Comment permalink

Gaiman's Scientology past: Should it matter?

Someone recently turned up some footage of Neil Gaiman at the tender age of seven, talking about Scientology. This Metafilter thread was many people's introduction to this odd bit of Gaiman-ania which I learned about and had to process several years ago. Gaiman's father was a prominent figure in the British Scientology movement, although Gaiman himself evidently broke from the church sometime in his early teens.

This knowledge is upsetting to many people, who don't like to see their idols associated with something they find as distasteful as Scientology. This experience, of discovering that your literary idols are real people who sometimes do unpleasant things and hold unpleasant beliefs (as real people are wont to do) is always difficult. I often think that in many ways, the less I know about my favorite authors, the better. V. S. Naipaul's horrible racism and misogyny springs to mind, as does Ezra Pound's vitriolic anti-Semitism and fondness for the Nazi party.

Can you enjoy a work of literature independent of what you know about the author? We blissfully enjoy many things without knowing "the awful truth" behind them, be it cheeseburgers or the latest Orson Scott Card novel. Can bad people write good books? 
(And surely nothing Neil Gaiman has done is as bad as all that.)
In fact, an entire branch of literary theory states that the work exists in the world independent of its author. Derrida's theory of literary deconstruction includes the maxim that "There is nothing outside the text," meaning that the book stands apart from its author. The author, once they finish creating the work, has no further bearing on it. 
This theory sounds both harsh and bizarre, but it can also be freeing and reassuring. If you find meaning in a book, then that meaning exists. The only thing that matters is that the book means that TO YOU. It doesn't matter if I read the book and find the same meaning or a different one. What matters is the relationship that exists between you and the book. 
We demand so much of our idols. And for the most part, most of them fail to live up to our expectations. How could it be otherwise? Idols are only human, just like the rest of us. If you idolize someone because of the work they have created, do they deserve to lose esteem in your eyes if they do something outside the work which you find unacceptable? 
Surely their books have not changed. The words remain the same. It is only you who has changed.