John Scalzi on problematic writing (#SFWApro)

On his Whatever blog, Scalzi has a good post and comments discussion about “problematic” writing: material with sexist/racist/otherwise objectionable content, or work by someone with views the reader finds repellent. Scalzi does a good job discussing the factors that influence him to buy or not buy someone’s work, whether logical or personal.
Anyway I realized I kept thinking and thinking about the topic and decided I’d clear out my head with a blog post.
For me personally, avoiding work is largely by gut reaction. If I love everything about a work but its sexism, I’m going to be more tolerant than if my reaction was “meh.” I object to the racism in some of Robert E. Howard’s stories, for instance, but I can live with them. Likewise, I love Steve Englehart’s run on Marvel’s Defenders despite his appalling portrayal of the Crusades as heroic Westerners against evil “Muhameddans” during one time trip.
I’m also more forgiving of older works. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, for instance, show the attitudes of his time. His female leads in the Mars books are repeatedly at risk for rape, and tend to stand passively but bravely waiting for the hero to save them. It reminds me a lot of the captivity narratives that were so popular in 19th century America.
I can cut Burroughs more slack than someone writing the same sort of thing today. But that’s me: nobody who objects to the way he writes women is obligated to say “Well, he’s a man of the past, I’ll just keep reading to be fair.” If your gut reaction is that you don’t like the sexism—or for that matter, you make a purely intellectual decision not to read the books—that sounds perfectly reasonable to me (besides, it’s not as if “product of his time” is a get out of jail free card. L. Frank Baum was older than Burroughs and he supported women’s rights).
I can also tolerate the kind of default-setting sexism—men get all the action and heroism—better than works which are overtly sexist. I stopped reading John Norman’s Gor books (back in the days when they were marketed as sf adventure rather than b&d fantasies) when the third book included a lecture on how women were obviously biologically hardwired to submit to men. And I have more trouble with Burroughs when he goes Western Union and writes scenes specifically to drive home Women Should Not Be in Charge.
The one thing I won’t do is deny that the sexist/racist elements are there. It’s the one thing nobody should do (“I love this book! It can’t be sexist.”). Of course, it’s also possible to debate whether something is really sexist or racist (I’ve seen plenty of such arguments) so I’m not sure that’s much help.
As for creators, I use much the same standard. I’m not usually deterred from watching films or reading books because the creator was racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semite/whatever. I stopped reading Orson Scott Card not so much because I loathe his views on gays and race, though I do, but because I simply can’t take him seriously as a writer. A guy who claims legalizing gay marriage justifies armed insurrection and that Obama is creating an army of black storm troopers to crush America (as noted at the link) is just too cuckoo for me (though as I have several of his older books, I don’t rule out rereading them). But I can understand why other readers won’t touch him with a 10-foot pole because of his views.
Of course, when John C. Wright wrote about how women characters who go outside traditional female roles are all just Men With Boobs (you can click through if you want to read his original piece), I dropped him from my list of Writers to Read Someday. There are lots of books on the list and I have no attachment to Wright (never having read him) so why not trim the list a little?
I don’t think any of this provides much deep insight, but for whatever it’s worth …

2 Comments

Filed under Personal, Politics, Reading

2 responses to “John Scalzi on problematic writing (#SFWApro)

  1. I dropped Wright from my list when he decided to write about me on his blog as an example of the Evils Political Correctness Does to Our Youth. I wasn’t really aware of him before that…certainly not the best introduction.

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