TT: Troubled By A Trend

JANE: Last time you mentioned that there is a trend in recent lit crit that bothers you. Since you’re a reviewer and presumably keep up on such trends more than I do, I may be unaware of this trend. What’s going on that has you so hot under the collar?

Turtle Pond (just because)

Turtle Pond (just because)

ALAN: Well, I’ve started to notice that some reviewers are judging the books they mention by modern day standards. This causes them to dismiss older works as flawed because of sexism or racism or some-other-ism. This strikes me as short sighted. All works of art are products of their time and judging them by the standards of a different generation is, in my opinion, a sterile exercise.

JANE: It certainly isn’t very useful.  I find the entire subject of how one should look at stories quite complex.

The first thing anyone should remember – in my opinion – is that fiction is not a gateway into understanding what a time period was like because what is “normal” does not get explained.

It’s like our discussion of coal.  Since I’ve never seen coal being burned, if I read the word “fireplace,” I automatically think of a wood-burning fireplace.

Nor, unless the author includes a bit of business like “To give herself a moment to think, Margaret added a few lumps of coal to the already burning fire,” would there be anything to correct my misapprehension.

ALAN: Quite right! And that assumption of what the world described by the novel considers to be normal can sometimes give a completely erroneous impression of the writer’s intentions or attitudes if the reader approaches a work with information and opinions of their own that the writer could never possibly have shared.

In other words, your own preconceptions may not be applicable when you try to define normality.

JANE: The same can be true of words.  Words that today we find offensive were once normal and not in the least insulting – and this doesn’t only apply to words related to race or gender.

As I think I’ve told you, my dad died slowly and with all too full awareness of what was going to happen to him of ALS – commonly called, until just a few years ago, “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” because most people hadn’t heard of if except in the context of one of the most famous people to suffer from it.

I’m curious…  What do “they” call ALS there?

ALAN: Over here it’s known as “motor neurone disease.”

JANE: Thanks!  I think the shift of terms here was from a desire to make clear that a lot more people suffer from ALS than Lou Gehrig (and physicist Stephen Hawking).  Once again, see the power of words…

Anyhow, back to my dad.  Dad was a good guy, but he definitely liked being provocative.  One day, he deliberately referred to himself as a “cripple,” knowing that this was no long an acceptable term.  “Handicapped” or “disabled” – or words less oriented to classifying people as a group, and instead looking at individual conditions –  had taken its place.

Dad was clearly hoping to get a rise out of me, so I replied: “My mom and dad, both of whom were rather liberal, always told us that labeling people in a reductive fashion was not a good thing to do.”

ALAN: And how did he react?

JANE: He grinned.  Dad liked jerking people’s chains (that’s American slang for “being negatively provocative”), but he loved nothing better than having it turned right back at him.

ALAN: Round about the time that my grandfather retired, people of his age were being euphemistically referred to as “senior citizens”. My grandfather hated that phrase. “I’m an old man,” he would say. “I’m an old age pensioner, damnit!”

That’s a much more trivial example of the same thing.

JANE: Actually, I suspect that if my dad had lived long enough, he would have enjoyed making similar comments, although we don’t use the phrase “old age pensioner” here.

Going back to your original statement, can you offer an example of reviewers finding fault with older works for the wrong reasons?

ALAN: Yes, I recently read a review of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. It was posted on a Reddit discussion group. I don’t know who the reviewer was because real names tend not to be used on Reddit. It was quite a lengthy review and, although I disagreed with its conclusions, there is no doubt that it was very well-written

One thing that made the reviewer condemn the novel was the way that the female characters were portrayed:

The women themselves are almost unbelievably stupid, the living embodiment of the shrewish wife stereotype, who is also stupid and credulous. The nurse protagonist becomes an effective character almost entirely through an unlikely accident. The professions of onscreen female characters so far encountered are secretary, nurse, astrologer.

That statement is demonstrably untrue. Ann, for example, is a Fair Witness and in that role she is vital to the development of the story. Certainly the story does contain elements of gender stereotyping that might not have been present if the novel was being written today. So to that extent the reviewer has a valid point. But by concentrating on such superficialities to the exclusion of what the novel is really about, the reviewer seems not to have even noticed the (often clever and sometimes subtle) satire that makes up the bulk of the book.

JANE: I’m a great person to respond to that reviewer since I am female, and I read that book when I was fifteen.  Therefore, I was a teenager who should have been susceptible to negative stereotyping and had my horizons limited by these negative portrayals of the feminine.

Frankly, none of what the reviewer complains about bothered me at all.   At the time I read the book – which was quite a bit later than its 1961 publication date – most professional women still were secretaries, nurses, teachers, and the like.

Oh, and I should note that Stranger in a Strange Land was a book I read and re-read so many times that there was a point where if you opened the book at any point and read me part of a sentence, I could tell you exactly where in the story it was and often finish the line.

Despite my addiction to the book, I certainly wasn’t crippled in my ambitions as to what a female could do by how Gillian, Dorcas, Ann, and the other women were portrayed.

I might feel differently about the female characters if the book was written today – especially if it was written as if occurring today – but as a period piece, I was fine with it.  As I noted above, it still reflected the world in which I was growing up.  Although I knew some really exceptional women – including my mom, who raised four kids, then went to law school – most professional women were still teachers, nurses, secretaries…

ALAN: My thoughts exactly. I’m so glad we agree.

JANE: One more comment….  This bit of the review makes me crazy: “The nurse protagonist becomes an effective character almost entirely through an unlikely accident.”

How many books have started exactly that way?  Sheesh!  One could argue that Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is an “unlikely accident,” yet I don’t see anyone trashing either The Hobbit or “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, both of which depend on that “unlikely accident” for that reason.

Growl…

I’m almost afraid to ask you to continue, but I suspect that one review alone would not have been enough to get you hot under the collar.

ALAN: Oh indeed. I’ll have some more examples for you next time.

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14 Responses to “TT: Troubled By A Trend”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Grin.

    Interestingly, I agree with every word the two of you say, _except_ the last sentence of the opening paragraph. To be precise, with the last words of that sentence, and it’s implications. The standards of our own generation are the only ones we _have_. [And, BTW, one of the things by which later generations will judge _us_. A Southern white lynch mob gets no pass from me because that was ‘the way things were’] When somebody pronounces Mark Twain a ‘classic’, or Shakespeare, or Aristophanes, or Homer, they pass their judgement from their own viewpoint, following their own standards. Influenced, of course, by umpteen previous such pronouncements, which is why ‘still’ is so often prepended to ‘a classic’, but still based on their own local norms, not those of long-gone contemporaries. In fact, 9 times out of 10 – make that 99 out of 100 for the Greeks – the pronouncer is profoundly ignorant of the context. Ditto for music and the visual arts, both in terms of the basis for judgement and the awareness of context.

    Admittedly, I can find _reading_ the ‘classics’ a decidedly sterile exercise, but that’s me: I don’t have much use for anybody between Shakespeare and Doc Smith, because they don’t suite my standards. Hmmm. OK, make that Dorothy Sayers, or would it be Georgette Heyer… Wiki!

    BTW, I had to laugh at one point: for some bizarre reason best known to my subconcious, I read Stranger in a Strange Land as Starship Troopers, and so went through that comment on female characters saying ‘Female characters??? there _aren’t_ any women, never mind shrewish wives! What book was this person reading, anyway?’ Only to realise that they had indeed been reading a different book 🙂 I’m still not sure where they got that shrewish bit from, though.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    “All works of art are products of their time and judging them by the standards of a different generation is, in my opinion, a sterile exercise.”

    In terms of criticism, this may be right. In terms of story-writing, it’s another thing entirely.

    A good little example is the cottage industry in messing with HP Lovecraft. By modern standards, the dude was a bigot (how many modern American liberal authors can now write a story using “Shub-niggur-ath,” for example?). However, according to some historians, he apparently was a bigot even by the standards of the 1920s and 1930s, and that’s where the fun starts, because it gives us license to mess with his world, rather than honor it in pastiches using patchworked tentacular monstrosities (“The horror had the legs of a horseshoe crab bolted onto the body of a turnip, and its garish mirrorshades hid the marrow-melting terror of its gaze”).

    Several authors have had fun tweaking Lovecraft, and one of the best and most subversive is to read his stories as bigoted accounts of something that’s actually a quite different. One example of this is Ruthana Emrys’ short story A litany of Earth, whose heroine is a semi-human Innsmouth resident, released from an internment camp after WW2 (just to emphasize the point, she rooms with a Japanese family in San Francisco while she tries to get her life back together).

    In Lovecraft’s case, you can start by recognizing the bigotry, but the result is much more interesting that simply refusing to read stories that can be quite annoying once you start picking up on the dog whistles and slanders.

  3. Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

    TL;DR Unless you can provide a context that everyone will agree on, people will usually focus on superficialities over meaning because everyone can see the superficialities but they rarely agree on the meaning.

    “by concentrating on such superficialities to the exclusion of what the novel is really about, the reviewer seems not to have even noticed the (often clever and sometimes subtle) satire that makes up the bulk of the book.”

    I think some of those “superficialities” matter a great deal to some people today and cannot be entirely ignored in favor of the book’s meaning. As for “what the novel is really about,” that raises its own issues about what the author intended vs. what the so-called experts really think.

    (I’m reminded of a scene in a Rodney Dangerfield movie where he hired Vonnegut to write his paper on Vonnegut and the professor said whoever wrote the paper didn’t really understand what Vonnegut was trying to do.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQnAhSzb4gY )

    The only thing that *everyone* can see and understand are the superficialities. Trying to explain to someone that they did not understand the book correctly and therefore should not mind the superficialities rarely seems to work. In many cases, I think those who teach English need to also be history teachers, explaining the context of the novel … but they didn’t do that when I was in school … and I’m not even sure if they have the time now. As an example, it wasn’t until I wrote a college paper studying the boys in “Lord of the Flies” as if they were a tribe of chimpanzees (long story) that I uncovered the historical context of the book and suddenly a lot more of it made sense.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      One of the reasons I decided to major in, then get a PhD in literature was because I was strongly drawn to history as well. I decided that if I studied Lit I’d get History, but if I studied history, I’d have a slimmer chance of getting Lit.

      And when I taught, I did do my best to place works within their historical context.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      My English teacher at school always took great pains to point out the historical and social backgrounds to the texts we studied. We read a lot of Dickens, and I don’t think you can fully understand his novels without knowing a lot about nineteenth century social history.


      -Alan

    • Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

      You’re both lucky, then. When I was in school, the dominant form of lit crit was “the work should stand on its own, without outside context, so don’t you dare do any outside research when writing a paper about this masterpiece, that you hate to read because you don’t understand it.”
      I think the only background of Dickens I got when reading David Copperfield in 7th grade was that yes, kids were forced to work in those dark old days (a not so subtle threat that we were LUCKY to be in school with tons of homework because kids in Victorian England had it worse – the “there are kids starving in Africa” argument).

      • janelindskold Says:

        I like historical context. However, I get seriously frustrated by biographical context, as if the only thing any writer has to write about is a thinly veiled version of his/herself. Annoying!

  4. Paul Says:

    If past literature (even recent literature) must be consigned to the scrap heap for not meeting the standards of today’s political correctness, we’re going to lose a lot of worthwhile stuff. As for rewriting it… Well, read Orwell.

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