this way. One, to put that money to work on things I care about, right now. $200 million is more than I could use in one lifetime and no point waiting until I’m dead to make it useful. Two, to lock up the money so that anyone coming along to wheedle it out of me is going to be structurally stymied. It would be lovely to say “well, you could apply for a grant” to anyone who thinks I’m just going to pay for their new car because they imagine we’re pals or second cousins.

But — again — this is all theoretical. The chances I will see $200 million in this life are pretty slim, either from the lottery or by any other means. The good news is that even without that tidy little sum I’m still fortunate enough to write the things I want to write and to otherwise have a pretty decent life. That said, if someone does want to gift me with $200 million, post-tax, well. You know where you can find me.

(It’s not too late to get a request in for Reader Request Week — here’s how.)

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