I haven't been reading enough books lately, so I joined a local fantasy book discussion group. A recent meeting was on The Treasure of Green Knowe, one of a much-loved series of English children's fantasies. I read the book and didn't much like it. I am probably too old for much-loved children's fantasies, though I like Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching (YA) series.
The problem with The Treasure of Green Knowe is not my mild dislike. It's the racial prejudice. The book is set during the Napoleonic Wars, at a time when slavery was illegal in England, but still legal in the West Indies. A kind naval captain buys a boy slave in the West Indies and brings him home as a companion/servant for his blind daughter. The boy is brave, clever, cheerful, and kind, but he speaks broken English and talks about “juju,” which is—apparently—the English idea of African religion.
(Other members of the book group pointed out that the boy, taken from Africa to slavery at an early age, knows very little about his ancestral religion. He is making up his idea of Africa magic, from what little he remembers.)
The boy has been through a lot—born in Africa, carried into slavery with his parents, his parents killed in a West Indies slave rebellion. We get little sense of what this felt like to him. He is the clever servant out of Roman plays and The Barber of Seville, and he is the person-of-color sidekick.
The book is copyrighted 1958. The boy is a positive character. I am willing to cut the author some slack.
I am not willing to cut her slack about her representation of Gypsies/Romani. They are dark, dangerous, criminal, and inevitably, one of them—a woman—is a fortune teller.
I got called out on a panel at this year's Wiscon for using the term “Gypsy.” I read up on the Romani after the con. Some Romani dislike “Gypsy.” I figure people have the right to pick their own names, so I have switched to Romani.
But I am going to use “Gypsy” to discuss the term itself. I think it's still in transition to being unacceptable in the general culture. Minnesota Public Radio still uses it, when talking about the influence of Romani music on twentieth-century classical composers and when talking about Verdi's Il Trovatore.
I think one problem is the US Romani community, which is the largest in the world, keeps a low profile. For most Americans, “Gypsies” are figures out of fiction and the movies. We don't realize the Romani are real, and prejudice against them in Europe is real and serious.
This leads me back to The Treasures of Green Knowe. What do we do about much-loved books using stereotypes that can harm people in the real world?
I am not going to talk about great works of literature that are—or appear to be—prejudiced. Such works are inescapable. We have to confront them over and over. We can’t slide past their problems. In addition, I tend to believe that the greatest art has a humanity that does not fit well with stereotypes and prejudice. Shakespeare makes a Jew the villain of The Merchant of Venice and then gives Shylock a great speech in defense of the humanity of all people: “Hath not a Jew eyes …”
The argument of the play—Portia’s argument—is for mercy. Shylock is wrong to want revenge, but we understand why he wants revenge. Depending on my mood and the production I see, I can side either with Portia or Shylock.
I want to talk about minor works like The Treasure of Green Knowe, books we like or love, but which are flawed by prejudice.
I reread four of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels recently, because I was looking for something light, not a great work of art, but entertainment. The books are clever, well-written, and entertaining, and the anti-Semitism in them is poisonous. The class prejudice is also ugly. In three of the four books I read, the villain was working class or lower middle class. I forget the villain in the fourth book. Of course Lord Peter, the rich and over-bred scion of a ruling-class family, is wonderful, as are the working-class and rural people who know their places, though they are less wonderful than Lord Peter.
Because I am a creature of my time, I was appalled by the anti-Semitism, but far less bothered by the class prejudice.
I managed to read four of the Wimsey novels, even though I spotted the prejudice early on. They are seductive. When I was done, I felt the way you do when you have eaten too much chocolate: ashamed and faintly ill.
Now we come to H. P. Lovecraft. The World Fantasy Award—the physical object that authors put on their shelves—is a bust of Lovecraft, and the Cthulhu Mythos has experienced a recent revival. Lovecraft is an important figure in the history of horror and dark fantasy, though not a good writer. Instead, he was a man with impressive demons and enough skill to show the demons to us.
The author David Nickle writes:
I'd make the case that Lovecraft's fiction—and Lovecraftian horror—depends on the xenophobia that was endemic to Lovecraft's work to the point that without it, many of his stories lose their unique and uniquely profound effect. "The Horror in Red Hook" is a direct channel of Lovecraft’s loathing of newcomers to New York City; the real horror of "The Call of Cthulhu" is not the octopus-headed demigod that emerges from his underwater city to kill all the people, but the people themselves—all either eugenically unfit denizens of the bayou or 'primitive' island cultures whose religious practices amount to a kind of proactive nihilism. The manifestation of Nyarlathotep in the eponymous story is that of a black man bearing trinkets, who seduces the good white folk of America into authoring their own demise.
China Mieville, who has won the World Fantasy Award, writes something similar:
(Lovecraft's racism) goes further, in my opinion, than "merely" being a racist.... Lovecraft's oeuvre, his work itself, is inspired by and deeply structured with race hatred.... It is racism itself that raises in Lovecraft a "poetic trance".
So what do we do about Lovecraft? First of all, it seems to me, his bust should not be used for the World Fantasy Award. The Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor won the award and was made very uncomfortable when she realized how racist Lovecraft was. Who wants the bust of a racist on their shelf? It doesn't seem like an honor.
It isn't enough to say he's important to fantasy. He isn't. Insofar as he matters, it's as a founder of modern horror. Modern fantasy goes back to nineteenth-century children's books and to The Lord of the Rings. Other sources include E. T. A. Hoffman, the Grimm Brothers, William Morris for his fantasies and his translation of The Volsunga Saga, and the composer Richard Wagner.
(If you want to talk about a great artist who was a bigot, go to Wagner. He is not responsible for the Nazis, who liked his work, but he is responsible for his own anti-Semitism. However, I said I was going to stay away from great art.)
In addition, Lovecraft isn't a good writer, though there is something going on in his fiction that touches many of us, and that should be studied. If we are not horrified by other humans, as Lovecraft was, what is it about the Cthulhu Mythos that horrifies us now?
I recently signed a petition urging World Fantasy to replace the bust of Lovecraft with a bust of Octavia Butler. Butler wrote SF, rather than fantasy, so she may not be the best choice. But there must be an alternative to Lovecraft. Put a fairy or the Frankenstein monster on the award, if it isn't possible to find an appropriate author.
The problem of Lovecraft's appeal remains. What do you do when you really like work that is (a) not really good and (b) has opinions you disapprove of?
The Cthulhu Mythos can be fun in the hands of other writers. I'm not in favor of throwing the monster out. But we may decide that Lovecraft himself should not be kept—or only kept with reservations.
I guess I am arguing that we need to be aware of what we read, and we should pay attention when other people tell us there's a problem with a work of fiction. We may decide we still want to read a Peter Wimsey mystery or a Georgette Heyer romance. Most people want to take an occasional vacation from serious thinking and high art. But it's a good idea to be aware that we are eating problematic chocolate. You can take a vacation with Terry Pratchett, who does not share the racism of Sayers or the class prejudice of Heyer and manages to combine serious issues with entertainment.
I don’t think it’s possible to escape prejudice in art, whether it is minor or major. Frederick Engels says somewhere that all oppression begins with the oppression of women and children. Sexism is foundational. It is based in the family, which is the basic human social unit, and it pervades human societies. Class prejudice has been with us since the Neolithic, when it became possible to pile up wealth, thus creating social classes.
But I am not willing to throw out all the art that is tainted by sexism or class prejudice, which brings us back to reading critically. As I said before, I think minor works are likely to be more tainted; and because they are entertainment—beach reading—we may not take the problems with them seriously. It’s only a mystery. It’s only science fiction.
Warner Brothers has released their classic cartoons on DVD. They included cartoons with racist stereotypes and an introduction by Whoopie Goldberg, pointing out that this kind of racism used to be common and accepted, but it is not acceptable now. Maybe this is the answer: forewords that discuss stereotypes, put them in context, and tell the reader this is no longer acceptable. At least the foreword would serve as a warning to people who don't want to deal with racist stereotypes.
In the meantime, pay attention to what you read, and recognize how harmful ideas in light and popular fiction can be.
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