Historical Context and “Men of Their Times”
Inspired in part by an all-too-familiar conversation on Facebook a few months back, I present my essay “Men of Their Times” in the newest issue of Uncanny Magazine:
At the World Fantasy Awards ceremony in November 2015, it was announced that the bust of H. P. Lovecraft would no longer be used as the award trophy. This came after statements from prominent authors such as Nnedi Okorafor and Daniel José Older, among others, who felt that Lovecraft’s racism made him a problematic symbol for the celebration and recognition of the world’s best fantasy.
One of the immediate counterarguments was that it’s unfair to judge Lovecraft by the standards of the present day. As Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi put it:
“This shows a cultural intolerance and lack of historical understanding that is very discouraging… I daresay we will be judged harshly for all manner of derelictions a hundred years from now.”
This argument comes up so quickly and reliably in these conversations that it might as well be a Pavlovian response. Any mention of the word “racism” in association with names like Tolkien or Burroughs or Campbell or Lovecraft is a bell whose chimes will trigger an immediate response of “But historical context!”
You can read the whole thing on the Uncanny website, including discussions of L. Frank Baum and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and arguments about tolerance, forgiveness, and historical homogeneity.
March 1, 2016 @ 2:13 pm
Edgar Rice Burroughs is an author I enjoy, at the same wincing at the blatant racism in his writing. His novels are not ones to read uncritically, and if I handed them to a younger reader, I would want to have a discussion about the problematic elements and how things have changed, and should continue to change. No author should be given a pass because ‘that’s how things were,’ because there were people at that time who weren’t like that.
March 1, 2016 @ 3:26 pm
i started reading your blog during racefail in 2009 without realising that you were An Author. though it’s oddly difficult to find your books here at the bottom of the world, i’ve enjoyed the ones i’ve managed to get a hold of. but i’d probably keep buying them even if i didn’t because what you say here is important, too. so, thanks, jim. 🙂
March 1, 2016 @ 4:06 pm
Thank the gods Otto could quickly reply at Uncanny to tell us about the historical context for Baum! Knowing that Baum said horrifically racist things to people who wanted to hear horrifically racist things is completely different from knowing that Baum said horrifically racist things.
“Obviously, advocating genocide is bad. There’s no need for me to even write those words, it is so obvious,” he said, before going on to spend 200 words trying to downplay it.
(It’s interesting reading Baum’s editorials. “We were horrific to them, so they’re righteously angry, thus we should exterminate them” is an… interesting view.)
Jim C. Hines
March 1, 2016 @ 4:14 pm
This is my Not Shocked face. Ah, comments sections.
I’ve got no problem with talking about context. It’s the downplaying/minimizing/excusing thing that gets old fast. (And I agree it’s interesting to read the editorials and the thinking behind Baum’s letters.)
Jim C. Hines
March 1, 2016 @ 4:14 pm
Thanks! And I’m hoping to get at least one series available more easily down there soon.
March 1, 2016 @ 4:31 pm
Yeah, there’s something really peculiar to Baum having enough awareness to realize that Europeans and their descendants committed some major crimes against the natives of North America, and that, naturally, they are pretty pissed about this…
… but then throw up his hands and say that clearly the only tenable solution is friggen genocide of the natives. Because making amends is too hard. (And apparently it’s preferable to commit mass murder than make (white) USAians do something difficult and costly.)
March 1, 2016 @ 5:49 pm
Nice article, Jim. I think you sum things up well.
There are some classic writers I simply can’t read because their attitudes permeate their work in a way I can’t ignore. Sexism is a biggie for me. When I was a kid, I even used to peek at publication dates of books, because I’d noticed that almost everything (with some amazing exceptions) published before the late 1960s or 70s, would likely have no girls in it at all, or be very sexist in how they were portrayed.
I’ve been told by a number of (mostly male) people that I’m too sensitive and that I *must* read these classics by writers I can’t stand if I want to be “literate” in the genre.
Well excuse me, but it’s hard to read something when I feel like it’s punching me in the face. Maybe if I lived 100 years or more hence, and sexism is just a historical curiosity that no one alive has actually experienced, I’d be able to “not take these works personally.” But the fact is, the attitudes they portray are too similar to ones I encountered growing up and to those held by people who still hold power in our society today.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t generally notice the other omissions in these classic works (including some of the ones I did like) such as the absence or stereotyping of anyone who wasn’t white, straight, fully abled etc. I think it really is easier to excuse or “forgive” something that doesn’t target your own group, which makes sense. But I wish people who haven’t encountered much in the way of prejudice against their own group in literature would refrain from telling those of us we have that we’re being petty or overly emotional for not liking some famous authors as much as they do.
March 2, 2016 @ 5:28 am
I have a persistent existential dread of finding out, decades from now, which wrong side of history I have been on. So to speak.
March 2, 2016 @ 11:16 am
I have been on the wrong side of history.. Luckily, I have managed to learn and change, and expect to need to continue the cycle as my life continues.
March 2, 2016 @ 12:21 pm
Just to give another argument for the award change, I think it’s good to move away from Lovecraft’s bust for the plain fact that the Fantasy genre has evolved and expanded in so many ways that it doesn’t seem right to have a single person being used to congratulate the best of a worldwide genre. Regardless of how his views and writings are interpreted, it just makes more sense to have something more symbolic for the award.
March 6, 2016 @ 4:05 am
Nice essay. I had no idea Baum was also a terrible racist. Thank you for trying to cultivate empathy among those who might not understand the terrible hurt a reader can experience, especially with classics.
I about facepalmed at Otto’s comment, though. I never cease to be amazed by how eager some white, straight men are to mansplain genocide of people of color, or sexism, or homophobia. They like to pretend it’s all in the past, and we’re so enlightened now, so there’s absolutely no reason that people of color or women should be uncomfortable with putting these authors on pedestals. If you have a problem, you’re just too sensitive! They’re so fixated on defending dead authors, but they have no empathy left for people who are trying to explain the real problems they face daily.
Jim C. Hines
March 6, 2016 @ 2:03 pm
Your comment about empathy…yeah. One of the people in the original discussion that prompted the article was all about empathy for these authors from a century ago, and the world would be such a better place if we could only have a little empathy…all this while completely ignoring the impact this kind of enshrined and staunchly defended bigotry has on people today.
Empathy for the dead isn’t a bad thing, but maybe we should include some empathy for the living, too?
March 6, 2016 @ 5:07 pm
YES. Empathy for the living.
I’m thinking of Mark Oshiro’s ConQuest experience (and I wouldn’t be surprised if you were also, as you wrote your essay):
[quote]Robin Bailey then responded by saying that anyone who spoke about Lovecraft’s racism should be considered “human garbage,” and said that Lovecraft was just a product of his time.
[quote] Gerrib confirmed that he believed that the Spaniards were “unfairly blamed” for the genocide of the indigenous cultures in Central America.
I think if we readers are always quick to excuse bigotry in historical figures, that ends up affecting our view of contemporary events…
There are still many tribes that have outstanding treaties that have not been honored by the US government, to say nothing of the terrible prejudices they must face. I live in a relatively progressive city, yet we still have Native American and black men being shot dead in the street for no reason (Seattle PD has been charged by the Justice Dept for violating minorities’ rights). It’s not a “theoretical” or “academic” problem.
But there are many people who always want to find an excuse that exonerates the majority culture, just like they want to excuse Baum or Lovecraft.
March 8, 2016 @ 4:26 pm
Note that Chris Gerrib has apologized in multiple venues. I don’t think he should be considered in at all the same category as Robin Bailey.
March 12, 2016 @ 5:21 am
Bully for him; I hope he learns from the experience (we all make mistakes). He still defended genocidal white explorers in front of a shocked crowd.
I might feel a little more forgiving if this kind of shit didn’t happen ALL the time. But it’s always, wah wah, you hurt this white dude’s feelings, not: “holy crap, you dehumanized an entire group of people!”