TT: Following the Trend

JANE: Last week we started chatting about a trend you have found bothersome – that of reviewers reviewing books based on current social standards rather than those of the time in which they were written.

A Time and a Place

A Time and a Place

Being us, we went off on a Tangent about language in general.  Today, I’d like you to provide an added example since – as I noted last week – I doubted that one review alone would be enough to make you irate.

ALAN: Quite right. One example does not define a trend. But I am seeing this kind of thing more and more often. James Nicoll, for example, is a reviewer/critic, whose reviews I regularly read. He takes pride in reviewing books by female writers and “people of colour” (revolting euphemism) specifically because the writers are female and/or people of colour. Every so often he publishes statistics to show how even-handed he is in his reading. In November 2015 he reviewed 28 books, 15 by male writers and 13 by female writers. Seven of the writers (25%) were people of colour. He seems to think these figures are significant in some way that completely escapes me.

He’s actually a very good reviewer. I admire his insights into the books he reviews. But choosing the books you read on the basis of the race or gender of the writer rather than on whether or not you think the story might be worth reading strikes me as silly.

Also, he re-reads and reviews a lot of older works and he always makes a point of highlighting race and gender issues that, these days, make him feel uncomfortable. As a result, he often concludes that he is no longer able to enjoy books which he once admired.

JANE:  That’s sad, but I can see it happening.  Still, I don’t see Mr. Nicoll and the anonymous Reddit reviewer you mentioned last week to be enough for a trend…  Can you offer other examples?

ALAN: How about this? I recently heard a rather well-known SF writer giving a talk at a convention. She remarked quite forcefully that she had never read a book written by a male author or a book which had a male protagonist, and she never would. My jaw still hasn’t stopped dropping…

JANE: Okay.  That’s amazingly crazy.  I can’t imagine not reading anyone just because of their gender.  That leaves out Shakespeare – in fact almost all classic drama or works published before a certain time.

Then again, sadly, there are men who avoid books written by women because they assume these books will be too soft, too feminine, and too full of romance.

Maybe your unnamed “well-known SF writer” was poking fun at this still sadly common male reaction…  I can’t imagine she had really managed to achieve this unlikely goal.

ALAN: No, she wasn’t joking. She re-iterated the point several times over the course of the convention.

JANE: Incredible!  But go on…  You’re a reviewer.  How do you handle such issues?

ALAN: My own opinion is that because societal attitudes are constantly changing, it is very hard to apply those attitudes retrospectively. I find it amusing that in the early nineteenth century, Thomas Bowdler published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare, edited so as not to offend contemporary sensibilities (and by doing so he gave us a new verb, “to bowdlerise”).

If we were to repeat that exercise today, probably we’d keep much of what Thomas Bowdler cut out, and we’d cut out much of what he kept. For example, he modified Hamlet so that Ophelia’s death became an accidental drowning and all references to suicide were omitted. We wouldn’t do that now, but we probably would have problems with the anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice, the underage sex of Romeo and Juliet, and the racism of Othello (though the inter-racial romance of Othello might also be seen as demonstrating a positive, progressive attitude. Win some, lose some…)

In other words, cultural attitudes are moving targets. Best, in my opinion, to accept works from a certain time period just as they are, for just what they are. That way I can continue to enjoy the delightful wit and wisdom of Jane Austen without having to worry too much about the appalling gender stereotyping displayed by her novels…

JANE: Your example of Austen is interesting, actually.  I think one reason for her renewed popularity is that characters like Elizabeth Bennett resonate with modern women.  Despite the limits imposed on her, she strives to set wrongs right.  In fact the very title Pride and Prejudice can be read as a commentary on how societal attitudes are limiting.

What’s tougher for me is reading books where derogatory terminology, especially related to race, is used as it was at the time, with no self-consciousness because that’s how people talked.  When I couple months ago I read Eddie Rickenbacher’s autobiographical Fighting the Flying Circus, I kept flinching as he referred to the Germans as Bosch, Huns, Krauts – in fact, as anything except Germans.

Yet, if I were to decide to write a novel set in that time period, with that sort of character, I would feel it necessary to have my characters to do the same.

ALAN: Of course you would – verisimilitude is important. Sometimes there are (ill-advised) attempts to retrofit modern opinions into older works when they are republished. I read a story once in which the protagonist had a job removing smoking scenes from old Hollywood movies. And in the real world there’s the notorious case of a certain Agatha Christie novel…

JANE: Yep…  Ten Little Niggers, later retitled Ten Little Indians, also retitled And Then There Were None.  The last time I re-read the book, not only had it been issued under the title And Then There Were None, but the verse within (which details the gruesome fates of ten individuals) had been recast so that we now no longer had her original niggers, or the later Indians, but “solider boys.”

 One casualty of this is that when one character goes into hysterics over someone’s mention of “our black brothers,” it no longer makes any sense for her to react so strongly.

And, by the by, none of the people who die in the course of the novel are either niggers or Indians.  They’re all what we here in New Mexico would call “Anglos.”

ALAN: Exactly. Agatha Christie was just making a reference to a popular song of the time that reflected the broad outline of her plot. Actually, I thought it was quite a clever reference…

That same controversial word caused Sir Peter Jackson some amusing moments a while back when he announced that he was going to remake that classic movie The Dam Busters. In the original movie, and in real life, Wing Commander Guy Gibson who led the bombing raids on the dams had a black Labrador dog called Nigger. Immediately there was much speculation on the internet about what Sir Peter would call the dog in his movie. Obviously he couldn’t use the dog’s real name…

JANE: So, what did he decide to call the dog?

ALAN: Nobody knows. The film is still in the planning stage.

JANE: You’ll need to let us all know what happens.  Unless you’re exhausted by this topic, next time I’d enjoy talking about some authors who I feel have handled the difficult question of how to handle issues of race or gender orientation at different time periods well, without preaching and yet without ignoring the existence of the issue.

ALAN: That sounds good. It will be nice to find some positive examples.

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10 Responses to “TT: Following the Trend”

  1. Paul Says:

    Lots of words are offensive to lots of different people for lots of different reasons. But if you tried to eliminate them all, your story would (deleted) because (deleted) and you’d be left with (deleted)

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    The first change in the Christie title may have been a standard spatial translation – from English to American. I learned the song as ‘Ten Little Indians’, and you can be sure that it wasn’t because anybody in the city gave a damn about tramping on my tender sensibilities [that wouldn’t come about for another decade]. I would either have never made the connection or wondered why they got the song wrong. Why the song itself would change – at a rather wild guess, it’s referring to the fighting qualities of the title peoples. At the same time the Brits were fighting the Ashanti and Zulu Wars, the Yanks were having their Indian Wars, and that little change means the versions have a similar cultural resonance.

    Jane: is there actually any evidence that Shakespeare viewed Othello as black? AFAICT ‘moor’ in the 16th and 17th centuries was simply a replacement for the earlier ‘Ethiope’ as the generic term for somebody originating south of the Med and west of Arabia. Black or white would have to be specified separately, although it looks from the references I’m seeing that white would tend to be the default, as still being more familiar in Shakespeare’s time. I’m not all that familiar with the text of the play, having managed to avoid studying it, so I could easily be missing the key descriptions. The racism would arise quite naturally independent of colour. The essential peculiarity of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant being pretty well established by 1600, people would have been horrified at the thought of letting their daughter marry a Frenchman, never mind a Venetian or – gasp! – a North African.

    I may have mentioned already that there a story in Billy Bishop’s biography about him meeting some of his former opponents in the ’20s. Apparently, he mentioned that the Brits always called the other side Huns because ‘that was the worst thing we could think of’, and said that he’d always wondered what the Germans had called _him_ “Oh, we just called you Englishmen. That was quite bad enough!” [all quotes from memory, btw]. I’ve since learned that the term “Hun” was actually self-inflicted: it seems that when Kaiser Billy was sending some of his lads off on some adventure or other in the early 1900s he gave a farewell speech in which he told them to make the other guys think that the Huns had descended on them. Given the way they subsequently behaved in Belgium, people seem to have decided ‘the shoe fits…’

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      To borrow your quote from memory as an answer, there’s a rather nasty line Iago says to Desdemona’s father about a “black ram tupping your white ewe.” (“Tupping” = Topping, BTW, and I’ll let you fill in the rest.)

      I’d need to check the play for other references, but I believe it’s not stretching that Othello is a “blackamoor”, not merely a Spaniard.

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        That’s a good start, although one has to remember that even southern Italians would count as ‘black’ to a north European of the time. That’s part of what I meant about the racism being pretty much independent of just how far south Othello was born. It’s one of the themes that drives the story, however much of it was unthinking.

        And, yes, I am quite familiar with that verb 😉

      • Louis Robinson Says:

        Sorry, should have reread before posting: “unthinking” isn’t the correct expression. “regarded as right and proper” fits better, I believe.

  3. Alex Says:

    It was Arthur C. Clarke in the “The Ghost from the Grand Banks” that had people removing all evidence of smoking from films. His rationale was that there had been such a decline in smoking by the general populace that movie goers found smoking in films so repugnant they wouldn’t watch any movie with overt smoking in it.

    He completely missed that the obvious answer would be to remake the films, think how much better classic films would be with modern techniques and actors…

  4. henrietta abeyta Says:

    JASMINE OLSON OUT OF THE BLUES HAS SIMPLE LESSONS OF LIFE WITH THE LOVELY WOLVES. I’D SAY SOME OF IT MAY BE WHAT HER DISABILITIES LIMIT AND OTHER PARTS COULD BE HOW MUCH OF A FIRM #1 UNFORGETTABLE FAVORITE THE WOLVES ARE TO HER. LIKE THE WOLVES USED TO BE SHE WAS MISUNDERSTOOD DURING SCHOOL BUT ALSO SUPPORTED IMMEDIATELY BY THE FICTION WOLVES AFTER HER 3 YEARS OF THE LIFE PROGRAM. QUITE A PEACEFUL MIRACLE. EVEN WITH 3 DISABILITIES WITH THE HELP OF THE WISE WOLVES SHE’S HAPPY GO LUCKY NOW, AND FINALLY FULL OF SELF-CONFIDENCE. JASMINE OLSON SOMETIMES FEELS LIKE THERE’S A HELPFUL WOLF RUNNING BESIDE HER BETWEEN THE FOREST TREES, BUT SHE WISHES THE WOLVES FREEDOM. WE’LL BOTH TELL YOU DEAR JANE JASMINE HAS READ WOLF FICTION STORIES FROM THE LIBARIES. BUT ODESSA IN THE SECOND BOOK OF THE LAND OF ELYON SERIES BY PATRICK CARMAN AND FAOLAN IN THE WOLVES OF THE BEYOND WRITTEN BY KATHRYN LASKY AND BLIND SEER IN YOUR FIREKEEPER SAGA ARE SO FAR THE 3 I JASMINE OLSON ENJOY ENOUGH TO COMBINE INTO A PACK.

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    I jasmine Olson would say doubtlessly dear Jane the wolves I can easily portray, but they’re such firm friend of mine emotionally too. Like how much I felt forced to buy a Sheriff Woody Pride doll I also feel a bit forced to buy at least a few wolf merchandise items, i think it’s how sincere my sorrow of how their past went that gets me so strongly. when I look at wolf pictures I’m imaginative enough to feel like that wolf’s speaking to me silently. Having at least 3 wolf series and a few single wolf books well help my emotion as well as a few other items of them like a puzzle with 1000 pieces or 1500 pieces and a journal, I got a few lovely wolf surprises last CHRISTMAS too.

    JASMINE OLSON’S FIRM EXPRESSION OF HAVING HOPE FOR THE WOLVES, ESPECIALLY BECAUSE SHE FEEL’S LIKE THE WOLVES ARE THE ONES WHO HELPED HER FIND OUT WHO SHE REALLY IS QUICKLY AFTER THE LIFE PROGRAM AND SHE LOVES THEM ENOUGH TO SAY THE WOLF IS HER TOTEM.

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