Like many in the fantasy writing scene, I was shaken this week by the revelation that Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of The Mists of Avalon, Arthuriana icon, and long-time supporter of fantasy writers in general has been accused by her daughter of child abuse. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/27/sff-community-marion-zimmer-bradley-daughter-accuses-abuse.
It sends you reeling to find out something like that about someone who you consider a personal hero. The close relationships that we can have with literature – with the world imagined by someone else, the characters – can give us a false sense of knowing who they are. But they’re not the same. They’re different. People have been tweeting and writing saying they won’t read her books anymore. That’s not something that I personally feel – in the post-Barthes age, though, it’s easy to insist on this separation of author from work, and it’s something that has dogged not only literary scholarship, but a popular understanding of how literature works.
When I trace back through my literary heroes, it’s hard to find one who isn’t involved in some kind of sexual or social horror. T.S. Eliot was bosom friends with the noted fascist Ezra Pound. Geoffrey Chaucer was charged with rape. My beloved Sir Thomas Malory, author of my greatest inspiration Le Morte Darthur was a convicted rapist, cattle rustler and attempted murderer with a penchant for beating up peasants on his land and stealing from monasteries. Arthurian scholarship is dominated by anxieties over this. Reconciling the author Malory, who in his work appears to be so horrified by the idea of rape, with the life of a man who was a convicted rapist himself, on more than one count. William Shakespeare is notable as a behemoth of the English canon of literature who isn’t associated with some atrocity in his lifetime. (That we know about yet. Although he did steal that theatre and sneak it across the Thames).
I’m afraid I’m not here with answers. Only questions. Only doubt. I’m not going to stop loving The Mists of Avalon. I’m certainly not going to not read it again. It’s one of those books I come back to time and again. But, I can’t pretend that this hasn’t shaken me. That I don’t feel a little differently. Is it harder, when it’s now, when it’s immediate? Malory and Chaucer’s sexual crimes are distant, historical. We can write them off as the product of another age. But they still make us anxious. Perhaps they should still make us anxious.
I don’t know. I want to believe that the work is separate from the author. That it belongs, in its own way, to each individual reader. But why do we read literature? It’s not just individual. It’s not just escape. We’re sharing a little something from inside someone else’s head, and when we learn that that place was somewhere darker, more unpleasant, more unsettling, more horrifying than we thought it was, that upsets us. When we think we have made a connection with someone it turns out we knew only as an illusion.
(Alyssa Rosenberg has written a wonderful piece over at the Washington Post about her conflicted feelings rereading it, much of which I strongly agree with: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/06/27/re-reading-feminist-author-marion-zimmer-bradley-in-the-wake-of-sexual-assault-allegations/)