Orson Scott Card - A Literary Maverick
By Steven Argyle
Orson Scott Card is one of those rare individuals that has the nerve to
love what he does and to do what he loves. This Utah-born award-winning
novelist has paid the price necessary to turn his creative drive into a successful
income producing career. In some ways, the path that brought him to his
present status is as tortuous as those he lays out for his characters.
Card's early aspirations did not include writing as a career. Writing was
simply a part of life. "Writing was normal in my family," he says. "It was just
something that you did."
Literacy was integral to the Card family life-style. Card says that his sister
introduced him to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich when he was ten. He
remembers that he was particularly distressed by the chapter on Nazi medical
experiments with Jewish prisoners.
"That was the first time I had really confronted evil. I was deeply
disturbed by the notion that men could create rational motivations for doing
Other early reading that shaped Card's thoughts was religious in nature.
"The Book of Mormon was probably the first adult book I read all the way
through. Much of my writing still reflects the cadences of the language in the
scriptures. A lot of my sentences begin with conjunctions the way Joseph
Smith's sentences did."
By the time he enrolled in Brigham Young University, Card had chosen
the theatre as his emphasis. His habit of writing soon proved useful as he found
himself adapting plays for the BYU stage. It was just a short step from there to
writing his own plays. His five-act play "Stone Tables" premiered at BYU in
1973 and a two-act musical, "Father, Mother, Mother, and Mom" followed a
Flushed with early success, Card founded his own theatre company. He
found the going tough. When the venture proved unprofitable, Card found an
"honest job" at the BYU Press as a copy editor. This job led to a position as
assistant editor at the Ensign. His work at the LDS magazine brought him into
contact with Living Scriptures, an Ogden firm, with whom he contracted to
write dramatizations of scripture and early church history.
It was at this point in his career that Orson Scott Card decided to try his
hand at free-lance writing. He made a deliberate choice to write for the science
fiction market. When asked why, he replied, "Science fiction is the only truly
open literary market. There are dozens of magazines buying stories. I couldn't
see any point in trying to break into what I call the academic literary market.
There are just no openings. You have to compete with John Updike for a rare
spot in The New Yorker."
Card's first science fiction story, "Ender's Game," was published in Analog
magazine in 1977. Ben Bova, Analog's editor, took an instant liking to Card and
encouraged him in his writing. While pursuing this career, Card received a
Master's degree from the University of Utah and began work on a Doctorate at
"Then we had a recession," he says. "When the economy is in trouble,
publishers won't touch new manuscripts. The money dried up. I had to leave
Notre Dame and go find another honest job."
Card received attractive offers from Coleco to design computer games, and
from Compute! magazine to edit computer books. He accepted a position with
Compute! and moved to Greensboro, North Carolina. He edited books for
Compute! Books for nine months. It was not altogether a pleasant experience.
"Except for my short time at the Ensign, I'd always been a small
entrepreneur. I was my own boss. As a middle manager at Compute! I got along
well with the people under me, but there was conflict with my superiors. I just
couldn't handle the 'yesmanship' required in that position. By the time I left we
were glad to see each others' backs."
As the economy stabilized, Card returned to free-lance writing. In 1985
he received both the coveted Hugo and Nebula Awards for Ender's Game, the
novel adaptation of his original story. The sequel to Ender's Game, Speaker for
the Dead, repeated the sweep of both awards the following year. Card's place
among the top science fiction novelists in the country was now firmly
established. With nine published novels, contracts for nine more, and four short
story anthologies, Card has finally achieved some financial security, no mean
accomplishment in the writing business.
"The business end of being a writer is just like any other small business,"
Card says. "It's hard to live in a monthly world when you never know if your
next pay check will come. Like most other small businessmen, you have to pay
through the teeth for your own health insurance. I've had my trials with the
I.R.S. I've had to threaten publishers with lawsuits in order to get paid.
Publishers pay their printers on time, they deliver books to their distributors on
time, but they seem to pay their authors on whim. The man who signs the
checks always seems to be on vacation.
With his success, Card has become recognized as a master of
characterization. Card attributes his insights to his early work in the theatre.
"In the theatre, playwrights, directors, and actors are all concerned with
motivation. Why does a character do what he does? What is he thinking that
motivates him to the actions called for in the script? If an actor hasn't thought
through a convincing set of motivations for his character, the performance is
"I approach my characters the same way," Card continues. "I let the
reader see what they are thinking. I tell the reader what the character intends to
accomplish with his actions. Then if things don't work out as planned, I share
the character's distress with my readers."
Writer's Digest invited Card to share some of his methods in a three-part
article in 1986. That effort was so popular that Card has expanded the articles
in to a book entitled Character and Viewpoint. The book was released by Writer's
Digest Books last July. Card is also active on the lecture and workshop circuit,
taking time to teach beginning writers about the craft and business of writing.
"I think in many cases we teach writers the wrong things," Card says. "I
disagree with the theory that says art should be obscure. If you have a story to
tell, I believe you should tell it to as many people as you possibly can. And you
have to tell your story in a language that your audience understands."
Card seems himself as something of a maverick in the literary world. He
explores ideologies and values that are deeply important to him, but that receive
scant treatment in today's literature.
"I still can't feel comfortable with what passes for literary fiction in the
English language today," Card muses. "The inward-turning, reflective novel
seems to have degenerated into narcissism."
Card states that his characters live in families. They are networked in
complex, multi-layered relationships with their fellows. He strives to make his
characters, in even the most outlandish science fiction settings, live like real
human beings. He notes that most modern American literature, science fiction
included, deals with isolated individuals. "If they have a family at all, it's in the
process of breaking up. My books don't deal with the adolescent dream of
finding yourself without the restraints of parents or the responsibility of
dependents. Real people don't ride off into the sunset. When the sun sets, you
still have to make dinner and do the dishes."
Another aspect of Card's crusade against the cult of the self has disturbed
some critics. Card has explored to some depth the notion of an individual
sacrificing himself for the greater good of his society. Some critics have taken
Card to task for this calling the actions of his characters unbelievable.
Other critics have complained about graphic violence. Card dismissed
their objection. "There are no graphic descriptions in my work. I don't describe
anything! There is a lot of psychological tension, but I don't spend time on
Fame and criticism go hand in hand. Orson Scott Card is one of those
rare people who are genuinely successful in the arts. He has achieved national
recognition as a leader in his field. But when the sun sets, he still has to do the
[Published in the Main Street Journal, December 1988. Reprinted with