Tuesday, March 13, 2018

When An Artist's Abusive Behavior Call Your Love of Their Art into Question

Composer Richard Wagner's magnificent operas, set against his deeply anti-semitic tract Jewishness in Music. The racism of the early cartoons of Dr. Seuss, or in the first-edition depictions of the Oompa-Loompas in Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The myriad works of literature by lauded male writers, and the misogyny that runs like a bloody thread through their personal lives.

How can we love an artist's work, when we discover that the creator of that art held political or social views that we find to be morally repugnant? Or acted in a morally reprehensible way? Many shrug and say "It was different back then." But this already questionable position is even more difficult to take when the morally reprehensible actions have been done by an artist of our own times, our contemporary, rather than someone from the distant past.

Such are the questions confronting the male/male romance corners of Romancelandia after last week's tumultuous cascade of accusations and revelations about widely-praised queer romance author Santino Hassell. Over the past year, the pseudonymous Hassell has accused others of harassing him by trying to discover and reveal his IRL (in real life) identity, an identity that he claimed he kept hidden to protect himself from homophobia in his native Texas. But as accusations of Hassell's self-misrepresentation on a GoodReads thread, screen-shotted Twitter evidence to support such claims, and heartbreaking #metoo stories about Hassell's abuse of members of the queer community proliferated, reaching a groundswell late last week, two of his publishers, Riptide and Dreamspinner Press, abruptly announced that they had dropped him from their lists. Because the "author known as Santino Hassell" misrepresented himself to the publisher, which is cause for cancellation in the majority of author contracts. [If you want a more detailed timeline of the events leading to this, see these three posts from The Salt Mines].


What do we do when we hear that an author whose books we love has treated others with far less humanity than the characters in those books do? Has lied about who he is? Has catfished queer fans to mine their personal lives for story ideas, then used said stories not just without attribution, but without permission, in his novels? Who manipulated others to attack those who tried to call him out for his despicable behavior?

Many are taking down their reviews of all of Hassell's books on Amazon, GoodReads, and other social media sharing sites. Many are returning his books for refunds, or spending the $5 credit offered by Riptide to any reader who has ever purchased one of his books from their house on a book by a queer author other than SH. And many who supported Hassell's Patreon account after hearing him movingly write about of his cancer, his struggles as a single father, his bullied children—all claims which have turned out to be false—have yanked their financial support.


As a blogger, I am struggling with how to respond to this horrible cascade of accusation and abuse. I have a family member who was a long-time victim of a narcissist, one who sounds painfully similar to the person described by many who describe SH and his abuse. Being manipulated by such a  person is painful, embarrassing, and deeply shaming. All those harmed by SH's more direct abuse, you never deserved to be treated that way.

I have no desire to help advance the career of, or indirectly provide financial support to, an aggressively narcissistic abuser.


RNFF has reviewed several of Hassell's previous books. Should those reviews be taken down? Or should each be prefaced by and/or replaced with by a link to this post and a brief explanation, so readers can explore the issues and decide for themselves whether they feel comfortable reading a book by an author they would in all likelihood in real life shun?

Many other blogs, including Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words From Top to Bottom Reviews, Vir Reviews, and Just Love have done the first. My gut instinct, though, is leading me toward the second. Because erasing evidence of abusive behavior makes us forget, not remember. Because history matters. Because readers, including myself, need to be reminded that a detestable  person can write an aesthetically and politically good book.


I'd like to hear from RNFF's readers before I make the final call.





9 comments:

  1. Yes I'd go with option 2. With an addendum.
    Sadly riptide have their own behavioural issues now. How long can they last

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  2. I would go with option one for two reasons: first and primarily, SH stole large elements of their stories and dialog from real life people who had not given permission for their painful and deeply private confessions to a person they thought was a man they were romantically involved with. Some have posted receipts, others testimony. It’s not ok to enjoy art that is essentially raping its subject. Would you watch a movie made by a peeping tom? Secondly, to my knowledge nearly all of Hassell’s books have been withdrawn from publication, including the Cyberlove and Boroughs series. The mainstream publisher of the Barons series is not publishing the final two in its series and is being lobbied to retract the first three. Hassell has broken Patreon’s terms of service so that account may soon be shut down. Amazon is giving refunds for all SH works, no matter how long ago they were published or by whom.

    Also, your column is written in such a way that it might seem identity is the biggest problem SH had. This leads to readers saying they don’t care about pen names or gender, they just want the books. However in this case, identity (what appears to be a straight, healthy cis woman who is married posing as a divorced bi guy with cancer and two kids) is the least harmful part of SH’s betrayal of readers. Homophobic remarks in a genre centered on LGBT people happened. Financial fraud across state lines appears to have occurred. And emotional harm, including intense sexual harassment happened. There are also allegations that SH’s husband (who was the face of the brand) had sexual affairs with story sources who were under the impression he was a single, bi man in a relationship with them. So that’s another deep betrayal, especially as his wife then used their words in her books.

    If you want to remind readers bad people can make good art, there are other ways to do that which do not continue to insult the victims.

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  3. Option #2 makes sense, for all the reasons you give. Thank you for a thoughtful post.

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  4. I agree with Rhode Red. I think the problem here is misrepresentation for the sake of profiting. It's not like the Bronte sisters who purposely misrepresented themselves because women just couldn't get published at that time. This is a man who purposely lied to make money - not to "cheat" a corrupt system, he did it because he knew it would make him money since it was the cause of the time. I hope that makes sense.
    This reminds me of the guy who wrote the book about charity work in the Middle East which turned out to have not happened (I don't remember the details so forgive me if I am off a little). It's offensive to use someone else's pain and need to profit.
    Now if he hadn't misrepresented himself and turned out just to be an A-hole, then I would feel that if you like his work, then separate the artist from the work. I have to do that a lot with all kinds of artists. However, if the work is part of the manipulation then it needs to be included as part of the problem.

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  5. I think different responses are appropriate for different sites. GoodReads is (as far as I'm concerned) a site for reviewing books, not for passing judgements on the authors (except insofar as dodgy morals carry across into the motivations of the characters). So I find it bizarre that reviewers should downgrade their rating of a book from 5 stars to 1 star. I would understand reviewers deciding not to read any more by SH, but not changing their opinion of whether it works as art. The book is the book.

    But bloggers can and do talk about more than the book - they talk about the context of the book. And the context for the creation of SH's works appears murky - so that's absolutely fair game for comment. Topping and tailing an earlier thought piece in the light of updated info seems sensible.

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  6. Listen, if you have your doubts it's just because you don't feel angry enough about it. You're horrified and disgusted, but not personally involved, so keep your reviews adding a little statement. It's your blog, and those reviews have not been easy to write.
    If you were really really angry, and just hate this has happened, and seeing red about it? You would have no doubt. You'll erase not only those reviews but any mention of that name in your blog.
    That's at least what I would do. It would all depend not on the issue itself but of my own emotions about it.

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  7. Thanks, everyone, for chiming in. I appreciate your thoughts and opinions.

    Hassell's books appear on RNFF's "Best of 2016" and "Best of 2017" lists. I have kept those books on those lists, but have added language about the accusations lodged against Hassell, as well as a link to the detailed discussion of the accusations at THE SALT MINES' "The Santino Hassell Debacle", before the descriptions of each of the books on those lists.

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  8. And on the "Best of 2015" list, too. To which I've also added a warning note.

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