I am the only person I know who alphabetizes her private library. I do it with a sheer and unrelenting joy. I know how to find things, and I don’t have to remember where they are. Oh, you want to borrow my copy of Night Circus? Here you go! Feel like looking up that passage from Huckleberry Finn? Look how easy that was.
It’s pretentious as eff, which only makes me enjoy it more. Y’all can keep your disorganized, “but I just know where they are” bookshelves. Not me. God invented the alphabet for a reason, damn it.
Anyway. This is the first installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf.” I’m going to take advantage of my amazing organizational system (aka the alphabet) by going through each of my 18 shelf rows and picking a topic from each to discuss. Could I do this with chaotic, randomly compiled shelves? Sure, but it would be less fun. When I finish, I’ll start over again, because I will have certainly shifted my collection a bit since then.
Let’s get started. Ready? Shelf one! What do we have here?
Crap. She had to come at the front of the alphabet.
I can’t gloss over Marion Zimmer Bradley. I would rather talk about how much I love Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, or about my friend Brenner’s bizarre pamphlet “Five Steps to Greater Joy in a World of Sorrow,” but there’s an elephant on the bookshelf.
I got Mists of Avalon and The Forest House years ago, before Bradley’s actions became widely known within the SF/F community. I may have purchased Mists of Avalon myself; I worked at a bookstore in high school and made generous use of the employee discount. The Forest House was a gift I requested, if memory serves.
I understand that her publisher continues to sell the titles and has arranged for the proceeds to go to charities supporting victims of abuse. (I’m open to being fact-checked here.)
I did not reread Mists in advance of writing this post. What I recall are its effects on me when I first read it as a teenager and then again in my 20s. I recall discovering female characters in epic fantasy who were central, defined, and powerful, which were in short supply in the 1980s and 90s. I recall a treatment of female sexuality that was empowering because it was real. I recall characters that were flawed in recognizable ways that broadened my understanding of humanity.
And yet, look at what its author did.
Everyone must decide for themselves what to do with the creative work of abusers and bigots. I am fortunate; I have not suffered abuse at the hands of a relative or trusted friend. It’s easy for me to say that we should not dismiss the work of a flawed creator. While it’s true that if we chuck all the books written by dangerous or damaging people, our bookshelves would be pretty sparse (Lewis Carroll’s just a few inches down, after all), it’s also true that if I had experienced abuse, I’d likely feel stung at the very presence of works deemed “genius” by people who didn’t seem to care about the suffering of others.
Is there something selfish in holding onto these books that I have loved? Yes, I suppose so. It’s also true that I won’t be able to read them again without remembering how its author caused deep hurt to other human beings. Something’s spoiled, and perhaps that’s as it should be.
I have other books by other problematic writers on other shelves. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s story strikes pretty close to home, though, because she worked within a genre space in such a way that gave inspiration and joy to so many, and she boldly advanced feminist writing. Feminists and child abuse? What? But we do ourselves no credit if we dismiss the harm done by once-beloved figures. We also risk causing further harm if we believe our value communities to be immune from sheltering the sorts of people who would hurt those who cannot speak for themselves.
I don’t intend to make this blog into a place for politics or fighting or the kind of anger that cancels people or provokes further outrage. However, as many other artists have observed before, all art is political. Not mentioning Bradley’s work and deeds, or hiding them from my shelf long enough to take a picture, or destroying all evidence that the world was ever fooled by the front she allegedly put up, are all choices that one can make. So is keeping the work that’s spoiled, to remind us that even our heroes might be rotten.
Here are a few charities I’ve found that support victims of child abuse: