Cosmic Cringing – lovable sf/f made by less-than-lovable people
I’m hardly the first person to write about the challenges of being a fan of problematic material. And I have written a lot about at what point a particular writer’s or artist’s beliefs and actions in real life make it difficult to enjoy their creations. Because of events at the World Fantasy Awards ceremony earlier this week, a lot of people are talking about this topic right now. Plenty of people are weighing in on the specifics there–I’m not going to talk about that.
Instead, I want to talk about how this topic came up in relationship to one of my own posts earlier this year about some of the science fiction and fantasy I love.
I had specifically written about Isaac Asimov, a Grandmaster of Science Fiction who wrote a lot of both sci fi and science fact. One of my readers correctly pointed out that while Asimov’s writing was award-worthy, his personal behavior quite often wasn’t. A self-described “dirty old man,” Asimov was known for getting handsy with women and making sexual suggestions or “jokes” in public settings. This has been excused by some by saying that he was a product of his time. Yet both Mister Rogers and Charles Schulz were born in the same decade and were therefore products of the same time, and they knew not to grope strangers without permission!
The only thing that “a product of his time” really means here is that women who complained about that kind unwanted attention got even less support and sympathy from society at that time than they do now.
So, he was a problematic person. I don’t find his writing to be particularly misogynist nor exploitive. Yes, it was mostly as sexist as any other fiction written in the 1930s-1980s. One of the most common critiques leveled against his writing in that regard is that he tended to avoid any romance in his stories altogether; which means at least wasn’t making the women prizes for the men all the time. On the other hand, he did occasionally write stories with women as protagonists, which is more than you can say about many of his male contemporaries in the genre.
Just because I’m not offended by his writing doesn’t mean that others can’t be, nor does it mean that anyone is under an obligation to like his writing.
His groping and inappropriate comments were not the only issues the previous commenter mentioned. Isaac Asimov got married when he was 20 to a woman of whom his parents approved. Isaac cheated on his wife, Gertrude, frequently, eventually causing them to separate. At which point Asimov immediately began living with one of the women he’d been having an affair with. Three years later Gertrude and Isaac finally divorced, and two weeks later Isaac married Janet O. Jeppson, the women with whom he’d been living since separating from Gertrude.
There are people who say that Isaac continued to cheat on Janet just as he had with Gertrude. There is a very big problem with this claim: no one but Janet and Isaac knows whether his flings and dalliances after the marriage to Janet were cheating. They may have had an open relationship (which most non-monogamous couples don’t admit to, because society is even less accepting of polyamory and monogamishness than they are of philanderers).
We know that Gertrude did not agree to an open relationship, because she made that very clear on more than one occasion. Asimov was definitely in the wrong during his first marriage. So he was definitely a cheater as well as a sexual harasser during that time. But if Janet agreed to an open relationship, then it wasn’t cheating. Period.
That doesn’t negate his other failings, but we can’t presume to know what agreement Isaac and his second wife had or didn’t have, absent word directly from her.
Human relationships are messy. Society makes the mess worse, because people are expected to figure out their sexual needs and relationships with inadequate information while weighed down by gigantic amounts of societal baggage, a great deal of which is false. Thanks to myths such as the Relationship Escalator, the One True Soulmate Fairytale, and the Marriage=Adulthood Fallacy, people get married when they aren’t ready to other unprepared people who are not compatible (in many ways).
In my experience that often goes double for the kind of person who has the temperament to be a writer of any kind, and triple for those who are drawn to sf/f. Where a social awkwardness and arrested development is all too common.
People are imperfect. All people are imperfect. That means each and every one of us it imperfect. Sometimes we like things that contradict some of our own ideals. Sometimes we like people who don’t live up to all of our ideals.
Everyone is aware that their friends and loved ones are imperfect. The part we tend to overlook is: everyone who likes us does so in spite of our flaws. None of us live up to all of our own ideals all of the time, let alone live up to the ideals of our loved ones. In a relationship, we cut each other slack because we feel that other things outweigh the imperfections.
Which is where I come back to the original question. When you discover that the person who created something you love wasn’t very lovable, how much does it color your evaluation of the art or story? That’s going to vary from person to person. For me, the incredible sense of wonder I got the first time I read Asimov’s “The Last Question” is simply too big to dismiss. The sheer volume of science and history of science and a love for science that he packs into each essay in collections such as Only a Trillion, The Tragedy of the Moon, Of Time and Space and Other Things, or Quasar, Quasar Burning Bright will always make me glad we live in such an amazing universe. Whether I’m reminded of the hilarity and humanity of his mysteries, such as Murder at the ABA, or the understandability of his in-depth science books such as The Collapsing Universe and The Genetic Code, I keep thinking that if any other person had written one-tenth of what he did, they would be considered one of the greatest.
I cringe when I think of how he behaved toward women. I wish that the same brilliance which illuminated his writing had also informed his treatment of some of the people he met.
But I remain a fan of his work. And I understand if other people decide to give it a pass.