Meta Monday: Books and Prejudices

MetaMondays5I remember the first time I read The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer. I was young—still in grammar school—and so the ugliness in it went over my head. It was just a hilarious, rollicking romp through Regency London. I didn’t notice the antisemitism, xenophobia and worship of a privileged and narrow social class.

The Grand Sophy is still a favorite of mine. So are lots of Heyer’s books. But now I read them with my eyes wide open.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is another problematic read. Deeply, disturbingly problematic. I think I was in fifth grade when I first tackled it, and even then I recognized the brutal and rampant racism. I kept reading regardless—and I still come back to the book—because the story of one woman’s rebellion against the strictures of her society and her fight to keep her family from starving (plus the price she paid for both) is just that compelling.

In general, I don’t have a problem spending my money on books with built-in prejudices—I decided that too many literary classics would be off limits if I did. Same thing goes for authors with prejudices, even if their books don’t reflect those views. (Hell, I’ve even joked in my synagogue about how I keep a list of my favorite antisemitic writers.)

But what about a problematic author who—unlike Heyer and Mitchell—is very much alive and current? Orson Scott Card’s anti-gay opinions and politics are well documented. I don’t know how much his prejudices have tainted his books; I don’t recall any homophobia in Ender’s Game. (But friends have advised me that it does show up in other works. The link above mentions them.) I’ve also learned a thing or two from his thoughts on writing. I’ve read, however, that he donates to groups that work against gay rights. For me, that’s a deal breaker. I don’t want to give him money to use against the LGBTQ community.

By the same token, I wonder if I would have kept buying P.D. James’s mysteries if I knew her voting record against gay and lesbian rights. Maybe? I don’t know if she was giving money to anti-gay causes. As it is, I’m just disappointed, because she seemed to write sympathetic gay characters. (There’s also one Adam Dalgliesh book of hers—Original Sin—that some reviewers on Amazon found implicitly antisemitic. I haven’t judged it for myself yet. I skipped that one out of cowardice.)

All that said, I try to remember that my own writing is far from perfect! I accept myself now as an aromantic lesbian, but I’m sure I’d be embarrassed to look back and read the stuff I wrote as a young woman still coming to terms with homosexuality. And even today, I struggle to make my writing more representative of the different races, religions and cultures that are all around me.

Anyway, that’s how I’ve been handling problematic books and authors. How do you feel about them? I’d love to hear your opinions and experiences—and not to judge you! This is a personal decision every reader makes. I don’t think there’s one right answer when it comes to dealing with (or ignoring) an author’s prejudices.

About Jenn Moss

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5 Responses to Meta Monday: Books and Prejudices

  1. Interesting question. I agree there is a difference between encountering the prejudices of writers long-dead and those who are not only alive, but actively pursuing discriminatory and repressive agendas. The latter I would tend to shun.

    As for deceased writers, I suppose one has to take their social and cultural background into account when reading. Casual sexist stereotyping, classism, racism, antisemitism can be understood in some cases as the author mindlessly parroting the current discourse. I don’t give such writers a free pass; that would be to ignore those writers through the ages who always were sensitive to injustice and inhumanity, but it won’t stop me e.g. reading Conan Doyle or Dickens.

    On a personal level, there have been cases where I’ve found the attitudes expressed by even long-dead writers so distasteful that I’ve just stopped reading. I abandoned Piers Plowman after a few pages because of his enthusiastic endorsement of wife-beating as a moral good (Conversely I found the nuanced and charged debate about relations between husband and wife in the Canterbury Tales less problematic.) I confess I haven’t been able to pick up Spencer’s Faerie Queene after happening to read about his recommendations for the brutal subjugation of Ireland.
    I suppose it’s an issue where we all have to draw our own personal lines.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jenn Moss says:

      Well spoken. I love what you have to say about a free pass.

      Yes, read the old books, prejudices and all. But that’s not the same as giving a free pass. As you point out, there are extraordinary people in every generation who rise above the background noise they were born into. They shame the rest of us as they advance the cause of human dignity.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First, I judge older works against the backdrop of when the were written. Hardly fair to use modern mores against older works… and honestly, if the story is good I tend not to care about the authors politics. I’m not in the LGBT community and have no dog in that hunt, personally, but as a Libertarian I tend to have a world view where everyone should mind their own damn business. As an author, my personal stance is I won’t write gay/lesbian/black/white/etc characters just to appease the SJW warriors who will always find fault and never be happy. I write what makes sense for the plot and the story. End result, I have a few characters who are/were openly gay and some it didn’t matter so I didn’t say. If the audience wants said character to be gay/writ all in their head I don’t give a rats arse. Overall, I think we accept literature as we do any other art, where being ‘good’ is enough. If I found out tomorrow the Picasso was a Nazi, would it make his work any less impactful? No, BUT I would certainly judge the hell out of HIM as a man.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jenn Moss says:

      Ooh, intriguing comment! I come at this from a different angle, I think. After all, I see myself as something of a social just warrior. 😉

      You bring up an interesting point about how much to reveal about our characters when it’s something not directly related to the story. I understand what you’re saying, and it’s another one of those things where I don’t think there’s one right answer.

      As a general rule for myself, I like to describe a character enough to give a sense of their race. Otherwise I think many readers (me included) default to white. And I like to give a sense of their orientation as well–even if it’s just a glimpse. Again, I think many readers will otherwise default to heterosexual. (Actually, my readers might default to gay or bi. Which is kind of awesome.)

      I also try to make differences in race, language, religion or orientation matter to some degree. Again, this is a personal choice, not something that’s necessary for every story out there.

      For example, Aric’s orientation hasn’t held him back much. But he hasn’t offered a formal marriage to Shoch either, so maybe we can infer that only a man and a woman can legally marry. Or there might be some issue with a Tantzi marrying a Tainted from Rokofar.

      As far as judging an author against their time–I mostly agree with Sarah above. I’ll often read an author regardless of their prejudices. But without quite giving a free pass, because every generation has those extraordinary people who rise above the prejudices of their culture and era.

      But you’re right, too, in that sometimes I find myself judging a work and a person differently. Every now and then a terrible human being might produce a noble, uplifting story!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Glad you appreciated my answer! I almost didn’t, since this is my professional (I hope) page etc and topics like this can be a minefield. I decided to bite the bullet though, and let the chips fall where they may. Ultimately it has to come down to the art. If Mother Teresa write science fiction that was garbage, I wouldn’t buy the second novel in the series no matter how awesome she was as an individual. And as far as how I judge peoples race/religion/creed, well I tend to judge them as people first. I didn’t always, but then I deployed to Iraq and found out one soldier in my command was gay. I realized that his blood bled for the flag just like mine and it was sort of a wake up moment. Once you MEET someone of the niche group in question, it will often ‘convert’ most sane people. I don’t discount the religious angle for people who believe it is a sin, but even those will reach the point of liking the ‘person’ separate from the ‘sin’ after having a face to put to a name. I truly believe that’s how you’ll end prejudices. Real normal people having non judgmental, rational conversations that don’t include name calling. Watch what’s going on in USA politics, Trump and Clinton fans/voters cant even talk to each other. It is so polarized they call names and make generalities. I can see it because I’m the token Libertarian outsider. But when these people meet as people FIRST then the conversations change. I went to a military college and majored in military history. My advisor was a die hard liberal lesbian. We disagreed on dang near everything BUT she could accept opposing ideas. She’d not fail you if you disagreed, she’d only fail you if you fail to support your beliefs. That taught me a lot. In fact, I was one of the only students in the department who she came to a draw with on a topic. We agreed that our facts and thoughts were spot on, it came down to interpretation. We read good data and came to opposite conclusions. It CAN happen, but you have to accept that possibility and most people only want echo chambers. I blame technology, we’ve forgotten how to TALK to each other. But I’ve rambled enough for one post! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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