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Dealing with values dissonance


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#1 Roose Boltons Pet Leech

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 09:12 AM

I came across this article the other day:

http://www.ferretbra...les/article-839

Essentially it is one (very) long castigation of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories as being sexist and racist.

Now, there are some ugly racist overtones in Howard. H.P. Lovecraft is even worse. But I think it is quite possible to recognise these difficulties (and grit your teeth at them) while still enjoying the stories for what they are: in Howard's case, old-fashioned adventure yarns, in Lovecraft's case, tales of an uncaring and terrifying amoral universe. Shunning these old pulp authors (as the article suggests) strikes me as rather akin to the religious fundamentalists who hate Harry Potter: the mere fact that an author writing seventy years ago had a different value system from yourself is not in my opinion a really constructive way to go about things.

Therein lies the biggest problem with the article: it argues that since morality has evolved to reject the racist ugliness of the 1930s, we should somehow expect authors long dead to produce works consistent with our morality, rather than theirs. It also means that the likes of Shakespeare or Mark Twain or H. Rider Haggard are in the same boat, and must be similarly shunned.

Thoughts?

Edited by Roose Bolton's Pet Leech, 23 February 2012 - 09:12 AM.


#2 thistlepong

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 10:24 AM

I haven't finished the linked article; it turns out it's too long to complete during a quick breakfast. I'll certainly come back to it a time permits. But the premise, that perhaps lauding the pernicious is counterproductive, seems sound enough. I've had occasion recently to experience and interrogate some gravid dissonances, which in turn has sort of infiltrated my memories and illuminated others. It stands to reason that ignoring the excesses of the past only encourages dismissal of present inequities. Surely the works can be notable for their historical importance without being presented uncritically. The literate archaeology necessary to discover works that lack these negative portrayals begins with de-emphasizing those that contain them.


Actually, that reminds me of something related to archaeology and Lovecraft, which while a response to his racism is complicated in itself: trigger: racist
Spoiler


#3 Sci-2

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 10:29 AM

I think it is more recognizing and admitting these things exist, and seeing how those tropes can affect people today. The whole thing TP talks about in his subtler racism thread.

I have friends of varied backgrounds who recognize Lovecraft for being a whack job but appreciate his stories. As one friend noted, if Lovecraft wasn't so prejudiced to the point of paranoia his work wouldn't be what it was.

I think the annoying thing is when people defend these tropes on artistic grounds as a reason for today's lazy writing that uses tropes and stereotypes as a crutch.

#4 Mr. E

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 10:43 AM

I never have liked the idea of judging a work from a modern standpoint and condemning it for the values it upholds from its time. Fact is, we're all prisoners of our time, even if it's in minute and small ways. I have no doubt that the article writer's favorite authors will be condemned by young people thinking they are more enlightened thirty or so years from now.

I'm not saying that the values should be ignored. But why can't they be a learning opportunity? Art has many purposes, and one of them is, in fact, cultural history. Why did these people think the way they do? Why don't we think that way now? What about there works has aged, what about their works has stood the test of time? Why do we consider these viewpoints they work in wrong now? Why weren't they considered wrong then? At this point we can get into discussions of why we believe what we believe and why its worth sticking to; I think its a lot better than condemning a man who probably would be baffled by the very things the writer's accusing him of.

#5 Grack21

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 10:57 AM

I don;t have time to read that article right this moment but I've never found the Conan stories to be as overtly racist as some claim. Now, yes, there some huge OMG THATS RACIST moments, but it isn't nearly as prevalent as some people make it out to be. The sexism is another matter entirely(and gets kind of..odd..in later stories. I think people like to group all of Howard's work together under "Conan stories" sometimes why forgetting how little percentage of his work was actually Conan related.

Now some of Howard's other work. Racism Ahoy!

#6 Summer Bass

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 11:08 AM

I think the essay is actually very good, although overly long (he discusses the racism, sexism, etc in a whole bunch of Conan stories one-at-a-time). There are some key summarizing quotes here if you don't want to read the whole thing through:

There's definitely something to Howard's writing - it's rough and not very polished, but there's a viscerality and a vitality which shines through all that anyway - but there's too much that is tediously bigoted and too much which is just tedious for me to really say any of the stories are good.

For anyone who is at all interested in the history of the fantasy genre, Howard simply is not optional. To ignore Conan and the impact of the Conan stories on the pulp fantasy market would be like pretending the Model T Ford was an irrelevance to the automobile market. . . .

But when it comes to more or less any other motivation for reading fantasy fiction - whether you're angling for improving literature or trashy fun (or trashy literature or improving fun, for that matter), and assuming you are not someone who deliberately reads badly written and offensive fiction for the lulz, there is really no reason to expend time on Howard when there's a whole world of authors out there who don't have his grotesque issues and are simply better writers than he is.



#7 mjgambino

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 11:16 AM

I never have liked the idea of judging a work from a modern standpoint and condemning it for the values it upholds from its time.


Agreed. I try not to get on a moral high horse because I know that my experiences growing up in fairly liberal, diverse city (Philadelphia) in the 90s is not the same as growing up anywhere in the US in the early 1900s (or earlier). I enjoy Howard's stuff a lot, I just keep it in context.

#8 MattL86

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 06:09 PM

Shunning these old pulp authors (as the article suggests) strikes me as rather akin to the religious fundamentalists who hate Harry Potter


Hmm, two very different things. Harry Potter is current, so if someone had a theoretical issue with it, to me it is valid for them to complain about it. I don't think Bakker is mysogynist, but if someone does, it's a valid argument and I will listen. If the same person complains about, say, Sir Walter Scott's writing of female characters, I'm not inclined to be interested. The values in current books are a lot more up for debate with me than old literature, where I'm inclined to accept that the values of the era were different and move past them.


It comes off as a little arrogant to dismiss centuries of literature because the authors didn't have the same values you do.

Edited by MattL86, 23 February 2012 - 06:09 PM.


#9 Seli

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 07:28 PM

...
It comes off as a little arrogant to dismiss centuries of literature because the authors didn't have the same values you do.


It is probably only a small bit that will run into this trouble. Mostly authors that are close enough to our sensibilities to be understandable, but too close to be able to easily dismiss their more unpleasant ideas as part of their time. An uncanny valley of values perhaps.

#10 thistlepong

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 10:17 PM

Would you mind if I borrowed Uncanny Values like, forever?

#11 wolverine

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 10:29 PM

Some seem to dismiss Card for his views and how they show up in his writing too. I read and enjoyed Ender's Game without having any idea about Card's views.


To the OP, I feel that authors and people in general in the past are allowed some leeway in their beliefs. If a very large portion of the population at the time felt the same way I can understand their view, even if it is misguided. I also feel that each reader is certaintly entitled to their own opinion on what is readable or unreadable based on the morality or views presented.

#12 Kalbear

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 03:20 AM

I think one of the big problems is that so much of fantasy, even today, is derivative - and it's derivative of things like Conan or Tolkien. Both of which had some really poor choices as far as modern sensibilities go. Which means that the whole genre is somewhat bogged down in shitty stereotypes and bad decisions because, well, that's the genre. Of course you have to have a DARK lord. Of course your orcs have to sound poor and uneducated. Of course women can't have power. Of course there has to be a chainmail bikini. Removing those is like removing the explosions and the creepy fetish shots of women from Michael Bay movies.

It doesn't have to be, and I think some fantasy authors are fighting against these things in various ways. Mieville comes to mind both in Bas-Lag and in Unlundun as an example of not even subverting the genre, but outright mocking it. The grimdark style is another movement that fights against Tolkienism, though it brings with it problems of its own.

It's important to know how critical people like Howard were to the genre and to see his influence everywhere - but it's also important to note that while he may be one of the fathers of fantasy books it turns out father's more than a little bit racist and sexist, and modern writers are not obligated to emulate that.

#13 Lummel

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 04:01 AM

If you can enjoy the stories you can enjoy the stories I don't think there is any hard and fast rule here.

It reminds me of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe series were on reflection at the end of the series the basic message is 'being dead is better than being alive (unless you have sexual interest in the opposite sex in which case no paradise for you)' which does leave me feeling uncomfortable over the whole thing. I can't ignore that the series has a message and a message that I don't care for.

Ferretbrain's argument is that racism is intrinsic to plot motivation (white Conan must rescue white woman from black men because he and she are white and they are black) and also that racism is intrinsic to his world building which is social darwinist.

Obviously Howard wasn't alone in reflecting racist views in his writing and plenty of people enjoy John Buchan or Ian Fleming but all the same you shouldn't be surprised if others find your choice of reading matter a little strange and are uncomfortable about those authors. You have to judge for yourself if you can read their works and remain uninfluenced by those parts which would be generally felt by polite opinion to be unacceptable today.

#14 Seli

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 06:00 AM

Would you mind if I borrowed Uncanny Values like, forever?


Be my guest.

#15 wolverine

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 08:31 AM

I think one of the big problems is that so much of fantasy, even today, is derivative - and it's derivative of things like Conan or Tolkien. Both of which had some really poor choices as far as modern sensibilities go. Which means that the whole genre is somewhat bogged down in shitty stereotypes and bad decisions because, well, that's the genre. Of course you have to have a DARK lord. Of course your orcs have to sound poor and uneducated. Of course women can't have power. Of course there has to be a chainmail bikini. Removing those is like removing the explosions and the creepy fetish shots of women from Michael Bay movies.



Hasn't dark represented evil and light represented good for a very long time and without any context of race?

#16 Happy Ent

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 09:03 AM

What I don’t like with the linked article (a good part of which I read) is the following:

I like reading different mindsets. Not as a theoretical or aesthetic exercise. I think this is exactly what literature is for. It is not a vehicle for “correct thinking”, like Terry Goodkind and the academic left want it to be. I want by sensibilities challenged. If this happens by reading a decent person’s viewpoints (like Tolkiens) that would make somebody else’s knickers get in a twist, were it written today: even better.

In the linked article, the clearest dissonance is the following: According to the author, romantic versions of racial purity are racist. Hence — and savour for a moment the insidiousness of this argument — the author advocates shunning these books. Because, it seems, ideological purity is good.

That’s grotesque.

You cannot admonish somebody for being appalled by genetic admixture and simultaneously advocate that we keep our meme-pool clean.

#17 Galactus

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 10:13 AM

You cannot admonish somebody for being appalled by genetic admixture and simultaneously advocate that we keep our meme-pool clean.


Err... Why not? This seems to be an awful leap of logic.

#18 Summer Bass

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 10:19 AM

HE, read my post again. He didn't call for shunning Howard's works, and even praised them in spite of the major problems that he sees. He just said that as escapism, they're not so great when there are plenty of other contemporary fantasy authors from that period who are better written.

#19 thistlepong

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 10:23 AM

Err... Why not? This seems to be an awful leap of logic.


Not just a leap; an actual fallacy. Presumably Ent finds the two positions mutually exclusive when they're not. Even so, I am curious as to whether you're advocated a sort of nihilistic relativism, Ent?

#20 Emo Jon Snow

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 10:27 AM

Is it really that big of a deal? I think some people can be whiny and preachy about shit and it's not even that important.