I read a post at Tor.com recently that got me thinking. The post in question – Problematic Classics – discusses how some classic books don’t age well, especially when it comes to racism and bigotry. The author writes about the conflict felt when rereading something from childhood and discovering that it’s not quite what you remember. The stories that were once enchanting and mesmerizing are now dark and disturbing when you realize the way some people are viewed and described.
Stepping away from Sci-Fi and Fantasy for a moment, an example of this can be found in Tom Sawyer. This one comes to mind because I reread it a few years ago and, while I remembered some of racist terminology, I wasn’t prepared for just how commonplace it is in the text. It made me cringe when reading it…I mean, it’s a great novel, but it was definitely an uncomfortable read.
But I got through it by reminding myself that this book is a product of its time, a reflection of society, of people, of attitudes. It wasn’t written to be racist. Twain was an open-minded individual. Not perfect, by any means, but he was progressive and tried to treat people fairly. The words used where commonplace, reflected how people spoke and thought. That’s just being honest. And really, I think it shows progress that I felt uncomfortable reading it.
And I think that’s the point here. We should all be uncomfortable with how things used to be, but at the same time we also have to accept these books as a reminder of our past. “Those who forget the past…”, right?
Of course, that also got me thinking about myself and the stories I write. Most of my output is science fiction, weird fiction, or horror, and I haven’t delved into race or gender issues. But if I were to write a period piece, how to I address these things? Do I write authentic dialogue from the late 1800s or early 1900s? Do I portray women and minorities as they were treated back then, or do I allow my progressive, modern ideals to slip into the story? And if I do that, does that mean I’m not being honest?
Race and gender issues, any issues for that matter, can be addressed in any genre and in a variety of methods, but can we still be historically accurate without being overly offensive? I think it’s possible. The writer has to be careful, though, and choose their words carefully. Tone and intent matter, as well.
When it comes down to it, writers are artists, and artists can’t be afraid to express what’s on their minds. I feel that we also have a responsibility to be as honest as we can, to use the right context for the story we’re telling.
Racism and sexism, offset by acceptance and equality. Writers have to be able to tell their stories. On the other side of the page, readers have to consider the writer’s intent. What are they trying to say? The words on the page are not necessarily what the writer thinks or feels. They are conveying a character, writing what the they hear in their heads. Readers can’t judge the writer on the content of his or her story.
What it comes down to is that we can’t censor the past, nor can we censor the present. A book like Tom Sawyer or The Once and Future King contain language that, today, we find offensive. But we can’t let that stop us from enjoying the story for what it is. They are snapshots of our past, for good or ill. They broaden our horizons by showing us how we used to be and reminds us how far we’ve come.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.