Your Heroes Were Monsters

I’ve been meaning to write about Lovecraft and his racism. I think that maybe there are interesting things to say about that subject. Fair warning, this essay will be rambling and meandering. I’m working through ideas. Take it or leave it.

But instead, what set this off was Isaac Asimov. I think if you’re an average lay person, you’ll probably go ‘Who?’

But if you’re a science fiction nerd, he’s practically god. Born in 1920, Asimov was a biochemist, eventually a professor of biochemistry. Selling his first story in 1939, he was an incredibly prolific science fiction writer, with a career that spanned literally hundreds of stories, dozens of novels, the Foundation Future History series, right up to his death in 1992. On top of that, he was a critical editor. His name was on a leading science fiction magazine. He wrote mysteries. He moved into non-fiction and became a science populariser and general writer. He’s credited as the author of over five hundred books. That’s stunning.

Within the sci fi community, he was incredibly active, friendly and popular, and accessible. He was a charming guy, not retiring like Clarke, not arrogant, not weird. Just fun to be around. Any narrow field is rife with backbiting, with feuds, with dirty deals, and people getting screwed over or doing the screwing. But not Asimov. Everyone seemed to like him, no enemies, which is remarkable

He cultivated this avuncular, charming public image – the fiendishly intelligent, but friendly and approachable guy, with muttonchop sideburns and black rimmed glasses. Not threatening, not intimidating, just… likeable.

Not the best writer in the world, but a hell of a guy, and as I said, practically a god in the Science Fiction community, and well liked.

Also, it turns out, he was a serial harasser, a regular groper, who constantly sexually propositioned women, whether his advances were wanted or not. He groped breasts, he groped ass, he put his arm around women, he didn’t ask permission, he just did it. For some it was welcome, for many it wasn’t, but he just didn’t care. He reveled in it, he wrote a book called the ‘sensuous dirty old man’ about his career and joy in sexual harassment.

None of this was a secret. He was a staple at conventions. Everyone knew he did it. Men, women, women who’d been groped and accepted it, women who’d been groped and didn’t like it. Everyone knew. The behavior was there, no question, and it was normally unacceptable even for the standards of its time.

So now, finally, twenty-eight years after his death, Asimov’s reputation is finally crashing.

I dunno. Does it say something that it took twenty-eight years? Does the sheer length of time invalidate the complaints against him? Is he a victim of changing mores? Beats me.

Maybe it’s simply that women are approaching enough power and self awareness and self regard in society, that they don’t have to put up with this shit any more. All this crap that they had to swallow, and smile politely, laugh off and overlook, maybe it’s just a ‘We’re not going to take this any more!’ moment. In which case… good.

As an observation, one of the things that I notice is that as a society, we tear down their statues after the heroes are safely dead. It’s much safer that way. God forbid that any of them should be entitled to defend themselves. Perhaps deep down, we’re all kiss up, punch down people, perhaps we’re mostly all cowards after all. It’s so much easier to take a run at people’s lives and reputations, their flaws and faults, after they’re safely in the grave and unable to contradict you.

Or maybe that’s just sensible. The consequence of challenging the powerful is not just that they can defend themselves, but that they can hurt you. The living Stalin can send you to the gulag, the living Asimov could drum you out of the field. They wouldn’t even have to do it themselves, there’s plenty of people whose lives and careers are tied in who would do it automatically.

You do find a few people, the foolish, the courageous, the reckless or the moral, who will actually stand up for the right thing, even when the malefactors are live and in power – a comedian, Hannibal Buress stood up to Bill Cosby and called him out on it in is act for years before Cosby finally fell. On the other hand, Courtney Love denounced Harvey Weinstein a decade before he was brought down, Rose McGowan did, other women did, he destroyed their careers again and again. A lot of women got hurt going against Weinstein before he finally went down.

Just for the record – you’re not Hannibal Buress, or Courtney Love or Rose McGowan. That’s not you. You don’t take the run at people who can and will destroy you at the height of their power, you don’t make waves against important or popular people. I’m sorry. I think you’d like to think you are. You’d like to be that heroic. But it’s risky. And you’re not that person.

Or maybe you are. If so, bless you. But it’s not you until you take that stand, and bear the risk. Maybe, you want to be that person. I want to be that person, I think we all do. Maybe we should, when the moment comes, try to be that person. But mostly, that’s not you.

Mostly, you’re just the person who joins the crowd rushing to kick the statue after it’s fallen, after the hero or the monster is safely in the grave, when you’ve got plenty of company, and no risks. You’re just in on the gangbang, that’s all. No shame in it, that’s most of us. Just don’t be proud. Don’t congratulate each other on your courage. You stood up on your hind legs when it was easy. It is what it is, it’s not special.

So anyway, there’s Isaac Asimov, dead for twenty-eight years, and people are finally coming around to the recognize that he was a pretty awful person – in terms of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Okay. I’m not here to defend Asimov.

I’m here to point out that he’s not alone.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, another giant in the field. Paedophile. At least according to her daughter, who accused Bradley of sexually abusing her from ages three to six. Bradley’s husband, Walter H. Breen, was an active child molester, convicted multiple times, and a danger to any child he was left around. But Bradley hung with him and supported him.

William S. Burroughs – heroin addict, everyone knows that. Shot his wife, everyone knows that. Oh and by the way, while he was living with his thirteen year old son in Morocco, several of his friends tried to rape his son and at least one succeeded. What the hell! It’s all very nice that you’re happily shooting up every day, but maybe don’t dangle a thirteen year old boy that you’ve got a responsibility to protect, like a meat sack out for your predator friends. What the hell was wrong with him? Maybe he was too busy taking his own advantage of brown skinned thirteen year old boys, if so, that doesn’t make it better.

Judith Merill, I’m not sure that I’ve got the right one, but I think it’s her. Giant of Canadian Science Fiction, feminist icon. Enjoyed taking frequent vacations to the Caribbean where she had wild sex with lots of poor black boys… or young men. One way or the other, a goddamned sex tourist. Or maybe she had the right – consensual recreational sex. Some will defend, some will condemn. But there’s always someone to condemn.

H.P. Lovecraft? Racist, no question. Edgar Rice Burroughs… do we even need to say it? A lot of these guys were racist as hell, and it went up and down. There’s a story they tell about writer Leigh Brackett, she created this swashbuckling character, Eric John Stark. Every story and novel, she’s at pains to state that his skin is black – and on every single book cover, Eric John Stark is depicted as an Aryan blonde. It’s all over the place. Don’t even get me started on Faulkner, that long winded douche.

Hell, William Shakespeare? Definitely an anti-Semite. And so was his friend and rival, Christopher Marlowe. One of Marlowe’s four surviving plays is ‘The Jew of Malta.’ It goes downhill from there.

Steven King? Alcoholic. And yes, I know, alcoholism is a disease, not responsible, love and tolerance. I get all that. But my mother was an alcoholic. It’s not just their disease, it damages other people. It damages everyone in their life. So I’m not giving a pass.

There’s a lot of alcoholic writers. And a lot of drug addiction. Remember that script writer who worked on Alf? And maintained a heroin habit on the side, because apparently having a lucrative writing gig on a sitcom was such a burden?

Edgar Allen Poe! Triple threat, racist obviously. Addict, certainly. Incestuous paedophile, if his marrying his thirteen year old cousin is anything to go by. And no, it wasn’t acceptable for the time to go marrying thirteen year old cousins, he shocked people. At least he wasn’t a sex tourist, but then again, that wasn’t a thing in that era.

And it goes on, and on, and on. It’s Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins and all these terrible terrible people, over and over again. That’s just the ones we find out about.

It’s all child molesters, sexual harassers, abusers, alcoholics, addicts, scoundrels, bastards, bullies, crooks, racists, libertarians and outright loons. It’s all bad news, and trails of destruction, damage left in the wake. It’s all just so tiresome and disheartening.

The tip of the iceberg above the water. So you just know that below the line, there’s a whole pile of monsters that we just haven’t heard about. People that are respected, celebrated, perhaps even active right now, what’s beneath the surface. Perhaps in some cases, their ‘issues’ are known, but no one is saying anything, that was the issue with Chiaroscuro Press. Maybe they’re just unknown.

You know what, if at some point, probably after her death, we discover that Margaret Atwood loved to eat human flesh, and liked to make clothes out of human skin, I’m not going to be surprised. Not even a little surprised.

And if it turns out that Atwood’s penchant for barbecuing children, and dancing around wearing other people’s faces was generally known and rumored, and overlooked or forgiven in her circles… well, still not even a little surprised.

I’m not saying that she does, mind you. I’m just saying that if it turns out that way, I’m past being surprised.

I’m sure that there are good and decent people out there. Writers and artists who are good and decent people, probably lots of them.

But oh my god, there’s a lot of monsters out there. All these writers, all these names I mentioned… I loved their work. Some of this stuff was formative for me, some of it changed my life. This meant a lot to me, particularly at times when I was young and vulnerable and impressionable.

All my heroes are monsters. What the hell?

What the hell do I do? What the hell do you do? What do we all do? Do we just throw out three quarters of our libraries? Confine ourselves to the occasional second rate mediocrity who at least wasn’t a freaking monster? Great, that sounds like so much fun. Do we just vet every writer and artist in advance, to ensure that they’re not a horrible person. That sounds so hopelessly tedious and worthless. Just a continuing quest for purity as a be all and end all. It all just feels so… pointless.

Should I feel guilty for having read Lovecraft, or Asimov, or Burroughs? Am I tainted?

Should I feel guilty for still liking them? Or should I be doing and about face and crapping all over them? Am I still allowed to be fond of the work? Or does this mean I continue bear the moral taint? I can’t be a decent person until I repudiate them? And if I do repudiate them, am I really being honest, or just going with the flow?

Do I need re-education? Just until I conform to someone else’s expectations, like what I’m supposed to like, dislike what’s out of fashion, and march in lockstep with whatever the dictat of the moment is. Somehow, I’m not thrilled with that.

I’m not sure I can, and I don’t know that I want to. I don’t even think it’s a good idea. I don’t think it leads to a good result.

Ever hear of Thomas Bowdler? He’s the guy that rewrote Shakespeare. He wasn’t the only one. Back in the early 19th century, there was a movement to edit Shakespeare. Cut out some of the rougher language, remove some of the unsavory characters like prostitutes. Change things around, give King Lear or Romeo and Juliet Happy endings. There’s always been that impulse to edit or censor art, to add fig leafs to statues. To paint over nipples. Change a black character into a white blonde. Bowdler gave his name to the practice, Bowdlerization.

Back in the VHS era, there was a guy down in the US who made a business of ‘clean copies’ of Hollywood movies. He would literally edit out all the sex and violence, the nudity and profanity of Hollywood movies to sell or rent as family friendly. Talk about chutzpah. He got sued over it, and lost big time. The last I heard, he got busted for child porn, and I suppose there’s a lesson in there.

So I think that there’s a general consensus that we should respect the integrity of art, even if that integrity is uncomfortable or offensive. I don’t think it’s an entirely accepted consensus. There’s an element of selectivity in it. A lot of the people that are outraged at the revising of Shakespeare get pretty uncomfortable with some of the language in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, or elements in Lovecraft’s stories.

The truth is, we really don’t like things that make us uncomfortable, or that we find offensive. We tend to want to not have it around. And yeah, that’s just human nature.

But still, personally, I think that we have to take the good with the bad. We don’t have to embrace it, but I think we have to accept that writing and art will contain things in them that we don’t like, even where we like other parts. Maybe it’s all just a mixed bag that we have to navigate through, each of us, individually, constantly negotiating our individual tastes and boundaries with a world which is not perfectly tailored to our whims.

But beyond that, if we need to accept art as it is, and accept its flaws, then shouldn’t we also have to accept the artist? And their flaws?

When I was very young, I read Asimov’s novel, ‘The Gods Themselves.’ I recommend it, it’s a great novel, so much better than so much of his other stuff that sometimes I think we’ll eventually find a much better writer buried under his basement.

It said things to me, about courage and decency, self sacrifice. Female characters who were strong, or found their way to strength in different ways. Male characters who were widened and better for the bruises life had given them, who were vulnerable, but strong through innate decency. I think reading it at a young and formative age made me a better person, or at least allowed me the knowledge of being a better person.

So Isaac Asimov was a shit. I accept that. It’s still a good book. It still means a lot to me. I don’t know if reading it now, I’d still love it the way the twelve year old me did. But knowing Isaac Asimov was a shit, I dunno, maybe it changes the book for me in some small way. But in the end, it’s good book. He wrote good stories. I’m sorry, but it’s not all going into the dumpster.

Lovecraft. Oh man, that guy. That poor, sad, tragic bastard. Racist much? Definitely. And that wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg of his problems. I don’t think that there’s anything racist in Colour Out of Space. But it’s there, to greater or lesser degree in some of his writing. He’s got other problems with his writing – no female characters, no real characterization at all, couldn’t do dialogue to save his life. And yet, with all that, quite often, he puts his finger on something really powerful. Maybe more than one thing. He achieves things that set him apart.

I accept the flaws in Lovecraft’s writing, and I accept the flaws in him as a human being. But I still find worth and value in his work. That’s not going into the dumpster either.

So that seems to be my approach for what it’s worth. I guess it’s case by case. I was never a big Piers Anthony fan, but I liked some of his novels. But the guy was seriously creepy (I don’t think he’s ever been arrested or has actually done anything though), and that creepiness oozed into some of his other work. Honestly, not knowing anything about the man, I found certain things deeply off putting. Knowing about the man, just ratchets that up.

Or the film maker, Luc Besson – City of Lost Children, Fifth Element and particularly The Professional… brilliant film maker. Some creepy aspects. Knowing more about the man, the creepiness factor in some of his movies ramp up, particularly The Professional. But City of Lost Children is still breathtaking.

We wrestle with it. And maybe we actually should wrestle with it. Maybe the point is to wrestle with it. It’s not off and on, not black and white, but something we have to engage with, struggle with, acknowledge the dark for what it is, and recognize the rest of it for good and bad.

I find myself wondering if it’s particular to writers and artists. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of appalling human beings out there in all walks of life.

But looking through the list, there seem to be so many writers and artists that are just … horrible. Is there something wrong with us? I don’t think stable well adjusted people make for writers, mostly.

Maybe to be an artist, or a writer, maybe by definition, we are flawed incomplete people. Maybe the reality of being flawed and incomplete, drives us, compels us to need to communicate, forces us to write.

Maybe being a good writer, or at least a writer predisposes us to being a shitty human being. Personally, I have no claim to the former, but perhaps I’ve got a good grip on the latter.

Maybe we just have to take the good with the bad, and struggle on through, as we do with everything in life.


Edit:  Someone pointed out that I meander a bit. Yep, guilty. I like meandering. Not going to apologize for that. You find interesting things when you wander.

Edit #2:  There was one person I talked about who turned out to be innocent. Arthur C. Clarke, one of my favourite writers as a youth. A few years ago, living in Sri Lanka, he was accused of paedophilia. It broke my heart. He was eventually exonerated, but I wouldn’t hear about that until it was pointed out to me. Paedophilia is like tar, it’s one of those things that sticks and tarnishes even if you are ultimately exonerated. Some charges are so pernicious and toxic that even disproven, the accusation hangs over. I am glad that Mr. Clarke was exonerated. I hope that he overcame the stigma.  But even if he hadn’t, I think I would have still liked the stories, if not the man.

7 thoughts on “Your Heroes Were Monsters”

  1. Typos. Check the names, yo. STEPHEN King, not STEVEN King, etc.

    Regardless, some good points. Meandering, to be sure. Not all the points rang true.

    The times are very different. And while people were SEEMINGLY more racist, etc, I don’t think they were. They were just more open about it, which, in a way, is better. And racism–even now–is not a crime, though it is repulsive, whereas sexual assault and pedophilia ARE crimes.

    So think about that before equating “evils.”

    • Times shift and values shift over time. Things that our society is properly respectful and tolerant of today, such as blasphemy, obscenity, homosexuality, interracial marriage and sexual freedom, were once both entirely illegal and denounced as utterly immoral. That wasn’t too long ago. Within our or our parents lifetime, gay sex was considered both illegal and an abomination and homosexuals were freely persecuted, and there were jurisdictions in the United States where interracial marriage brought both a prison sentence and visceral disgust. Racism? That was practically a civic duty, theories of racial superiority weren’t debated, they were just common sense to the people of another age, and truly insane notions were bandied about. As they often say, the past is another country. We forget how true that is.

      I do disagree with you as to racism – there’s no ‘seeming’ to it. Our grandparents and great grandparents were genuinely much more racist. Not just open about it, but in every possible way. Spend some time with the history, it will turn your hair white.

  2. You almost equate drug addiction to racism and even paedophilia, as someone who likes Lovecraft’s work but is uncomfortable with his racism, certainly the the fans who deify him anyway, I thought you made some good points, but demonising what is essentially just mental illness turns me right off.

    • Am I demonising it. Or is it simply demonised. Say whatever you want to say about addiction, but the reality is that it is often destructive as hell, not just for the addict, but also for everyone else around the addict. Addicts and alcoholics are often profoundly destructive people – William S. Burroughs a case in point. There are times and places where society as a whole condemned addicts and alcoholics as morally bad people, and there are people now that condemn addicts and alcoholics as morally bad people.

      My ultimate point is to recognise creators, and by extension, all people as fundamentally flawed, and to attempt to say that they are larger than their flaws, and that their work shouldn’t necessarily be defined by those flaws.

  3. Well put. I do think, as fiction writers, we delve into the secret well that is our being and the words that result to reflect that truth, scary though it is. I also think it brings truth to the fiction of the plot and characters we create. When reading the works of writers we know to have been monsters in many ways, I am reminded of what medical students are told when they confront the reality of one day have to treat someone who has been brought to them who may be a horrible person, let’s say a child killer. “You may want to kill him, not treat him. Treat the patient, not the person.” Read the work for its own value not because of who the person was.

  4. It’s always seemed to me that any kind of artist worth notice has to, by definition, produce work that is smarter and more interesting than they are, or, if that’s too paradoxical for you, comes from the most insightful and complex versions of themselves. I have no problem reading, listening to, looking at or watching work by assholes, as long as that work doesn’t merely reproduce their personal pettiness, bigotry, or (pick a) vileness.

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