Hate the Sinner, Love the Sin: When Authors are Repulsive

It is a question with no simple answer: what should we as readers do when the authors whose work we admire hold or held personal positions on society, race, religion, etc., that we find objectionable? What should we think? How should we feel?

A classic example of this is H. P. Lovecraft. The man was a truly great author, a pioneer of horror and science fiction, who left a wonderful fictional legacy. He was also a hideous racist and anti-Semite who sympathized with Fascists. It is repulsive to read his description of the Black and Jewish communities, and he didn’t hold poor whites in much higher regard. He seems to have had some truly nasty ideas about race and class. But I, along with many other readers, still love his work.

It’s a phenomenon found across literature. William Shakespeare advocated wife-beating and domestic violence in The Taming of the Shrew, and a performance of The Merchant of Venice is horrific to watch. Doris Lessing positively bragged about how abandoning her young children made her such a feminist. Frank Herbert espoused some very Freudian fears of sex and women. And there are many others.

So what should readers do, when we encounter an author whose work we love—but whose views we hate?

Some older authors, such as Shakespeare, can be cut some slack: they were true to the social norms of their times. Even Lovecraft’s racism can be slightly excused, though not to such a great extent. We can’t expect authors from the 16th century, or the 19th, or even the 20th, to hold the same views we do, or embrace the same notions of correctness. But where do we draw the line? Should we draw the line? Should an author’s personal worldview impact how we approach their work?

To a certain extent, I think, an author’s body of work can stand on its own. Lovecraft’s stories will always be works of genius in the horror and science fiction genres, just as Shakespeare’s works will always be astonishingly wonderful. Just because we disagree with these authors’ worldviews does not mean we can’t enjoy their work, or take valuable messages from it. But an author’s worldview does impact their work. Lovecraft’s racism is obvious in his work, just as Frank Herbert’s fear of women is obvious in his Dune series. So when do objectionable prejudices and phobias become intolerable to us as readers?

Ultimately, I think, it must be a personal decision. Readers must decide for themselves—and only for themselves—whether an author’s genius outweighs an author’s personal views, and to what level they are willing to tolerate those views coming out in the work. Indeed, in Lovecraft’s case, love is probably the best punishment: Lovecraft would have been horrified by his current position as a pop culture icon, with Black people, Brown people, Jews, women and the hoi polloi he so despised not only reading his works, but making them into movies, creating art based off them, and even writing their own stories set in his universe. But he would have to tolerate it. When an author publishes a story, it is no longer theirs in a spiritual or intellectual sense: it belongs to the reading public, and we as the readers will decide what we take from it, what we will think, and how we will embrace or reject it.