Sunday, June 10, 2012

Discussion: Racism in Classic Novels

El Filibusterismo

Recently some of us have been encountering issues with race in our public domain novels, which prompted Chris from Bookarama to start a discussion about racism in early twentieth-century novels. To mention it in the review or not to mention it? When do racial stereotypes ruin the book for you?

Chris: I was thinking of something last night and after Aarti's post today (Emily Fox-Seton by Francis Hodgson Burnett) I thought I'd email you guys. I'm having a hard time with Bat Wing by Sax Rohmer. The story is good but there is so much stereotyping and racism. It's so very, very bad! It looks like several of us are encountering that in our public domain picks. Is it me or is worse in early 20th century books? I've come across it in other books before and sometimes there is a purpose for it (Mark Twain, To Kill a Mockingbird) but this is racism for entertainment purposes only. It made me think, "Should I even review this?"

Aarti: Well, now I know to avoid Bat Wing for sure! I completely understand what you mean about the racism popping up a lot in the early 20th century--also the late 19th century. I think because this was when imperialism was at its height, so a lot of authors were writing under the influence of the White Man's Burden or something to that effect. Still really, really upsetting, though.

Chris: I was wondering if that was the case at that time. I'm thinking that authors were writing those books for white people so they fed off the fear of the unknown (foreigners) to keep them interested in the plot. I understand that was the thinking at the time but yikes! It reads terribly now.

And yes, not just a discussion of "racism is wrong" there are so many facets to it. Like do we learn something from these old ways of thinking? Should we bring attention to a book that doesn't appear to have any cultural value? And who decides that? Then there is the emotions of the reader, can you separate your emotions from your reading? It's so complicated.

It does take us away from it somewhat but I feel like I'm going to become a broken record: "Warning! Racism ahead!" whenever I write a review.

Aarti: Ooh, I like those questions! For instance--should Project Gutenberg have "priority" books that it converts digitally, and if so, should these sorts of books be prioritized?

Tasha: It is an issue in a lot of novels (Sax Rohmer's novels really are kinda racist). I don't like excusing it by saying they're a product of their times, but at the same time it seems unfair to take a book from the early 20th century and hold it up to the same standards of political correctness as we have (I'm not sure we can say novels today don't echo bigoted stereotypes in a way that people 100 years from now will find ridiculous).

Do you think the racism is more offensive when it's a big part of the plot, like with Sax Rohmer, instead of just using racist terms like "darkies," etc.?

Chris: Interesting question. I think, for me, the terms are more "oh Grandpa!" moments because they're the words of an old fashioned attitude. I can only imagine what will be offensive to people 100 years from now. But the thing that gets to me most is the dehumanizing. For example, there is a Chinese character and the narrator talks about the "dim look in his eye" and makes comments about his dog-like devotion to another character. Okay, so the guy is loyal to this person but if he was white would the writer used those terms to explain it? Then there is mention of another character, a Cuban of African descent, and even though the guy's name is Jim, the narrator refers to him as "the negro" several times.

It's too bad that Sax's novels are like that because the mystery was so good (there was a twist at the end that was really surprising).

Aarti: I totally get both your points, Tasha, on the "Yes, they're racist, and I'm not excusing them, but they also are reflecting their society at the time." So it's not so much saying, "Hey, that's racist," but maybe really more like what we're doing here--how much does that kind of writing impact a modern person's reading of a book, and is it possible (and worth it) to get past the stereotypes to see other aspects of the work? For example, Burnett didn't just stereotype the Indians in her book, she also really heavily stereotyped working class women (as being wonderful) and upper-class women (as being lazy and petty). So if we consider it not just from the race way but from a "What emotions were most stirred in me during my reading of this book?" it may be a more nuanced perspective than what I wrote up today about not being able to get through the book due to the ridiculousness of its portrayal.

Tasha: Do you two think authors were simply relying on stereotypes (both of class and race) as a narrative device or in the place of experience? Like with Mary Hastings Bradley, The Fortieth Door (see Chris' review here) is full of assumptions about the superiority of European culture to that of Egypt and Islam, but you can also tell there were things she admired about the culture, too. Whereas I'm not sure Sax Rohmer ever traveled to China (does anyone know?).

Chris: I don't think he did, or I can't see that info anywhere. I think a lot of the times it was in place of experience: "everyone believes this so it must be true." Hastings made the Egyptians the bad guys because making the English the bad guys wouldn't have been acceptable to her readers. But I did feel that she liked some things about the culture, like you did, and she at least visited the place. Sax was pretty awful. And it doesn't appear that Frances Hodgson Burnett went to India either. I think the more a writer actively participates in the culture they are writing about the more sympathetic they become. Another book I read recently was Edith Wharton's In Morocco (Bookarama). She had these planned visits with the well-to-do Moroccans where everyone sat around staring at each other and had awkward conversations. She comes off as very superior. Would she have had a different attitude if she had helped make a meal or something? I don't know but maybe she would have seen them as real people not just exhibits. (Though she doesn't seem like the hands-on type anyway.) On the opposite end is someone like Pearl Buck who loved China and the Chinese people.

I'm not sure what conclusion we can come to on this one. Yes, we should read these books knowing the attitudes of the times and despite our own feelings. But also is it always necessary to mention the racism in reviews? What do you think?

Aarti: I also don't know what conclusions we can really draw! I guess that's the thing about discussions around this sort of topic--it's hard for them to end in a way that is satisfying to modern readers.

I don't think that the racism always has to be brought up in books we review. I just had a very visceral reaction to the book I read and had to address it. I don't think it will always be like that. But I think if it strikes you as a component of the book, you can mention it. If it doesn't, then maybe not.

Tasha: I personally like to mention it, just because that's an unpleasant thing to be blindsided by, and I don't like to pretend I didn't notice it. But at the same time concepts of race change all the time and from place to place, so I try not to be all judgy about it (try being the operative word ;).

What about you--do you think it's important to mention racism in reviews?