DISCUSSION: Unacceptable views?

I was reading a very interesting discussion last night on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog (which generally reviews and discusses romance novels) which stemmed from one of the reviewer’s low rating of The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer – a book which many readers would regard as a classic Regency romance novel. It has always been one of my favourites of Heyer’s novels, mainly because I find it very funny.

But the thing that started all the discussion (which was fascinating) was SarahSB’s hatred for, in particular, a caricatured Jewish moneylender character who is described in opprobrious terms. It wasn’t just the anti-Semitic nature of the portrayal that bothered her, it was the fact that it was also so stereotyped. Much of the discussion which followed was trying to consider whether we ought to read books written in less enlightened times through the eyes of today or through the eyes of someone of Heyer’s upbringing and education in her era.

I have to say that the incident has never previously bothered me, partly, I think, because I first read the book when I was a very uncritical teenage reader. Every time I’ve re-read the book since, I have such a residual fondness for the book and the characters that I’ve only ever seen Goldhanger primarily as a villain, not as a badly stereotyped Jewish villain. But, as one of the commenters mentioned, we shouldn’t excuse inexcusable attitudes on the part of our favourite authors, even if such attitudes were commonplace at the time of writing, but we should be alert to these issues during our reading. I’m sure that when I re-read The Grand Sophy, the Goldhanger episode will bother me a lot more than it has done previously. The anti-Semitism in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Whose Body? annoyed me more on a recent re-read than it had done in previous re-readings, so perhaps I am getting more sensitive to such unacceptable portrayals now.

So my question is, is there any authorial opinion or view expressed in a book through character portrayal which will lead you to (even if only mentally) throwing the book against a wall? Or if not, can you excuse their view(s) as being a function of their society or education? Or do you not notice*? And then do you avoid other books by the same writer as a result?


*For example, when reading Thirteenth Child, I might not have noticed the lack of Native American-equivalent characters (being British) had someone not pointed it out in a review: once it had been brought into the open, the absence was glaring.)

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15 Responses to DISCUSSION: Unacceptable views?

  1. You raise some really important points Ela – I must admit, when I re-read a Sayers book recently I found that I was steeling myself emotionally and intellectually in advance against those elements that I knew a priori would be hard to take, juts so that I could enjoy those aspects I still like. So rather than throw the book across the room I find myself, when I know it is going to be an issue, having to bargain away certaion aspects in advance. In the case of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ it is very easy to see the use of language as being a product of its time, others of course much less so. But turning away from these things is not the answer either of course – so we have to challenge, and confront as we try to understand. It’s the only way to affect change surely.

    • Ela says:

      One of the reasons (amongst others) I do read Sayers is because she evokes a past way of life so effortlessly, even if, sometimes, that includes points of view or opinions which make us wince. I think one has to accept that writers are the way they are, whilst also acknowledging their nasty views: it’s a shame when Sayers, to continue the example, is anti-Semitic when she writes so well about sexism. But all of us have our own blind spots and inconsistencies, I think, and we all do have our own “triggers”, too, so that what might upset one person wouldn’t another.

      In The Day They Came to Arrest the Book, by Nat Hentoff, it’s pointed out that although Twain uses “nigger” constantly to describe Jim and other slaves in Huckleberry Finn, it’s within the context of a positive and sympathetic portrayal of Jim in particular. So I, as a privileged white person, don’t have so much of an issue with the word when it’s not meant to denigrate. Where I do have an issue with such words is when they’re used (for example in Dornford Yates’ books) to stereotype, denigrate and villify others.

  2. Andrew R. Davidson says:

    Very glad to see someone else mentioning Huckleberry Finn. I get very annoyed by people who can’t see past the racist language to the anti-racist sentiment.
    Like your experience, Emma, I always read Fagin in Oliver Twist as a villain who happened to be Jewish rather than as a stereotypical Jew. However, Dickens himself grew so ashamed of the depiction that he made a point of presenting a sympathetic Jew in Our Mutual Friend to redress the balance.
    When reading early twentieth-century fiction I shrug of references to ‘nigger minstrels’ on the grounds that that’s what they were called at the time. When Richard Hannay describes someone as having ‘a touch of the tar brush’, though, I shudder a little and wonder whether John Buchan is expressing his own or his narrator’s attitudes or merely using language that was so mainstream as to be almost unnoticed and certainly unexceptionable.
    One thing that really annoys me in Victorian writers is the assumption that red hair equates to ugliness.

    • Ela says:

      With respect to Dickens, I read recently (on Wikipedia, admittedly) that Dickens had been criticised during the serialisation of Oliver Twist about his portrayal of Fagin, and during the latter part of the novel made far fewer references to the fact that the character was Jewish. Not sure how valid this is since I’ve not read the novel, but it’s interesting to see that Dickens only noticed when it was pointed out to him.

      It is difficult in older books to separate what the author may have thought and believed from the attitudes expressed by their characters or by the society around them. That said, I also dislike historical novels where protagonists have anachronistically enlightened views or behaviour, since it’s just not realistic.

      Red hair = ugliness? How intriguing (though given the insulting use of “ginger” nowadays, things evidently haven’t changed much).

  3. Niranjana says:

    Interesting issue, and one which I grapple with very often. For authors who aren’t overtly focused on race, I think I (sort of) separate the writer’s story-telling ability from the racist sentiment. I don’t want to close myself off from authors whose work I like, but I can’t ignore this aspect of their writing either, and the only way I can reconcile the two is by making that separation. I do this for Christie a *lot*
    On the subject of red hair: I’m thinking of Anne of Green Gables, who dyed her hair green rather than stay a redhead…

    • Ela says:

      I agree – I do this for Dornford Yates, whose writing I do like, but whose views about foreigners and the ungrateful working classes are appallingly snobbish – Christie is, I think, less overt.

      Laughing at your Anne comment – but of course she wants to dye her hair black, and is horrified when it turns green!

  4. Jenny says:

    I can usually deal with offensive attitudes in books that are old, because I have no real way of knowing how widely acceptable those attitudes were in those times. I’m far less tolerant of the same sorts of things in modern books, or in books written by authors I’m predisposed to dislike.

    • Ela says:

      Yes, I think one is much more inclined to ignore or gloss over problematic aspects in older books, since one does have to take into account prevailing attitudes and beliefs. For instance, even writers who were able to consider women as equally capable intellectually as men, they were unable to consider that the working classes were anything but intrinsically different.

  5. amymckie says:

    Fantastic post and discussion here. I’m always more apt to forgive issues in older books, though can’t help but still bring them up / point them out. Also though I find if I read something as a child I’m less likely to remember the problematic aspects and less likely to notice them even on rereading until they’re pointed out to me. Like the Chronicles of Narnia books, it took someone pointing it out for me to realize how religious they were – sad right?!

    • Ela says:

      Yes, I agree absolutely about reading as a child, since one doesn’t have the experience to pick out aspects of the book which may be morally troublesome. It’s interesting that you should point out the Narnia books, since the overt religion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (in comparison to, say, The Silver Chair) makes me less inclined to re-read it as an adult. Mind you, the weird derision Lewis has for, say, vegetarianism (Eustace’s sanctimonious parents are vegetarians) is odd to read as an adult nowadays.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      • amymckie says:

        LOL OK now if I reread it I’ll be noticing that. I hadn’t recognized it previously!! Ahhh it almost makes me wish I’d not read as a child so that I wouldn’t have not noticed all of this!

      • Ela says:

        I wouldn’t have noticed it had it not been for the Literary Omnivore (I think) who mentioned it in her review of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but I quite see that it’s a bizarre negative character trait!

  6. celawerd says:

    I think this is an interesting concept to think about. My rule of thumb is that everyone has a right to their own opinion UNLESS they are intentionally disrespecting another view point OR bringing harm to others. I know there is a lot of grey area there, but you have to take each instance individually.

    • Ela says:

      Well, I was reading recently on Wikipedia about the ‘Gor’ books (a series of fantasy novels) by John Norman, who is a professor of philosophy and a classical scholar (according to the Gor Wikipedia entry). These books have come in for a lot of criticism for the way in which women are treated in the novels, and I have to say that I would not read them because of this. However detailed the world-building might be, and however much Norman may be entitled to his opinion, expressed in these books, I consider that, by buying one of his books, the reader contributes to Norman’s profits from the fictional depiction of the degradation of women.

      You’re right that one has to take into account the circumstances, but you also have to wonder why the author is writing in this way and what they choose to depict.

  7. Love Quotes says:

    The rule in anthropology is: “judge a person by their time and culture, not yours.” It is a rule that I try and live by. So to judge an author by our standards today is unfair.

    On the other hand, that is not to say that we let works come to us unfiltered. Many books were meant for the fires of progress simply because they cannot live in more enlightened times. (not burning them literally, of course)

    At the end of the day it comes down to intent. If an author meant to demean a ethnicity by stereotyping, it is not worthy of our times. If the author meant to protray real or funny situations based off of the culture of the day, we can let it stand as the naiveté of the time.

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