*I had asked RES to do a follow up to his post — then politics intervened, and then I lost it, as I tend to lose things in the deluge of emails I get everyday. I asked him to send it again yesterday, and I’m glad I did. Partly because it’s an excellent book, partly because a series of symptoms that had been afflicting me for the last 24h or so resolved itself into stomach flu. BAD stomach flu. I’ll be going back to bed now. The nausea is not at bad as last night, but my head is still going around, so… I’m returning to bed. Meanwhile enjoy RES’s take on reading older books, which is more or less the same as mine, but far more more reasoned and elegant than the donnybrooks I tend to get into when put on an Heinlein panel.*
A Reader’s Obligation — by RES
Along with the importance of authors recognizing that their writing cannot help but reflect their society — and thus the need to make that reflection as true as possible — there is also an obligation on readers.
C.S. Lewis, in his essay “On The Reading of Old Books”makes the point:
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books.”
If readers fail to recognize that they are embedded in a particular culture and fail to take into account the ephemerality of that culture, they will make serious and unfair mistakes. A book, any book, should be recognized as first and foremost an artifact of its time. Contemporary standards should not be used to judge the work, nor its constituent elements. Apples should be judged by the standards of apples, not oranges, and books should be accorded the respect of being judged according to the standards of their eras.
Styles change. It is unreasonable to criticize the style of a book written in 1920, 1870 or 1820 because that style is less streamlined than today’s books. All of those works are artifacts of a different time, preceding mass media (other than the written word.) In 1920 there was no television nor radio, competing for audience attention. Movies were still silent. People viewed leisure differently than we now do, and did not desire books which could be zipped through while standing on line at the grocery check-out. It is not unreasonable to prefer contemporary writing, but it is unfair to find fault with books written for a different time and different audience.
Equally, it is unfair to criticize authors for being less enlightened than our contemporary selves. First, no author is more enlightened than their publisher permits; that is self-evident. Second, because any author is speaking to a contemporary audience (and only dreams of being read by subsequent generations) the author cannot too far outpace the attitudes and values of their era. The thoughtful reader should consider carefully the likelihood that our contemporary enlightenment is in part a consequence of that author having pushed the envelope of their culture. As Newton recognized, “If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.” Do not forget how we climbed to the heights of enlightenment from which we now view the world, and do not casually disparage the trailblazers who we followed to get there.
Jane Austen’s novels, written when the form was young, describe a culture entirely foreign and yet entirely familiar. The social rules governing actions conceivable to Austen’s characters are largely unfathomable and in many ways irrational to modern eyes. Yet these characters are motivated by the same things motivating modern readers: status, finding a compatible and desirable mate, “making” their livelihood. The thoughtful reader looks beneath the surface differences into the deeper commonalties uniting reader and character. By finding the truth in the society she limned, Austen has depicted a truth about human nature which allows modern readers access to her work if they focus on that truth.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberrry Finn is nowadays famously banned because of its“n-word” use,. Yet at the time it was published the “n-word” was not only in common usage (along with a plethora of other disparaging ethnic and racial slurs), its omission would have made the book far less effective in reaching its audience. We should recognize that much of that which has rendered the “n-word” social anathema is a consequence of Huckleberry Finn’s effectiveness as literature, its focusing attention on the content of Jim’s character in contrast to the color of his skin. Readers owe it to the author (and themselves) to view books as artifacts of the cultures in which they were written; you should not get your panties knotted over words that once were common and are now verboten. Consider, also, that the hyper-sensitivity about that word is a recent artifact; as recently as the 1960s and 70s the word was commonly employed by such stand-up comedians as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Attention must be paid to the circumstances of a word’s usage and readers are unfair to leap screaming, onto chairs over the mere appearance of a word, no matter how offensive to the contemporary ear.
In his fifth Nero Wolfe novel, Too Many Cooks, Rex Stout accurately depicts race relations in American society of that time. The solution to the murder depends on accurate understanding of that society:
In one of the best known scenes in the series, Wolfe meets with 14 black men, each of them a member of either the kitchen or the wait staff. A witness to the crime’s aftermath has told Wolfe that she saw a black man, dressed in the livery worn by the resort’s workers, in the dining room at the time that the murder occurred. The man was holding a finger to his lips, hushing another black man who was peering through the door between the dining room and the pantry. Wolfe wants to explore that statement with the kitchen and wait staff.
In contrast to the treatment the men receive from the prosecuting attorney and, particularly, the sheriff, Wolfe offers them courtesy and civility. Even that approach is bootless, though, until Wolfe makes an appeal to their sense of equity. He is looking for the man who was seen in the dining room, and says this:
But if you shield him because he is your color, there is a great deal to say. You are rendering your race a serious disservice. You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them.
This speech so impresses Paul Whipple that he blurts out what he saw in the dining room from his vantage point in the pantry: a white man in blackface, warning him to be silent. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Too_Many_Cooks]
Many of the terms referencing those 14 men are patently offensive to the contemporary reader, especially from the lips of narrator Archie Goodwin, but they are an accurate representation of that era and that accuracy is required to resolve the mystery. It is also by such accurate depiction that the reader of that time was forced to confront the inequity of the racial discrimination afflicting American society. So long as such bias is allowed to remain in background the culture can overlook it; bringing the unpleasant into the foreground forces readers to recognize and judge their society by it. If the N-word stops you from reading this book you miss its condemnation of racist attitudes and discrimination.
When reading Rex Stout or Agatha Christie the sensible reader will adjust (or ignore) monetary amounts. $50,000 is a tidy sum today, in 1938 it represented about ten years income for a middle class worker. Its power as motivation for criminal actions was correspondingly greater, and any reader who dismisses that significance is failing to appreciate the book being read. Readers will make an effort (and smart authors will provide references) to appreciate changes in values.
Science Fiction is especially susceptible to this type of error. The most visible example is the ubiquity of slide-rules for calculation. But through the Fifties and Sixties Science Fiction was primarily a field of, by and for engineers (whether working in that field or not.) For an engineer of that era it was taken for granted that people would retain slipsticks: it was the emblem of the professional. It was an essential skill of their profession and nothing they saw indicated any replacement imaginable.
Other factors are less blatant but more pervasive. Sarah has frequently commented about the views of population growth, of Malthusianism held by SF writers of that era. Writing in a dynamic, aggressive culture they expected homo sap to procreate. Education being much more available and far less expensive, they conceived no reason to think people would limit family size. They grew to adulthood in a culture in which large families were the norm, they saw improvements in medicine and health care as increasing human happiness and lifespans. It was only natural they would project the trendline into the future.
Computers were well known to these writers: they were large, unwieldy and expensive to build, to buy, to maintain. Nothing they knew (and many of them were far more knowledgeable about computers than 90% of the people of that era) suggested this was anything likely to change. Expecting them to have anticipated modern solid-state circuitry is unreasonable and readers who sneer at their failure merely display their own callowness.
It has long been trendy for critics to assail many of Robert Heinlein’s views as retrograde, as antediluvian. Such critics miss the fact that such thinking was highly forward for his culture, was often already pushing the limits on what Heinlein’s audience was ready and able to accept, and frequently were the opinions of Heinlein’s characters. As Niven’s Law reminds us, “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot.'”
It is vain preening to disparage Heinlein’s portrayal of women or culture. He was writing for a culture that was less enlightened than we today, as future generations will look down upon ours. What matters is not the market in which Heinlein wrote but how he pushed that market, making it able to change and accept ideas leading to today’s enlightened thinking. Given he was primarily writing books for sell to young men Heinlein’s representation of sexual relations was remarkably advanced for his times. To focus on the flaws is to overlook his vastly greater strengths and the ways in which he pushed societal change. It is to obsess over “the characteristic mistakes” of his generation while ignoring “the characteristic mistakes” of our own. Decrying his women as unrealistic stereotypes overlooks one salient fact: they were based on real women. That they might not fit the critic’s views on proper portrayal says more about the limitations and agenda of the critic than of Heinlein.
Asimov’s Foundation series needs to be read as reflecting the culture in which he was immersed. A man of the Left, Doctor Asimov had fully imbibed the memes of his culture, seeing the world though the lens of socialism’s perspective on the forces of History and the relative unimportance of individuals. His view was an expression of the idea of broad forces pushing society. The themes and content of his work were shaped by the culture in which he developed and the audience for whom he wrote. It is as foolish to apply contemporary moral standards and values to his or Heinlein’s work as it is to apply them to Austen, Dumas or Verne.
There are a few constant standards of good writing: grammar, vivid word imagery, engaging plots. The modern reader has a duty to ignore the characteristic mistakes of a given period (including their own) and approach the work with an open mind. Many an incredible tale is based upon even more improbable actual events and individuals.
In the visual arts there is a notable development of technique. Painters learned how to create perspective, they learned pointillism and chiaroscuro techniques but no intelligent person evaluates Roman and Egyptian art by modern standards. In film we have the development of story-telling techniques, addition of sound and color. Anybody dismissing the brilliance of Chaplin and Keaton for being silent, who disdains the Marx Brothers for being in Black & White denies himsel some of the most marvelous of films. Camera and acting technique evolve and it is absurd to not appreciate that evolution. Anybody watching the Thirties Flash Gordon serials is reasonable to disdain the acting, writing and costuming, but to sneer at their rockets as “a pod with a sparkler up its butt” is to fail to understand that, at that time, that was how rockets looked when they flew. The even burn and tremendous force of post WWII rockets would not have been believable in that earlier decade.
What matters about past authors is not that they have so much wrong with them, but rather how much they still speak to modern readers, especially if those readers do their duty and remember with whom they speak. You would not conversationally engage your grandparent in the same manner you use for your parents, your peers, your children, your grandchildren. When reading a book not of your time, read it as an relic of its own time and measure it against that time.