#68: On Racism, Sexism, Xenophobia, and Other Necessary Aspects of the Golden Age

Racist paradigm

So the other week Kate at CrossExaminingCrime published this interview with one of the editors at Dean Street Press in which it was mentioned that a potentially-offensive racial term had been edited out of one of the DSP books, with said editor saying that doing so was “the right decision”.  Being unhelpful as I am, I picked up on this as a sentiment I completely disagree with – I don’t think it was the right decision at all – and a few of us kicked around the points in the comments for a while (I’m sorry to say that it was a very adult and mature set of comments, in case anyone was hoping to encounter a flame war).  I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and thought I’d try and get my thoughts into some sort of order over here so that I’m not filling up Kate’s blog with yet more comments on this stuff.

I feel I should make it clear up front that my issue is in no way with Dean Street Press – they’re far from the only publisher doing this, and all are well within their rights to put out whatever material they see fit, I just think it’s a point that needs addressing, that there is a platform in favour of these books being retained in their original form which is too easy to overlook when under the impression that only one course of action is acceptable.

Hopefully it goes without saying (but let’s not take the risk) that I in no way support racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia or any other form of oppression.  I’m a very live and let live kinda guy.  But I do think that editing references to these things out of books whose primary intention is to entertain is an unconscionable act that shows both insensitivity and ignorance.  I have in the real world (but so far not online…woo!) been subjected to quite vituperative abuse aimed squarely at my race, my gender, and my sexuality, and am all too aware of the harm this language does and these attitudes cause.  Nevertheless, the reactionary opposition to this language in GAD novels is conflating two entirely separate things in a manner that manages to miss the point of both of them.

There are several points to address, so bear with me.

The clear fear, as I said at the time, is that there seems to be a confusion between “this has been published” and “the publisher of this book shares this view”.  The specious reasoning here is hopefully clear: three books I browsed in Waterstones this weekend featured the murder of a child as a key plot point and two promised alarmingly inventive serial killers unlike anything I’ve previously experienced, for instance, but we’re not worried about those homicidal publishers heading out to sate their bloodlust.  Equally, the authors of these books should not come under similar suspicion even though they’re the ones who dreamed this up in the first place.  It is after all, we’d be reminded if we raised this objection, just a story.

The second issue is one of misrepresentation – I seem to remember (but I’m too lazy to check the details) that in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code a furore was raised over its portrayal of an albino gentleman as a brutal assassin.  Apparently it was felt that a reminder needed to be posted that this was not representative of all albinos.  Now here we’re nearer the mark – unflattering representations of minorities in popular culture is always going to touch a nerve, even though in Brown’s case there’s arguably a point behind that particular choice (not albinism per se, but something that places the character outside of the mainstream of society).  Here we’re at the edge of wandering into ignorance, and the fear is that we believe the first thing we’re told – that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that if enough people put their religion as ‘Jedi’ on census forms then it will be officially recognised, take your pick.

And so to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

I do not contest that some of the language used in novels from this era would be considered inflammatory today.  No publisher today would put out a book with the title Ten Little Niggers, especially if written by a middle-class white lady in her late 40s, in the same way that a novel which made cheap jokes at the expense of Jewish characters on pecuniary grounds wouldn’t be tolerated.  Equally, laughing at foreigners because they’re so different and don’t speak the language correctly, what, is quite correctly not going to be tolerated.  I do not lament the passing of these notions from detective fiction, but I do maintain that they are important for the history and representation of both the form itself and the wider issues they address.

It’s perfectly fair to say that there is nothing in these books that is trying to promote racist, sexist, xenophobic or similar attitudes – they are not pretending to be dissections of ideology, these are a few stray mentions amidst a complex murderous scheme which have no overall bearing on the plot.  The counter-argument here is, of course, to quote Thomas Paine that “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right” – in short, if these things are published without opposition then there’s the creeping dread that these attitudes steadily achieve some collective momentum and will force open doors that we’re still as a society struggling to nail shut once and for all.  But, as Paine concludes, “time makes more converts than reason”: allow these things to remain, allow them to be seen in their proper context, and it will be easily understood that – along with a house not having its own telephone, or the fact that the crime can’t just be looked up on CCTV or solved with forensic pathology – it’s a facet of a story that belongs to a different time.

To take a recent example, the BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None had no compunction over a character remarking something akin to “at the bottom of every problem you always find Jews”.  Was there widespread criticism of this line in the aftermath?  No.  In fact, I haven’t seen a single reference to it apart from the one that I made in my own laudatory post on the dramatisation.  Anyone watching understood that it was a comment appropriately contemporary to the attitudes of the time – attitudes of intolerance and ignorance and naivety, but nevertheless a realistic historical beat from the era.  The history of marginalisation faced by certain sections of society and the historical cataloguing of this marginalisation are the two points that are getting confused in this debate, and this example demonstrates perfectly how to treat an audience as enlightened and informed, how it is not necessary to automatically assume offense on their part and so rush in to quell the flames before their tiny, obstreperous brains get a chance to light up.

As I said in the comments of Kate’s post, I fail to see how the issues surrounding these points are resolved by bowdlerising them out of history.  They will always be uncomfortable, and are especially prescient given the recent controversies around the forthcoming Academy Awards, but by proscribing the mentioning them in all their forms we run the risk of never having the option to engage with them intelligently.  If I tell you that an idea is too complex for you to understand and so refuse to allow you access to it, I am displaying at the very least a remarkable insensitivity towards you.  Undoubtedly some of the attitudes under discussion here may well have been promoted in the material that mentions them, but then the concept of context comes into play: it can clearly be determined if such an agenda is being forced on the reader, and they have the option of deciding if that is enough to dissuade them from reading further.  But they should at the very least be trusted with that option.

I apologise if this seems like some of agenda-fueled jeremiad, that’s really not my intention.  It’s not even an individual liberties issue for me – the old wherever will this end?/slippery slope argument – it’s simply a matter of it being plainly wrong.  You are, however, most welcome to disagree.  Let’s talk…

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13 thoughts on “#68: On Racism, Sexism, Xenophobia, and Other Necessary Aspects of the Golden Age

  1. I agree with everything you say, JJ. Censorship is wrong. Eliminating all traces of our ugly past does not eliminate the fact that it happened OR the disgusting beliefs that fueled these writings. Perhaps being jarred out of our complacency by coming across this evidence of casual racism might even serve to remind the enlightened among us just how painful a chord the use of these words can strike. (That was their purpose in the ATTWN adaptation.) and YOU may not want to discuss “the slippery slope,” but once you push the first domino . . . So, you are correct in what you say.

    Except . . . I can’t forget the reaction of a black student when I taught Huckleberry Finn. Twain was the subject of my senior dissertation (I wanted Dickens, but he wasn’t offered during my senior year of college), and Huck Finn was my clear favorite. But nowadays we prepare our students for what they’ll find: a novel that freely observes the racist, pre-Civil War South in all its “Old Glory,” with pages liberally strewn with racist epithets. We discussed this a great deal before we read the book, then we studied the novel. At the end, this girl expressed, with great sensitivity and intelligence, how much happier she would be if she had not read this book. Every page hurt her, and the creation of an angel/saint who happened to go by the name of Nigger Jim did nothing to mitigate that. She saw no good in this book being taught.

    While I respectfully disagree with her, I have to consider the pain she felt. I feel it too when I read the casual slurs that it seems EVERYBODY embraced back in the day regarding my own religious background or sexuality. I’m a big boy. I can take it. But I wonder, as I’m sure this young lady did, how it strikes someone who agrees with those horrible sentiments.

    None of that changes my mind about your stand. I still believe that censorship is wrong. I do think that, instead of excising the offending remark, the editors of Dean Street Press could have issued a warning about the cultural attitudes which the reader was about to encounter, kind of like the warning on a package of cigarettes. This would allow discerning readers to, well, discern! 🙂 I don’t mean it for something like Emily Brent’s anti-Semitic remarks. Those were meant to jar, and they did, and in doing so they revealed so much about her character. But the casual lines found in Death in the Clouds, where two perfectly nice people on a date discuss hating “nightclubs and Negroes,” something that was written to be charming and now is anything but – well, perhaps, rather than editing it out, as new copies of the book have, we could be served a warning along with the unexpurgated text. Still, I think you might find an argument from quite reasonable people that such filth need not fall under the mantle of preserving artistic integrity.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Inevitably some books are going to be guilty of this to a greater degree than others, with a greater emphasis put on the distasteful elements, and potentially an element of warning may help. My fear is that this then singles out these books for those more alarmist sections of the media or people online. I don’t know what the US equivalent of the Daily Mail is, but it’s a UK newspaper that is convinced of two things, 1) it’s all the immigrants’ fault and 2) everything would be better if only Princess Diana were still alive. That type of mind is going to leap on a bandwagon and demonise anything mentioned in such terms…and that’s exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about.

      It’s a point that’s worth considering in a wider context, though, you’re completely right about that. I’m narrowly focussing on GAD for brevity and my own blinkered preferences, but there’s obviously a far wider picture to think about; I have no idea how to contend with that…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sergio – I wasn’t entirely sure if I was miles off the point, and having wise heads like yourself support this point of view makes me feel a lot more confident in it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I pretty much agree with the opinions expressed here. I too believe that censorship is wrong. However I can also understand people who are offended by such things.

    A while ago I picked up a book by John Buchan, I believe it was “The Three Hostages” and I was shocked by how bigoted and outright racist the whole novel was. For example we are informed that a certain character has “the look of a Dago”, and unsurprisingly said character turns out to be the villain of the piece. There was also a rather disgusting scene involving African musicians which are described like this: “There was a bunch of niggers dressed up like monkeys…”,
    Now, this was the moment where I stopped reading, and I usually don’t really care much about political correctness, I mean one of my favourite books is American Psycho and that is as politically uncorrect as it gets, however I just saw no point of continuing since there was not the slightest hint of irony or criticism regarding this sort of sentiment. Interestingly Buchan rarely gets mentioned in these kind of discussions, maybe because he is not very widely read any more, but I found this book so much worse than any of the other examples usually mentioned, mainly because it was not just some bits and pieces, short lines of dialogue, but this sort of thinking permeated the whole book and it seemed clear that this is the author himself talking, expressing his own world view.

    But then there are of course people who seem to take pleasure in being offended. Who just seem to search out this sort of texts or films or whatever, just so they can say: Oh, this is sooo horrible! I’m deeply hurt! And this kind of people would always find something to be offended by, that is just how they are. If we start listening to them and bowing to their demands we could as well stop all kinds of creative expression, because there would always be something that could be interpreted as hurtful or incorrect or cruel or whatever you prefer to call it.

    In my country, in Germany, there was an occasion last year were hundreds of books were burnt, PUBLICLY!, because they contained politically incorrect phrasing. Yes, that’s right, several do-gooders, extreme leftists, well how should we call them, maybe they were just good decent people for all I know, thought it right to destroy these books, because they did not agree with parts of their content. Apparently the irony of the whole thing was lost on them, and it was only afterwards that some journalists pointed out that they were doing just what the Nazis had done decades ago. So, there was some small outcry after all and they did not repeat this atrocity again. But nonetheless I find this story pretty shocking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, some of Buchan’s stuff is startlingly unenlightened, but then it does come from a very different time and is a very particular type of book.

      And, yes, you’re absolutely right that some people will be offended no matter what. Are such people the critical mass leading to the editing out of such material? It would be interesting to know the proper rationale behind the decision of any current publisher who has edited out offensive language.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Our society is becoming more and more Victorian. Anything that isn’t nice has to be suppressed. Dean Street Press is no better than the Victorians who wanted to put fig leaves on naughty paintings or remove all the wicked words from Shakespeare. It’s sad. They’re treating readers like small children. It’s insulting, and cowardly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s worth considering that DSP are far from the only people doing this, it seems to be something of a trend in publishing these days, with (in my experience) typically only smaller, independent publishers retaining the potentially-offensive words/passages.

      Is this because they know they’re more likely to be sought out by enthusiasts who are less likely to be bothered by such things? Is it because they feel more of an obligation to the original text? Who knows. Either way, it’s messed up.

      Like

      • Yes, a lot of publishers are setting themselves up as moral gatekeepers these days. Wordsworth is one.

        The big problem is that censorship is addictive. It’s like an alcoholic not being able to stop at just one drink. It will start with the occasional word. Then it will be a paragraph here and there. Then entire sub-plots will disappear. Because let’s face it – as far as the political correctness enthusiasts are concerned almost everything in almost every book published before about 1990 is politically incorrect. They won’t stop until every trace of political incorrectness is erased.

        The thing about slippery slope argument is – they always turn out to be correct!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. JJ, I absolutely agree. I remember when this subject came up regarding Huckleberry Finn and the “cleansing” of that text. As Sergio, and others, mentioned, it would be better to offer context in an introduction than to remove such language from the text. It is important to see where we have come from, how far we have come, and, as so many events here in the United States continue to prove, how very far we have to go in how we as human beings treat one another. Erasing the bad treatment, negative language, and negative representations from our books doesn’t fix anything. It makes seem as though we’re pretending it never happened.

    Liked by 3 people

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