When Books Haven’t Aged Well

There seems to a growing issue in this current day and age in which some feel ashamed that they would consider recommending work that was published in the 20th Century or prior and in the case of the article here written by Matt Mikalatos. This relates to the novel, The Once and Future King by T.H White.

At first glance, his issue with it, now ties back to White’s references to usage of the phrase Red Indians. Which does stand out, however, as a descriptive element it does appear to work in regards to how the American Indians were often stereotyped by those back in the early to mid-1900s. It’s not inoffensive but as a piece of fiction, it’s like most things harmless.

Whilst the content of the book from my own initial observations do provide commentary on the state of the world, they are entirely related to that period of time. I do intend to fully read the novel but for the sake of this initial point, I searched the bits are referenced.

Matt’s next issue ties back to characters saying ‘nigger‘, and at the end of the day no matter how I dissect this, the term is always going to carry weight to it. But as these are stories written prior to the civil rights movement. The use either to reflect a character’s personality or how they see others isn’t entirely to be unexpected.

Most of us who love speculative fiction run into this problem at some point. There are classics of the genre that are uncomfortable for various reasons. Some of them are straight-out racist, or unrepentantly misogynistic, or homophobic, or all of the above.

It’s easy to forget how much has changed just in the last century and even before that. I’m only twenty-four and technology is already far ahead of what I used back in the early 2000s. A person growing up in the eighties will see the world in an entirely different light to me. Writers of the past often do pull on their own experiences and even prejudices. Can we judge them? Sure but what does that achieve except painting you as some kind of moral crusader.

We can have a debate in the comments about whether Tolkien’s world is racist, but in general, if someone in Middle-earth has black skin (the Uruk-hai, at least some other orcs, the Southrons) or are described as “swarthy” (the Easterlings, the Dunlendings), then you better believe they’re going to be bad guys, with very few exceptions. Sure, there are plenty of white, non-swarthy bad guys, too, but it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s the people of colour you need to keep an eye on, in these books. (Yes, I know Samwise sees a dead enemy soldier in The Two Towers and reflects on whether he might have been a good person who was lied to. This shows, I think, Tolkien’s empathy for people and desire to humanize and complicate the Haradrim and other dark-complexioned combatants, but this is one brief paragraph in a massive trilogy.

There’s a lot to unpack here and there’s obviously parts of the LoTR lore that I’m not all that well versed in. It’s a series I do plan on reading as my only real insight is the films and reading the lore online. However, its no secret that the orcs are evil and how they look has very little to do with that fact. And other depiction of evil in that series can be tied back to the rings corrupting influence over men, elves, dwarves etc. Regardless of skin. It is a force impossible to resist. Assuming anything about Tolkien just ignores the context and setup of the universe he has built.

Of course, Matt dances around Lovecraft’s work because he’s already been bludgeoned by this view that we should shun past authors. I don’t care personally for Lovecraft’s views. Because I’m more invested in the story. It takes anyone a few seconds to delve into Lovecrafts life and you can see where that horror manifests. Although why he named his cat ‘nigger-man’ I will never know.

As for whether I’d recommend a story written in the past that may reveal an authors prejudice. Yes, I would. Because the person I’m recommending to is an individual capable of making their own decisions and I imagine can separate fiction from reality.

With folks like White, Tolkien, and Lewis, we see people who are steeped in colonialism and racist assumptions. Thus the defence that gets trotted out whenever these problems are discussed: “They were a product of their time.” This is one of the challenges for all of us as we delve further into the past reading the classics—of course, there are assumptions and cultural practices and beliefs that are at odds with our own. Where is the tipping point of not being able to look past these differences, the point where we can no longer enjoy reading these works?

That’s entirely on you Matt. Nothing else needs to be said. If you can’t treat this writing as mere fiction then that says a lot about you. We as readers get it. Colonialism is viewed very negatively but in the end its the very reason you probably exist. Complaining about it achieves nothing. As for its depiction in fiction. Well, that’s entirely on the author and the characters they bring to life.

As a whole whether your like Matt and can’t stomach the writers of the past. That’s on you. Sure as he says you can write ‘corrective’ pieces but then even that can be viewed as problematic. It also risks indicating that you are more interested in correcting the past then telling a story.

Remember folks a fictional world may draw from our own but its conventions, lore, history, can quite often be at odds with our beliefs. It may make us uncomfortable. And that’s okay because these are only stories. No two authors will be the same. They may have the same idea. But the execution will always be profoundly different.


2 thoughts on “When Books Haven’t Aged Well

  1. I agree with a lot of your points, MrMadWriter. Yes, many classic works of fiction have serious problems, but I don’t appreciate the judgmental attitude some critics have towards people who still enjoy those works. For instance, I still enjoy H.P. Lovecraft’s work for what it is, while recognizing that the man was a colossal racist, and I enjoy Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye for its breathtaking science fiction concepts, even though it seems to portray a conservative, aristocratic, and patriarchal government as a good thing. If a work has reason to be called a classic it will probably transcend certain unpleasant oddities of the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly you can still appreciate the writing even if the writer holds views you may disagree with. And it is quite clear that in White’s case he was using the stereotype descriptively. Funnily enough Matt’s piece is the only mention of it I’ve found searching. Unless I missed something.


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