Judging the Past Through the Lens of the Present
Today’s rant comes courtesy of debates about Robert Heinlein. Tor.com has an ongoing discussion about Heinlein and his work, one which has spilled into Twitter and a number of blogs. Stirring up the anger and ire: claims that Heinlein and/or his work is sexist (possibly racist as well?)
Responses to these claims range from the thoughtful to the religiously righteous. Fair enough, as the initial accusations probably span that same range. But I want to focus on two kinds of responses.
1. “[I]t is fallacious to judge deceased writers by the political fads and fashions of the modern era.” I.e., it’s unfair to judge Heinlein, because his work is “a product of the time.”
Taking that train of thought further, is it unfair to judge the American colonists for the attempted genocide of the Native Americans, because that was just a product of the time? Is it unfair to condemn slavery, because times were different back then?
Historical context is important. It’s also good to recognize the lens through which we’re analyzing a text, whether that lens is political, theoretical, or whatever. And I’m well aware that many countries view the United States’ attitudes toward racism and sexism as a bit wacky. But to claim that just because your perspective is, like Heinlein’s, grounded in a particular time and culture, it’s therefore invalid and/or fallacious is … well, a little silly.
I can read Tarzan and recognize that views on race were different in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ time. I can also argue that, given Tarzan’s casual murder of blacks in the jungle, and a text that treats these incidents in precisely the same way as the hunting of animals, there’s racism here.
Is the historical context different than if the book were written today? Sure. And I recognize that my own moral framework is far from perfect. Does that mean I’m not allowed to feel disgust at Tarzan’s joy in killing “savages,” or to talk about the racism in that portrayal? Give me a break.
2. Then there’s “How dare you call Heinlein sexist?”
There is a valid point here. As an author, it makes me uncomfortable when people blur the work with the writer. I’d hate to think of someone reading the goblin books and deciding Jim C. Hines is a closet cannibal, for example. The work =/= the writer, and I think we need to be aware of that distinction.
Going back to Tarzan, it’s clear that Tarzan never considers blacks as human. For much of the book, he doesn’t even view himself as human, for that matter. This is the character’s attitude … but the text never questions this attitude. Even after Tarzan learns of his own humanity, he never makes the connection that those dark-skinned beasts were people. The text supports Tarzan’s view, and you can argue that this is due to racism on Burroughs’ part.
But there are those who’ll say “racist” or “sexist” are the nuclear option, nothing but insults intended to destroy the recipient. If you dare utter those words, you aren’t interested in conversation or discussion; you’re just name-calling, trying to slander poor Burroughs.
…which makes it kind of difficult to talk about issues of race and gender and discrimination and so on. But then, sometimes I think that’s the point: to shut down discussion.
If you want to examine the distinction between author and work, and to argue for one or the other, then great. I love debating literature and exploring different interpretations. On the other hand, if you’re just going to say “Hey, you called Heinlein the S-word! You can’t do that!!!”, then to me, you’re simply announcing your unwillingness to discuss or listen.
August 18, 2010 @ 1:01 pm
I think much of it comes from the mindset of “Wrong=Excise from Memory” people. That Heinlein’s works had rampant sexism in them, or Burroughs (or closer to me H.P. Lovecraft) work displayed naked racism doesn’t mean we need to burn their books and photoshop them out of pictures with other, more respectable people. It just means that we acknowledge the works for what they are and what they contain.
It sometimes makes me a little uncomfortable when I write a Cthulhu story. Or even my current novel where the majority of antagonists are Chinese. However, that’s the millu the characters find themselves in (a post-apocalypse West Coast that is very focused on Asia, which China being the major player). There are plenty of other Chinese that work for the protagonists and interact with them. It’s something that I need to be conscious of and make sure I’m not playing it for racial stereotypes (although there is some broken english here and there, and one joke about it – joke is played by one Chinese character who suddenly forgets English when confronted by the police, but speaks without an accent otherwise).
August 18, 2010 @ 1:23 pm
#1 is definitely tricky. For one thing, no matter when the books were written, we are reading them *now*, so we should be concerned about possible messages a book may convey to readers of today’s sensibilities.
Another thing is that, yes books should be considered within their historical context, but that does not mean any problems are outright dismissed. Just saying that book was “a product of its time” and excuse any potential faults is nonsense. What you need to do is look at the views of that time and then see was the book progressive for its time? Maybe compared to our sensibilities, its archaic and even offensive, but when it was written, it may have been bold and far less offensive than the rest of society. In that case, the author should be praised for forward thinking, even if we have moved well past where they were. On the flip side, if a book is full of the worst views of that historical context, then there is no excuse even accounting for the different time period.
Of course, that sort of cultural comparison and historical knowledge is far more difficult to do and requires more research. So it’s easier to either condemn them compared to our current sensibilities, or excuse them because “I’m sure it was acceptable back then”. Those two views are just uninformed spouting of a lazy opinion.
And for the record, I don’t know enough about Heinlein’s writing nor the culture in which he wrote to have an informed opinion. So, the wise thing is for me to stay out of that particular discussion. Unfortunately, the wisdom to keep your mouth shut is in short supply on the internet. 🙂
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Jim C. Hines
August 18, 2010 @ 2:52 pm
I know there are people out there with that mindset, which is just sad. But I also see that mindset being imposed on anyone who expresses dislike of a work. I.e., if I do say that Heinlein is sexist, I’ll get a response saying “How dare you try to censor him!”
Um … that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.
Sadly, there are people out there who feel everything they dislike should be eliminated from the world. It’s … annoying, to say the least.
Jim C. Hines
August 18, 2010 @ 2:55 pm
Likewise, it’s been years since I’ve read Heinlein, so I’m trying not to wade into the center of that argument. (I’ll just stay over on one side and stir things up here.)
I think cultural/historical context is a middle ground sort of thing. If you ignore it, you miss out on so much. At the same time, if you ignore the context from which you’re reading, or dismiss that context as completely irrelevant, you’re also missing out. And there’s a big difference between acknowledging and discussing historical context vs. using that context to excuse the shortcomings of a work.
August 18, 2010 @ 3:21 pm
Overall, all I can say is that’s an interesting response. I’d followed (read and lurked) the debate at Tor out of tangential interest. I haven’t read very much Heinlein, myself. But your reaction rings true because it serves as a pretty good model and approach for other work by other authors who are not Heinlein, but who also may have been “products of their time”. Call a spade a spade, but that doesn’t negate its ability to turn up dirt, so to speak (or does that old phrase refer to the card suit?).
August 18, 2010 @ 6:17 pm
AN author’s personal opinions may not be indicative of their work, but that’s really a red herring.
If all I ever do is write racist books or characters, even if I am not racist, I still have contributed racism to the world. If I am called a racist by readers, they may be sinning against the author/work dichotomy by doing so. I am my brand. The metaphorical I that is.
I also get a little (but not a lot) torqued reading authors hyping the author/work separation when it suits them (“I am not a racist! I just wrote a racist character!”) but not when it hurts them. I can’t count the number of times authors got all huffy because a reviewer didn’t review in the context the author thought the book should be (“It’s not War and Peace! You can’t judge it like that!”).
The reality is there is no Platonic work or author. My own personal semi-official literary theory is this: “I believe that the meaning and quality of a book is a mish-mashed combination where author, society, reader and the text all contribute to a reader’s perception of the book.” It’s lumpy like mashed potatoes.
Maybe I should be amused more that irritated though. Probably better for my health.
August 19, 2010 @ 1:11 pm
I’ve not been following the Heinlein debate myself, but “product of their time” is just such an over-used, tired argument designed to silence the critic. Am I going to judge this historical figure who was a product of his time for failing to live up to my modern standards? If he’s going to be any sort of role model, damn skippy straight I am, because if s/he’s going to be someone I admire, then I obviously admire them for having qualities I do not have but want to have. I admire them for being beyond what I am. And I’m gonna expect them to be beyond what I can achieve. I can achieve being a racist, sexist, classist, anytime. But saying “they’re a product of their time” sort of implies that my admiration is wasted on them – that they’re outdated and irrelevant. And uh… it’s not really a fannish thing to say, is it? So it’s still not much of a defense except to say “yo, these people are not worth your time reading, move on.”
And the “how care you call [so and so] *-ist!”… There is the “What they are” conversation and the “What they did” conversation, as Jay Smooth so eloquently put it. He said it about race, but it applies equally across the board to other -isms. I’ve only read one book by Heinlein, but it struck me as hopelessly sexist. I get to rail about how sexist the work is. Because Heinlein’s dead and gone and I can’t criticize him for it anymore. I don’t really believe in separating authour from work myself, so I think it is okay to talk about how an authour’s work reflects upon them, without condemning them or labelling their work worthless.
August 19, 2010 @ 3:08 pm
I’ve read some Heinlein. The books that felt more “YA” to me – Podkayne of Mars as an example – never really bothered me.
You get into his more adult works, and he completely lost me. He was one of the few writers who could not seem to write in an adult female’s point of view. It wasn’t just “Friday”, although that was one of the most egregious examples, & yes, I know part of it was her being “artificial”. But I read “Stranger in a Strange Land” and “The Number of the Beast” and really, every single time he transitioned to a female POV I was completely thrown out of the story, thinking “WTF?”.
Heinlein explored a huge range of social issues and I honestly don’t know that I would call him sexist, because he put females in aggressive leading roles and traditionally male dominated professions and they were frequently very successful in those roles.
But as a woman, I could never connect with his female characters because the stuff that he put in their heads never came out right. I’ve almost never had this problem with other male authors who create strong female characters.
Maybe people who read his work are keying off on his characterization dissonance and interpreting it as sexism, because honestly it’s hard to figure out just what he did that was so very wrong from a craft perspective.
Your mileage may vary …