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Questions to ask about problematic classics

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message 1: by Dara (new)

Dara (cmdrdara) | 2702 comments Over on Tor, Matt Mikalatos discusses 4 questions to ask about reading problematic classics:

1. Is this a work I can continue to recommend to others?
2. Is this a work I can continue to enjoy privately?
3. Is there another work that doesn’t have these problems, but occupies the same space?
4. Can I create a work that is a corrective to the problematic work I love?

These are a solid start (4 is a bit more specialized. I'm not a writer so it doesn't apply to me). Personally, I tend to stay away from classics for many of the reasons Mikalatos talks about. The casual racism, sexism, and homophobia is too much of a detraction from the story too much for me to spend my free time on. But these stories still have merit and are classics for a reason. It's also a bit unfair to judge works from a different time with 21st century moral values. So it's a hard position.

Problematic classics have been discussed before but I am curious to know: What do you guys do when you come across problematic classics? Do you still recommend the book but with caveats? Do you abandon them completely? How do you enjoy books written by authors who don't share your values?


message 2: by Rick (last edited Aug 27, 2018 12:59PM) (new)

Rick | 2952 comments First question is...'why do I consider this problematic'? Is it the work? Is it me? Am I being provincial? Living in my bubble?

I've said this before but I see a tendency here and in general in SF to be outwardly accepting of wild things - alien societies etc - but to be very unaccepting of fiction written in a different time with attitudes that don't mirror early 21st century liberal Western mores ('liberal' in the philosophical, not US political sense). To wit, this quote:


How do you enjoy books written by authors who don't share your values?


Think about that - if something doesn't share your values, it's unenjoyable? Outside the pale? "problematic"? To me, reading is about expanding my world in a vicarious manner, especially SFF because I can't experience alien societies or fantasy worlds. Some works might push my boundaries but to me that's a good thing. It makes me think - why does this make me uncomfortable? Is the author doing this for a reason? Is it simply that such a thing (say, Tolkein's characterization of Sauron's Southrons as 'dark') a product of the time? Or is it something else?

The upshot is that much of this criticism comes off as if the time and place in which we live is somehow the only acceptable, ethically OK time. Wait 50 years and I will bet the some of the works we find OK will be seen as problematic. Even more so in 100 years.

PS: Very on point here, Charlie Stross' post from this morning, "Dread of Heinleinism": https://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog...


message 3: by Trike (new)

Trike | 9106 comments “Recommend with caveats” is my default, but some people can’t get past it, so those I avoid.

It’s become exponentially more difficult in the past couple years because we’re currently living in a time that I define as regulated by the Purity Police. These are the people who are so hardcore about a subject or a group that they will not allow anyone from outside that group to talk about it.

It’s the extremist version of Political Correctness. At its heart, Political Correctness is a good thing, because it’s about treating others with respect and consideration. But some people have taken it way too far. If you’re a man you can’t write about women. If you’re white you can’t write about PoC. And so on.

This puritanical insanity has resulted in bizarre things like attacks on RuPaul by the trans community; nevermind that the acceptance of trans people is a *result* of RuPaul being out there for decades.

The most recent WTF moment was Ruby Rose’s casting as Batwoman. Batwoman is a lesbian character, and Rose is a lesbian actress. But she’s apparently not “lesbian enough” — whatever the hell that means.

When we read Dragonflight a lot of people condemned F’lar for the “rape scene”, ignoring the fact that the character was the one who likened the mating ritual to that and he was clearly remorseful and troubled by it, also ignoring the fact the book was written by a woman in the 1960s.

Earth Abides is considered a classic, but there is an undercurrent of casual racism running through the book that only becomes clear at the end. It’s a little icky but it’s not the violent hateful KKK-style racism most people think of. Still, while it’s racist, the book was written in the 1940s, so by that era’s standards it’s progressive. (view spoiler)

So it’s a case-by-case basis for me.


message 4: by John (Taloni) (new)

John (Taloni) Taloni (johntaloni) | 4350 comments I read them and take them for the time in which they were written. Anything that offends today's sensibilities is an opportunity to understand the historical context of the work. Burroughs alone is a study in historical attitudes. Still good adventure stories, but WOW, some breathtaking racism in them.


message 5: by Tassie Dave, S&L Historian (new)

Tassie Dave | 3706 comments Mod
There is also the problem of problematic authors. I can get past dated concepts in novels, but I don't want to read books by monsters or people with racist or homophobic views that are our of place in our more accepting modern society.

I wouldn't, personally, ever read Orson Scott Card or Marion Zimmer Bradley again.


message 6: by John (Taloni) (new)

John (Taloni) Taloni (johntaloni) | 4350 comments ^ I am glad to see you say that, Tassie Dave. I read Moira Greyland Peat's book detailing the molestation she and her siblings received at the hands of her mother Marion Zimmer Bradley and her father Walter Breen. That makes Bradley both a child abuser and an abuse enabler. The book was both horrifying and compelling. I couldn't put it down even as I was nauseated. I wasn't sure the story had gotten out to the larger SFF community.

It's also true that Bradley wrote quality SFF books, but I just can't bring myself to read them now.


message 7: by Phil (new)

Phil | 1192 comments The "classics" are what I grew up reading and still sometimes read, often enjoying them more than currently written books. If I come across particularly racist or sexist words or scenes it doesn't bother me because I know the book is "of it's time." Of course, I'm a straight, white male so may be less sensitive to these issues.
If I really enjoy something I freely recommend it to friends but I might slip in a warning if there's something I think they might find offensive.


message 8: by Allison (last edited Aug 27, 2018 05:18PM) (new)

Allison Hurd | 227 comments I like to add "what is the in-group saying about this work?" Even if I want to read it anyways, it's nice to know if I'm about to read something that might offend someone, or to learn about the tropes that read hurtfully in various cultures/identities. It also keeps me from putting my foot in my mouth if I start -splaining something that turns out not to be a thing within the group. I definitely don't read as much from the 1900s (oh God, that stings) anymore, simply because we've had a real awakening since then, I think. But on occasion nostalgia or curiosity get the better of me and I try to contextualize it, unless the context includes author behaviors I do not support, like MZB and OSC.


message 9: by Baelor (new)

Baelor | 169 comments I read all books with an expectation that there is some content with which I will disagree. I read books with an attempt to understand others, the author, and the human condition. This requires reading books I find heinous and works by authors I find deplorable. I have no regrets. My recommendations are based on literary merit (as perceived by me, admittedly), which is not synonymous with “classic.”


message 10: by Oleksandr (new)

Oleksandr Zholud I'd say there age good books and bad ones, there are talented authors and not so much. I see no problem with the fact that an author, as the product of their time is un-PC today for they wrote in another age. This in no way means that you have to agree with them to like their works


message 11: by Iain (last edited Aug 27, 2018 11:35PM) (new)

Iain Bertram (iain_bertram) | 1554 comments It gets even more complicated with other media. With TV and film when you avoid a sitter/director you also avoid all the other people who have worked on the art. For example, boycott Tarintino and Uma Thurman loses as well..

That said I am never going to see a Woody Allen movie again.


message 12: by Oleksandr (new)

Oleksandr Zholud Iain wrote: "It gets even more complicated with other media. With TV and film when you avoid a sitter/director you also avoid all the other people who have worked on the art."

Just curious, if you watch their films illegally downloaded, can it be considered that you both punish them and enjoy the movie? :)
/joking


message 13: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Rick wrote: "Think about that - if something doesn't share your values, it's unenjoyable? Outside the pale? "problematic"? To me, reading is about expanding my world in a vicarious manner, especially SFF because I can't experience alien societies or fantasy worlds."

Does this include books that suggest that people like you should be sterilized, lobotomized, or just plain murdered for the greater good? Eugenics was an obsession of classic SF writers, even long after World War II should've laid it to rest. Is that just another worldview that we should consider with an open mind?


message 14: by Iain (last edited Aug 28, 2018 01:35PM) (new)

Iain Bertram (iain_bertram) | 1554 comments Sean wrote: "Does this include books that suggest that people like you should be sterilized, lobotomized, or just plain murdered for the greater good? ..."

How many were supporting sterilisation?

For the most part there is support for breeding programs that improve the breed (dodgy reading of Darwinism) with very few remembered books supporting pruning the species.

E.E. "Doc" Smith specialised in the breeding program bit specifically wrote against the killing off of inferior people (see the SkyLark series where the villain is pro euthanasia). The bulk of these works were written between the wars (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/...).

These viewpoints hang around for a long time (Niven and breeding for luck, if unintentionally. Interventionand the related books by Julian May are also examples of pro eugenics books (in non-SF books The Boys from Brazil could be considered an entry). In the present day eugenics still crops up with genetic modification.

In the end it comes down to how the books are written and how they interrogate the ideas. I cannot think of many books that outright support killing and euthanasia that are still widely read.

Personally John Norman's Gor books are much more problematic (bloody spell checker, I want to write Gor not for).


message 15: by Rick (last edited Aug 28, 2018 05:56PM) (new)

Rick | 2952 comments Sean wrote: "Does this include books that suggest that people like you should be sterilized, lobotomized, or just plain murdered for the greater good? Eugenics was an obsession of classic SF writers, even long after World War II should've laid it to rest. Is that just another worldview that we should consider with an open mind?..."

You tend to put these what-ifs out there but provide no evidence that this was actually a thing. IF we're going to make assertions like this, provide examples or the discussion will just wander into the weeds. So... citation/example of an SFF author doing this (and a reasonably good one, if not a 'classic') or I'm ignoring this as nothing more than cheap bait.

"Intervention and the related books by Julian May are also examples of pro eugenics books..."

Hmm. They're certainly pro-"new, powerful people are emerging from the species" but the issue with using the eugenics term is that it's very tainted with the sentiment Sean brings here - eugenics equalling forced sterilization of those who don't measure up and killing of 'defective' people (those with genetic handicaps e.g. cerebral palsy, etc).

The latter ideas are loathsome. I don't think anyone here will disagree with that. But from May to Heinlein (the breeding program for long life in his later books), the notable authors I can think of may well have argued for a naive idea of breeding for a Good (psi-powers, long life, etc) but I can't think of instances where they gave support to the idea that normals should be killed or sterilized.

Hell, we don't need to go back in time. The Divergent books use a dystopian society which "...defines its citizens by their social and personality-related affiliation with five different factions, which removes the threat of anyone exercising independent will and threatening the population's safety." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diverge...) and that's passed off as YA. There again, though, the idea is put forth as bad/evil.


message 16: by Baelor (new)

Baelor | 169 comments Sean wrote:"Eugenics was an obsession of classic SF writers, even long after World War II should've laid it to rest. Is that just another worldview that we should consider with an open mind?"

Some countries today (like Iceland) have, or even boast of, birth rates of babies with Down Syndrome close to 0%. Clearly, eugenics is already a worldview not only considered but outright accepted and acted upon.

Trying to apply an issues-based litmus test to literature's acceptability is ill-conceived and very difficult.


message 17: by Oleksandr (new)

Oleksandr Zholud Baelor wrote: "Some countries today (like Iceland) have, or even boast of, birth rates of babies with Down Syndrome close to 0%.."

Down syndrome is not fully determined by genes, i.e. the parents of the child are genetically normal. |at the same time age of the mother plays a significant role. The extra chromosome occurs by chance. In Iceland I guess they have screening and abortion on early stages. This is a personal choice, not eugenics


message 18: by Baelor (new)

Baelor | 169 comments Oleksandr wrote: "Down syndrome is not fully determined by genes, i.e. the parents of the child are genetically normal. |at the same time age of the mother plays a significant role. The extra chromosome occurs by chance. In Iceland I guess they have screening and abortion on early stages. This is a personal choice, not eugenics "

Using a old-school definition of eugenics, yes. The definition has since generally expanded. This article for example applies a broader interpretation of eugenics based on its underlying idea of finding certain persons unworthy of life or inferior. More importantly, the "personal choice" element is not at all salient here; the effect is the same whether government-enforced or not: a certain class of person is being terminated based on a known characteristic in order to improve the population, which is the sense in which it was (very explicitly) used in this thread.

Regardless, this is tangential. The broader point was pretty much anything can be considered with an open mind, but considering something in no way means accepting it.


message 19: by Oleksandr (new)

Oleksandr Zholud There were both negative and positive eugenics. You describe only the first, were 'inferiors' (very subjective definition) should be 'weeded out' (forcefully of peacefully). The second says a person can decide a future for their offspring including their being.
For old and supposedly (I disagree) biased SF look at Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon [IIRC] - there are both eugenics and state program that protects people with supposedly 'bad' genes, because no one can know for sure, which genes or their combinations are truly good or bad. Thus diversity is preserved but the share of genetically transmitted disorders is low


message 20: by Sean (last edited Aug 29, 2018 10:05AM) (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Rick wrote: "You tend to put these what-ifs out there but provide no evidence that this was actually a thing. IF we're going to make assertions like this, provide examples or the discussion will just wander into the weeds. So... citation/example of an SFF author doing this (and a reasonably good one, if not a 'classic') or I'm ignoring this as nothing more than cheap bait."

You're really disputing that 20th Century science fiction, particularly in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, was full of racism and misogyny? Okay, here are some examples off the top of my head:

* The Unparalleled Invasion by Jack London -- The United States and European nations commit mass genocide against East Asians to stop immigration.

* The Marching Morons by C.M. Kornbluth -- A story founded on the idea that intelligence is heritable and stupid people don't use birth control, therefore it's inevitable that the intelligent will be consigned to toiling to provide for the dumb. The hero solves this problem through the expedient of, you guessed it, mass genocide.

* The Queen Bee by Randall Garrett -- Stranded space explorers lobotomize a woman who refuses to be their baby factory.

* Farnham's Freehold by Robert Heinlein -- After the apocalypse, black people turn into ravening cannibals.

* Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle -- After the apocalypse, black people turn into -- can you guess? -- ravening cannibals.

* Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin -- a novel that ends with the hero mass sterilizing a planet run by a religion opposed to birth control.

Do you think it's closed minded if a woman who picks up Garrett's story, or an Asian reader with London, or a black reader with Niven/Pournelle and Heinlein were to reject those works and steer other readers away from them as not worth engaging with?


message 21: by Oleksandr (new)

Oleksandr Zholud Sean wrote: "* Farnham's Freehold by Robert Heinlein -- After the apocalypse, black people turn into ravening cannibals."

They, unlike whites, were able to survive, preserve some technology, and colonize Americas from Africa. They have a developed society, much more advanced than the protagonist's family, which even w/ Encyclopedia was unable to save a woman at childbirth
In the Stranger, the protagonist is white and he is a cannibal. Cannibalism is not evil, widespread in nature and present in human societies throughout the ages.


message 22: by Rick (last edited Aug 29, 2018 11:51AM) (new)

Rick | 2952 comments Sean wrote: "
You're really disputing that 20th Century science fiction, particularly in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, was full of racism and misogyny? Okay, here are some examples off the top of my head:..."


Your first reply was basically trolling and poorly done trolling (as if I or anyone else here was arguing that genocide was a good thing.... ).

The comment of mine that you replied was about questioning someone saying that a book which did not share their values was unenjoyable. Of course, you successfully derailed the thread into a ridiculous discussion of eugenics with an extreme example when we could have had a nuanced discussion about values and their impact on reading. We could have talked about things like how reading outside of your comfort zone can expose people to new ideas and social norms (a straight, conservative person reading, say, a Nicola Griffith novel that has lesbian characters, a sheltered white person reading Okorafor, etc). But since you pushed the discussion of 'problematic' to its most extreme example, we won't have those thoughts here. Nice job.

Anyway, Sean, I'm done with you. You make crap up in your head, try to put words in others' mouths, then want to argue about it. Go talk to a mirror.

PS: Of the ones you mention, I'm familiar with Farnham's Freehold. It is, in fact, execrable. And you cannot discuss it intelligently if you've not read it.


message 23: by John (Taloni) (new)

John (Taloni) Taloni (johntaloni) | 4350 comments On the list of Heinlein classics, Farnham's Freehold would not make the top ten. Or top fifty. Had Heinlein starred in The Shining and done an entire book with "All Work And No Play Makes Bob A Dull Boy," Farnham's Freehold would be below that. No one considers Farnham's Freehold a classic.

I once had a chat with someone who thought Farnham's Freehold was a parody / takeoff of various tropes. I couldn't even grant it that much. Heinlein sometimes liked to take off from reality and make points about society through extreme construction, like the line marriage of MIAHM. But whatever points Heinlein thought he was making with Farnham's Freehold did NOT come through.


message 24: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Rick wrote: "The comment of mine that you replied was about questioning someone saying that a book which did not share their values was unenjoyable. Of course, you successfully derailed the thread into a ridiculous discussion of eugenics with an extreme example when we could have had a nuanced discussion about values and their impact on reading. "

You jumped to the conclusion that people who find classics problematic were simply upset that the author didn't 100% share their values on some issue, when in fact they're often problematic for pushing misogyny, racism, and eugenics. You say I'm taking it to extremes, but the examples I just provided are all, except for The Unparalleled Invasion, by Hugo winning authors. This is the mainstream of the genre, and it's precisely why people have to be careful when recommending "classics".


message 25: by Brendan (new)

Brendan (mistershine) | 930 comments Dara wrote: "Problematic classics have been discussed before but I am curious to know: What do you guys do when you come across problematic classics?"

Are classics an unchangeable canon of accepted books, or are they a living list we can debate, subtract from and add to? Can a classic cease to be a classic?


message 26: by Baelor (new)

Baelor | 169 comments Sean wrote: "Rick wrote: "The comment of mine that you replied was about questioning someone saying that a book which did not share their values was unenjoyable. Of course, you successfully derailed the thread ..."

The broader question is why we should as a rule avoid books that push things we find morally wrong. Does it matter whether they are contemporary or historical? Does it matter whether we pay for them or not? etc.

Also, "problematic" should be banned from the lexicon as a lazy, vague shibboleth that avoids committing to a concrete fault.


message 27: by William (last edited Aug 30, 2018 09:30AM) (new)

William | 435 comments I'd just like to add that in my humble opinion older F&SF does have the added merit of increasing our enjoyment of more modern stories as you can see where the newer author was coming from and you get more of the genre references.

It's great to see how ideas pass from generation to generation and get twisted this way and that. I don't agree with all the thoughts and ideas of "classic" authors (or to be frank, modern authors either), but they are worth reading to understand the history of the genre.

As an example, I find these each of these stories enhance the others:

Mellonta Tauta > The Machine Stops > The Sleeper Awakes > The Caves of Steel > Telepath

I find many passages in the earlier works shocking - prejudice that is clearly seen as just unspoken understanding (in the same way that you don't need to argue about the direction of "down"). That said those passages also got me thinking about what prejudices I might have that future fans might be shocked by.

Reading such thematically linked books does let you see change. The Caves of Steel has far less blatant racism than The Sleeper Awakes, and it can actually be read as an anti-prejudice tale...but the female stereotypes are so awful I remember reading Asimov himself was embarrassed on rereading it. The more recent book Telepath by Janet Edwards is based in a setting clearly influenced by the earlier works, but features a well rounded courageous female MC working with people of all appearances and orientations - and that's not a plot point, it's just seen as normal.

Seeing how things have changed can really help you appreciate how far we've come.


message 28: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Baelor wrote: "The broader question is why we should as a rule avoid books that push things we find morally wrong."

I dunno, why would women be closed minded about books that suggest rape is okay? Why would Jews be leery of books that make the SS into heroes? Why would the Chinese object to a book in which the hero participated in the Rape of Nanking?

It's a mystery.


message 29: by Ivi_kiwi (new)

Ivi_kiwi | 87 comments Sean wrote: "Baelor wrote: "The broader question is why we should as a rule avoid books that push things we find morally wrong."

I dunno, why would women be closed minded about books that suggest rape is okay?..."


Love your comment.

And yes "classics" can stop being "classics".


message 30: by Melani (new)

Melani | 183 comments Baelor wrote: "Also, "problematic" should be banned from the lexicon as a lazy, vague shibboleth that avoids committing to a concrete fault."

HARD disagree. I think it should be followed by an explanation of what the person finds problematic about the work, but the word itself is pretty good shorthand for works that contain racism, sexism, ableism, or other issues.


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