Monday, December 15, 2008

Criticizing Old Stuff

I imagine some of you think that losing access to regular comics has given me no rage at sexism in fiction to write about, but you couldn't be more wrong.  There's a well of idiocy and assumption out there.  Going through my unread books pile these few months I've found myself with the impulse to throw a book down it on more than one occasion.

The problem with blogging those thoughts is that when I read fiction I go for classic action/adventure whenever possible.  I like to dig around the roots of genre fiction, see where all our geek traditions started.  As an adventure fan, it's very rewarding.   As a human being with a 21st Century consciousness, not so much.

And the thing is that complaining about racism and sexism in old stories seems pretty unfair because the stories are well... old.  They're a product of the culture at the time so there will be lots of race and gender issues there.  Any complaint gets the defense that "Hey, it was written in the 30s.  He didn't know better."  And I suppose that defense would be all well and good if not for the fact that this stuff keeps popping up in modern fiction because modern fiction is built on the roots of the classics, and some of those roots are just plain rotten.

Yesterday I finished reading The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard.  Awesome stuff adventure-wise.  Howard writes a lot of stuff in Lovecraft's setting, only his characters don't just crumple and tear at their hair.  His characters shoot, punch, stab and try to destroy the nameless/unspeakable/unfathomable/mind-shattering/shambling/shuffling horror that is summoned from the pit.   In a Lovecraft story, the main character is most likely to observe the dark rites of the evil cult, gaze in terror at the summoned creature as it destroys the entire cult and narrowly escape to pen a fearful narrative.  In a Howard story, the main character makes a mad dash for the altar and smashes the idol, maybe taking a few shots at the cultists with whatever weapon is at hand.  It's like adventure-horror.  The heroes of both authors get their worldviews shaken to the core, but Howard's tend to hold it together long enough to act heroic while Lovecraft's fall apart.  (I'm excluding Randolph Carter here, or at least Dream-Cycle Randolph Carter.)

On the flipside, you can't even discern sexism in Lovecraft for the lack of women and romance in his stories.  (Really, the sexism is in the almost complete absence of women but that's easier to ignore than having one show up and be an idiot.)  Howard, though, tries to add a little romance as well as adventure to the horror mix and ends up with the helpless damsel more often than not.  I know, I know Howard created the protoype story for Red Sonja but I haven't seen that one yet.  Almost uniformly he recycled the same stock female love interest or sister in each story in this book that called for a white female character.

I say more often than not rather than all of the time, and specify white female character because there were three female villains in the whole anthology.  Two of these villains are black women.  Guess how many black women are in the book.

One of them (in The Dead Remember) is even named Jezebel.  (And honestly, in that story I'm on her side.  That guy was a dick and he deserved what he got.)

The other is in Black CanaanBlack Canaan is a story which should be printed out with the racist parts circled in red and annotated in the margins (this will need wide margins).  It should then be distributed, along with Hills of the Dead (and I say that as someone who dearly loves Solomon Kane) and the complete works of the aforementioned HP Lovecraft, in writer's courses as an example of what to avoid subconciously putting into your story.

By far the best stories of the entire collection are the ones that fall into the Conrad and Kirowan group.  These are stories starring one or more members of a group of semi-occultist friends centered around John or James Conrad (I am utterly convinced that the reference to James was meant to be the regular Conrad and no one will every convince me otherwise) or Professor John Kirowan.  (I may gush completely about those two characters after I've reread the stories a couple times, but I absolutely adore them and was devasted to find that one of the fragments at the end of the book was a short story starring both of them called The House that he stopped writing right after they got to the house.)  They tend to be narrated by either Kirowan or a guy named O'Donnel.  It was always easy to tell when O'Donnel was the narrator because not only did he drop racist ideas, he dropped metaracist plothooks like mentioning that this guy they know who is obviously going to be the bad guy doesn't look all that white to him.  (This is also how you can tell really early on someone's going to be the bad guy.)

Don't get me wrong, not every black or brown person in the entire story collection is bad.  Howard does seem to have been a pioneer of the offensively obsequious minority pulp sidekick.  There's also a number of insubstantial innocent bystander characters of color.   But it happens enough that when O'Donnel says "He looks Oriental to me" then you know who the antagonist is going to be.

That said, Children of the Night is a brilliant and chilling account of racism gone completely batshit, even if all of the characters present are white.

Anyway, these thoughts and others crossed my mind in more orderly ways as I made my way through this book.  Ultimately, every criticism has been applied again and again to more modern stories, and that's why there are so unbelievably easy to see in Howard's stories.  Because this is the problem at the roots.

But the author--along with the whole Lovecraft circle--is long gone.  We've gotten past that level of racism and sexism in our genre fiction.  It's so recognizeable as to be embarassing, right?

Well, we're not past it.  Contemporary stories are built on the tropes set down by guys like Howard and Lovecraft.  Racism is coded into the archetypes genre writers pick from.  I don't think it needs to be there forever, though.  By looking back at the 30s and 40s tales and seeing what they did right and what they did wrong, we can refine the genre and change it.  We can see the threads that are good, the stuff that is awesome and how it can still be that way without copying the bullshit as well.  But if we ignore it and put it up to a "product of the times" that 21st Century writers are already beyond, we end up copying and reproducing the shit like the Jezebel archetype or the obsequious Afghani sidekick or the 'Conjer man' without even realizing it.

See, even if you think its unfair to judge a classic by contemporary standards, there's still a usefulness in there.  It's not only exercising the old analysis muscles on past works, it's catching problems in future works before they happen.  Thinking critically about the stories that inspire us will force us to think critically about our own stories.

And ideally, thinking critically about the fictional world will translate to thinking critically about the real world.  And that's the ultimate goal, isn't it?


  1. You know, I'm usually just not that into analyzing racism/sexism in detail, but I saw your tweet and popped to your blog and got sucked in and this post was totally money. You're absolutely right that there is merit in unpacking old stuff with a contemporary view, especially if you do it like you did (which I can't quite explain, but I guess can be summed up as grounding it in the fact that you know it's old).

    Favorite quote:
    "Don't get me wrong, not every black or brown person in the entire story collection is bad. Howard does seem to have been a pioneer of the offensively obsequious minority pulp sidekick."

    I also appreciate the fact that you seem to get what I've always said: it's not fair to call one story or one book racist/sexist, because that starts to put PC constrictions on narrative that will turn it all into so much propaganda.

    But, if you can discern a pattern or practice or unconscious stereotyping, that's worth unpacking.

  2. In defense of Howard...

    Well, not really in defense of Howard. Or even to explain him, since I can't say I know more about him than you.

    But from what I've read of Howard's work, and what I've read about Howard himself, I wonder if some of the racism (not all) in his writing comes from consciously emulating the conventions of his time? He never really wrote a novel or stories meant to stand together as a written collection, they were all written to sell to the pulp magazines of the day. With that in mind, it's possible that he deliberately used racist images and messages because he thought that was what the magazines expected, and that it would increase the chance of the story being taken and thus him being paid.

    Obviously that doesn't explain all of the racism that appears in his work, but it was something I thought of after reading your post.

  3. BradyDale:

    "it's not fair to call one story or one book racist/sexist, because that starts to put PC constrictions on narrative that will turn it all into so much propaganda."

    Could you clarify your thoughts please? All I'm getting right now is 'Whte, male dickwad likes to throw the words "PC Constrictions" around'.

  4. Oh man, I am so glad to see this post! I've been mainlining 40s/50s Carl Barks comics, and while they're fantastic, I keep being completely appalled by the racism, and wanting to post but worried that there's no point because they're so old. But you've convinced me that it is worth posting about, especially considering these stories were the inspiration for something as recent as DuckTales, not to mention the currently-published Disney comics. Huzzah!