As has been widely reported, this weekend’s theatrical release of Ender’s Game—the Hollywood adaption of Orson Scott Card’s perennially popular and award-winning science fiction novel—will be met with boycotts due to the author’s outspoken position against gay marriage. That means there’s a good chance that older teens will be curious about this controversy and come to you for guidance. Yet rather than seeing this as a matter that must be handled, or deflected, with great delicacy, the opposite may be true: there’s not just one “teachable moment” here, but potentially a host of them.
As teachers and librarians, we like authors, don’t we? Implicitly, we tend to foster a healthy admiration for authors—perhaps as a natural component of “loving to read” and becoming “a lifelong reader.” There’s probably nothing wrong, and plenty that’s right, about this. But what happens when the opposite scenario plays out? When authors suffer a loss in esteem on a personal level but we want to continue to honor, perhaps even champion, their work on the page?
The Ender’s Game film makes this issue less theoretical. For some time, the sci-fi community has been aware of the author’s views; for example, a proposed Card-penned issue of Adventures of Superman drew protest on numerous fronts earlier this year. But the media coverage of that incident was nothing compared to that swirling around the movie. Between magazines and broadcast news, there’s a good chance that older teens have absorbed quite a bit about the controversy.
As a result, some of them may still be trying to figure out where they stand—and that’s where you can play a critical role. The reason is simple: the library is a singular place where author and text, art and artist, can (and often should) be separated. Yes, discussing the film with young people, especially when there may be sharp disagreement on the level of social politics, may seem challenging, but libraries are precisely the safe intellectual harbor for such conversations. Here’s why.
Media noise, media literacy
One reason the library is the resource par excellence for distinguishing art from artist involves its function as a hub not just of media, but of media literacy. That means exploring, say, the relationship between the novel and film of Ender’s Game, but doing so in terms of media-as-media, not content alone. In turn, this means not simply looking at formal differences between media, but at the ways in which we experience and respond to media.
For example, why isn’t the notion of boycotting Card’s work debated so loudly whenever he publishes a new work of prose? Wouldn’t that actually be a much more direct form of protest? Does the answer have something to do with how outlets such as Entertainment Weekly and TMZ are not nearly as likely to cover genre fiction as they are movies—thus enabling the spread of the controversy?
The previous paragraph’s three consecutive questions is no accident: inquiry is at the heart of all media literacy education, and is arguably at the heart of all sound pedagogy. If you’d like, then, to discuss Ender’s Game with a small group of teens, you might ask the following, both to activate prior knowledge and to illuminate key differences in the distribution and “consumption” of media:
- Why is the controversy “newsworthy” from the perspective of pop culture journalism?
- Would we be deciding whether to see Ender’s Game if instead it were a modest indie film?
- Would Card’s anti-homosexuality statements have received so much mainstream attention 10 or 20 years ago? (To be clear, this question doesn’t suggest judging the relevancy or offensiveness of those statements, but rather how news media can hook us with topical “hot button” issues.)
- Why is it in the interests of many news outlets to present conflict in simple black/white terms? For example, how often has it been reported that Card has no backend deal on the film version, and won’t see a dime of its box office take?
- Regardless of where you stand on seeing Ender’s Game, will you encourage undecided peers to follow your example? What causes you to “take a stand” for your personal values?
- How does one decide at which point to stop extending a protest––does boycotting other films from the same studio, distributor, or filmmaker make sense? What about the theaters?
- Does it really matter on what platform one might ultimately view the film, whether in a theater, or on broadcast television or paid TV? (This is a good place to mention the media literacy maxim that if content appears to be free, it’s usually because the viewer is the item being bought/sold.)
- How might it complicate things if those involved in making a movie have openly distanced themselves from the author (such as star Harrison Ford has done)? Is it possible, or desirable, to separate the contribution of those who work on a film from author of the source material?
- What about the publishers of Card’s books? Why aren’t they targeted?
The idea is not so much to rehash what the mainstream press has reported and/or simply have teens explain their own opinions about whether to see the movie—those sorts of summaries and binary choices can be part of the conversation, but should probably be used as entry points, not end points. Rather, aim to get to the heart of the matter about the ways in which we relate to different media.
Separating art from artist
You may have noticed something interesting about that final bullet point—it begs the question of the library’s role in the grand chain of art and commerce. After all, don’t libraries purchase countless copies of Card’s books, and thus function as his “supporters,” at least financially?
The answer is both yes and no—but more the latter. By making a single copy of a book available over its shelf life to hundreds or thousands of patrons, library acquisition is one of the least efficient ways to enrich an author.
More importantly, the mission of libraries has nothing to do with “moving product” per se. Yes, a library needs to respond to its constituency’s needs by ordering sufficient numbers of bestsellers, but, unlike a bookstore it doesn’t directly profit from the number of readers any given title enjoys.
By clarifying issues like these, as well as the fact that libraries aim for ideological neutrality and so “don’t have a horse in the race” when it comes to Ender’s Game, you can demonstrate to teens how libraries enable us to separate art from artist when necessary.
That doesn’t mean things are clear cut. Indeed, to continue encouraging critical thinking, you may want to broach with teens some of the following discussion topics and projects—perhaps even by modeling media literate discourse by collaborating with a colleague or classroom teacher:
- If a YA or children’s author who is actively cultivating a certain audience (John Green, for example) took controversial positions, would this situation be significantly different than that of Card—who, after all, did not set out to write a novel for young people, but for adults?
- Is it fair, or realistic, to expect authors for a young readership to behave as role models, both in behavior and thought? Should they self-censor their private beliefs and/or practices?
- How does the issue of time factor into separating art from artist? Does it matter that Ender’s Game achieved recognition so long ago? What about the work of deceased authors? Are we “supporting them” by purchasing their books or seeing movies based on their works?
- What about long-dead authors whose views we may find objectionable? Which of their works have been adapted into movies, placed on library shelves, or even included in English textbooks?
Above all, libraries serve as unique spaces to explore the work of authors who are “problematic” for one reason or another. They act as value-free repositories of controversial texts, and librarians play a crucial role in mediating the relationship between readers and authors.
This is especially true in the school library, with its conversations between librarian and student and between students themselves with the librarian facilitating; teen librarians in public settings also serve this role. Indeed, there’s something crucial in such discourse, not just educationally but culturally. It’s what enables teens to develop ways of seeing new possibilities and perspectives, and to reflect on their own interaction with media—and thus, themselves.
Peter Gutierrez has been writing for School Library Journal since 2008; his new book, The Power of Scriptwriting!, is now available from Teachers College Press.