The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum
Is being offended a choice?
When you read a book, you may run across something that would really offend you if somebody said it to you.
However, somebody didn’t say it to you. It wasn’t said to anybody in particular. It might even have been said one hundred years ago.
Does that make a difference?
Are you able to read a book, come across an epithet (racial or otherwise), a demeaning portrayal of a woman, a homophobic characterization, and just shrug it off?
That’s a question that has become particularly relevant in the world of e-books.
I considered writing about this in my more general interest blog, The Measured Circle, but the issue is particularly acute in e-books.
In a way dissimilar to movies or TV, e-books have recently made available works from another time. Since books first published in the US prior to 1923 are in the public domain, they are no longer under copyright protection. Anyone can publish them, without getting (or paying for) permission from the author.
That means we see a lot of books that were written in another time, decades, even more than a century ago.
The culturally accepted norms were different then. Cole Porter may have said in 1934 that Anything Goes, that wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. What specifically goes changes. While many people would suggest that violence and sexual content has become more graphic and more acceptable, derogatory treatement of women and minorities may have become less so.
While I like to think that’s because people have actually become more willing to think of others as equals, there may be a simple financial reason. As minorities and women have gained more purchasing power (and more influcence over what purchases are being made), publishers may have become more sensitive to offending those possible customers.
So, one reason why you are seeing more things that may be offensive to modern sensibilities is that you are seeing more things from earlier times.
Another issue is the idea of “bundles”. Since production and distribution costs are very different, it’s essentially as inexpensive (once you have the files) to distribute fifteen books in one file as it is to distribute a single book. If you have to look at the costs of putting out each individual paperbook, you might not release a controversial title in a series. The sales might be lower for that one, and that could affect your sales on the others.
The other issue with bundles is that you want to distinguish your version from other versions, and one way to do that is to make yours more inclusive.
Let’s take a particular example.
I’m a big fan of the Land of Oz. I’ve paid more than fifty dollars for a single volume. I have copies in my collection that are more than one hundred years old. The series was started by L. Frank Baum, but continued by others until there were forty books in the “canon”.
After the books fell into the public domain, other authors put their own spin on it…from Philip Jose Farmer’s A Barnstormer in Oz to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.
Many readers went took the journey through the land with a nice trade paperback reprint series which came out mostly in the 1980s. It included titles which were (and are) still under copyright protection…it was an authorized set.
That reprint series did not include an Oz book by L. Frank Baum. The book features a popular character who appears in several other volumes, the punning and pompous professor, H.M. Wogglebug, T.E.
Why did they leave it out?
It’s based on a stage play, but that’s not enough of a reason. Stage plays were part of Oz from the beginning.
Presumably, it’s because it is largely based on ethnic humor. The Wogglebug has come to the United States, and encounters a number of stereotyped characters. Perhaps most significantly, it contains what we now call “the N word”.
That particular word is a good example of a real problem. I can’t hear (or read) that word without being pulled up short. In the case of The Woggle-Bug Book, it is used in a dehumanizing way, a way that we would clearly find objectionable today.
It struck me differently when used in Trent’s Last Case by E. C. Bentley, which I was reading as part of The Classic Mystery Collection (which is more than 100 works for a dollar). I was really impressed while I was going through that book…I thought the writing was very good.
Then, it happened. In a simple throwaway (one character recalling a song another character sang), the N word appears. It isn’t used in a deliberately insulting manner. There isn’t a context denigrating a group of people.
Yes, it still bothered me that it was there. That is partially because of the associations I have with the word, of course…associations shaped by the time in which I live and the way it has been used in my lifetime.
Should I forgive the word being in that book because of the Chronological Cultural Context?
I’m not completely sure. I definitely would want anybody to know that it is in the book before they bought it. I tend to be an all or nothing person…if that word is wrong in some contexts, I’ll tend to think it is wrong in all contexts. If a young person read that book, they’d be desensitized to a potentially explosive word.
Should a book be banned because it has a particular word? I’d say no. I think if people want to read books that include insulting words or obscenities (I don’t use the F word myself, but many people do and find it acceptable in literature), I think that shouldn’t be a government decision.
I do think they should be made aware of it ahead of time, though. Some may see that as a form of censorship…it would be pretty hard to do a stigma-free notification. Look at the current movie rating system as an example.
It’s not just specific words, it’s the way groups of people may be portrayed. I have a harder time with sexist material in science fiction written in the 1950s, for example, than I do with ethnic material from the 1880s. Why is that? I think because the political struggle for women’s equality is more a part of my time. I am better able to “suspend my disgust” over a stereotypical performance of an ethnicity in an 1880s book than I am over a “helpless female” in the 1950s.
Now, sci fi in the 1950s (and even earlier) did tend to portay women better (in some cases) than other literature. That may be because they could set women’s political equailty (and in some cases, superiority) in a “fantasy” world.
However, I remember watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon with a young female relative. I like that movie: I like most of the Universal horror movies (even though this isn’t part of the original group of those). Kay (Julie Adams) is not particularly portrayed as helpless. When the gill-man attacks in one scene, though, my young relative was confused: “Why doesn’t she hit him?” Good point…the otherwise capable Kay basically stands there while the males try to fight off the creature.
Do I excuse that as being consistent with the times?
I’m leaving this one open…I’ll welcome your comments. Should a book be condemned because it is racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, if that was the cultural context in which the book was written? What if the book has other positive elements?
What do you think?
This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.