Benjamin2011-02-22
Light Fiction in Times of Injustice

Bigotry, prejudice and injustice are all omnipresent problems in society today, but were clearly even worse in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This presents an interesting problem if you are attempting to write light fiction set in that time period; and an even greater one if you yourself lived back then. I know, as far as \"problems cause by social injustice\" go, itís not that big a deal, but itís been on my mind lately.

Letís say you want to write a murder mystery in the South in 1938óhow do you dramatize a poisoning when the headlines of the day were on the order of \"Can the States Stop Lynching?\". Iíve noticed a few different ways that authors have done this in the novels Iíve been reading recently. Because of the particular novels Iíve been reading Iím mostly thinking about white racism towards black people, but Iíve tried to throw in examples of other bigotries as wellóthere are plenty to go around.

Of course, one thing that you could try, as modern writer Toni Morrison does, is to confront it all head on. Have an omniscient narrator or a black protagonist show explicitly what it was like in the period where the novel is set. Pull no punches. Thatís probably the most honest approach, but it really doesnít lend itself to writing anything but Serious Literature about Injustice. Beloved was a lot of things, but it not really a murder mystery. There is a pressing need for serious literature about injustice, but sometimes people just want to write murder mysteries. And, more to the point, sometimes Iíd rather read The Maltese Falcon than The Bluest Eye. So what then?

Well, you could simply avoid the problem altogether. Agatha Christie mostly writes novels about rich white folks in England. She doesnít need to worry about how to handle racism because she simply doesnít use black characters. This is the same way that the Master and Commander movie avoided being sexistóthere wasnít a single woman in the film, so there was no one to be sexist about. Of course, writing novels that simply erase all the black people is problematic by itself; at its best it does nothing useful and at its worst it is, in itself, a form of racism. Still, itís worth noting that this tactic is inevitable to a certain extentóeven the most political novel must focus on one or two issues, and that will necessarily leave other issues unexplored. Sometimes, I guess, the issue in focus is \"white men getting stabbed at fancy dress parties\".1

Other authors Iíve read recently have minority characters but, outside of one or two exotic traits, simply treat them exactly the same as the white characters and then (this is where it gets tricky) pretend that the rest of society also treats them well. I enjoyed the hell out of Emma Bullís Territory, but the main character was a very strong unmarried woman. That was one of the things I enjoyed most about it, but it rang false for me every time. I just donít believe that, even in the Wild West, unmarried school teachers were allowed the kind of freedom and respect that this lady was. Women were second-class citizens in 1881, even on the frontier. It made for a great story, but there was this elephant in the room that blocked the view at times.

I just finished reading another example of this technique (to a certain extent) in H. Rider Haggardís King Solomonís Mines. Haggard was surprisingly liberal for his time (the book was published in 1885). He says right off that he doesnít approve of the word \"the n-word\" and that heís met plenty of black gentlemen and white bastards. Haggard had spent almost seven years touring Africa and so presumably had plenty of time to get to know black people, and was open minded enough to respect them.

The novel is still pretty racist (Chieftan Twala is a dumb, sensual brute; most of the other black people in the novel are credulous children2) but heís trying. There are quite a few honorable, smart, decent black people in the novelóthe only problem is that they are basically just Englishmen who dress funny. The way that the main characters treat the other folks they meet is never called into question, and the larger issue of colonization is (predictably) ignored.

Iíve also been reading Norvelle Pageís Spider pulps from the 30s, where that great crime fighter (a competitor in dime novel sales with The Shadow) has two erstwhile employees: Jackson, his old army buddy; and Ram Singh, a Sikh (sometimes a Hindu) that he met in India. His \"fiery Sikh passion\", his funny-looking knife, and his way of calling his boss \"Sahib\" are just trappingsóunderneath them, heís not much different than anyone else on the team. Jackson, the white army buddy, is no further developed than Ram Singh, and has cartoonish trappings of his own. So Ram Singh wears a tubin and has dark skin, but heís never denied entrance to a club, never demeaned in front of his friends, and never attacked because of his appearance. He didnít have any trouble finding a job, he speaks fluent English, and never suffers due to discrimination. There are plenty of Indians who experience New York like this these days, but that simply wasnít the case in the 1930s.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ian Flemming embodies a third way to deal with racism: embrace it! I suspect that he is trying to portray James Bond as something of a liberal in matters of racial politics, but Flemming is so bigoted and such a terrible person that it just fails miserably. Live and Let Die was written in the 60s, and James Bond sleeps with a black woman, so maybe that was daring and surprising for the time (when the Kirk / Uhura kiss was so scandalous). But then again, powerful white men have been sleeping with black women for centuries, so Iím probably giving him too much credit.

Regardless, I find Flemmingís phrase \"sexy little negress\"3 possibly even more repulsive than \"the sweet tang of rape\", the standout phrase from his first novel. I guess what Iím saying is that I donít much like Sir Ian. I may well continue to read the Bond books, but I quit two thirds of the way through Live and Let Die when he devoted two pages to writing out a conversation in Harlem using \"dialect\": \"\'Why\'nt yuh hush yo\' mouff\'n let me \'joy mahself \'n peace \'n qui-yet\'\", one character says. Spoiler: it wasnít James Bond speaking.

There is certainly some historical value to seeing first hand how white Englishmen felt about black Americans, but mostly I just feel embarrassed by the whole thing.

Finally thereís the novel that caused me to write this little essay, Rex Stoutís book Too Many Cooks. Itís one of his long series of novels about detective par excellence Nero Wolfe, and it was both written and set in 1938. The entire series is told from the point of view of Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfeís right hand man. Archieís not violently racist, but he has a casual underlying bigotry that he doesnít even notice. For example, he tells a group of black waiters (all grown men, mind), \"Youíll have to wait in here, boys, Mr. Wolfe has a visitor. Sit on something. Sit on the bed, itís mine and it looks like I wonít be using it anyway. If you go to sleep, snore a couple of good ones for me\". Thereís a friendliness there, an amiability, and yet also an overpowering condescension. He then goes on to explain to Nero Wolfe that he wonít get any information out of them without physical violence, because black people are shiftless and very good at lying.

Since this novel was written in 1938 I resigned myself to a bit of unpleasantness. It was still better than Ian Flemming, twenty years later (I forgot to mention how astonished Bond was to see a limousine being driven by a black woman!!!) but itís pretty ugly just the same.Then Nero Wolfe ushers them in, however, and unveils his trick for getting them to talk without violenceóhe treats them like human beings. He gets them drinks, he looks them in the eye, learns everyoneís name and job, and calls them \"Mister\". He speaks frankly to them without a trace of superiority (well, a trace, but this is Nero Wolfe and there is always a trace of superiority. Letís say no more than usual). And in a while he gains their trust the way he would with any of the white characters, and they spill the key clue. In short, itís abundantly clear that Archie is a total ass. For all that Archieís casual, kind-hearted racism may have been the norm in 1938, Rex Stout clearly didnít share it. And Nero Wolfe is far too smart, of course, and he sees these people as people.

By the end of the night Wolfe is trading literary quotations with one of the waiters (who is currently enrolled in college, it turns out), and has gained their trust enough that they tell him what he needs to know. He presses them for facts and details, but itís clear that he trusts them. Stout writes slightly idiosyncratic speech for the waiters (one of them says, \"I didnít see anybody put you away on a shelf to save up for the Lord\") but that sounds just about right for West Virginia. For the most part that speak like anyone else in the book, except for the college student, Mr. Whipple, who sounds slightly more erudite. Later on thereís a pretty funny scene with the local sheriff, who goes on a tirade about how the black people (he uses a less pleasant term) should be locked up and beaten. The other characters ignore him until he finally shuts up.

I think that this is really a good way to go about it. Instead of ignoring injustice, you can take a strong stand about it. You can say, \"Yes, this is how these people were treated, and to portray it differently would be an offense to their hardship. But I donít have to like it!\". At least for me (speaking, of course, as a white man in the 21st century) acknowledging the truth of societal ugliness is enough, at least in light fiction, and once thatís been done an author to move on to more trivial matters like who poisoned the chef.

Finally, I should note that Iím not dead set against those other methods, either. Not really. After all, if a fantasty novel can have wizards fighting dragons, it should be ok to have black gun fighters and female zeppelin mechanics and all that, so I donít mind that Ram Singh is so completely devoid of political context in the Spider pulps. However, I do think that dealing with the problems that a real Ram Singh might have faced (ten years before Indian independence) would make it a better novel, even if the problems were only mentioned in passing.

If nothing else, I think that if we can all agree never to use the phrase \"sweet little negress\", the literary world can only improve.


1Which is not at all to say that I do not love Chrstie et al. I really doóIím just aware that they, like many of my favorite writers, chose to ignore some of the injustices of their time. Itís also possible that Iím talking out of my ass, and Agatha Christie wrote a brilliant novel set in Harlem in the 1920s. If so, please let me know as Iíd love to read it!

2And his female charactersóthere are only twoóare deplorable. A devout virginal maiden who knows that she can never marry the white explorer because \"how can the dark marry the light?\" but who nevertheless selflessly devotes herself to him; and a sadistic, withered old witch who tries to kill everyone out of pure spite. Judging from the other book I read of his, She, Haggard had some really interesting problems with women in general. I would love to read a biography.

3It might be the adjective \"little\" that really puts it over the edgeónot merely racist; itís sexist and also demeaning. How wonderful, though, that my spellchecker doesnít recognize the word \"negress\". Maybe I meant \"egress\"? Or possible \"engross\", that must be itóthat other word is just nonsense.

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