Dealing with Racism in Genre Writing

image of train wreck

I’ve recently been reading The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard.

They were recommended to me by a friend after I mentioned enjoying other sword & sorcery stories such as “Conan”, “Kull”, and Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books.

The recommendation came with a caveat that some of the stories contained racist language and imagery. I’m not easily offended as a reader, so I felt fully prepared for it.

I was unprepared.

“The Moon of Skulls”, in particular, was a story I could barely finish. I forced myself to read it entirely, but I was completely disconnected from it once all the deeply racist imagery and description appeared. This was similar to certain stories I’ve read by H.P. Lovecraft, who, in addition to being a brilliant writer, was unfortunately a terrible xenophobe and bigot.

This post isn’t meant to be an examination of their beliefs. The guys were racist and wrong. Full stop.

What I want to understand is why the racist imagery struck me so hard, versus other books I’ve read like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huck Finn.

I believe it is because those stories were consumed as Literature (with a capital L) and in a scholastic setting. There was discussion and analysis that framed the reading of the books, and the “language of the time” was part of that larger critical discussion. That Howard and company were “genre” authors shouldn’t diminish their stories or the impact of their language, but I it feels more jarring in writing intended primarily for “entertainment”.

I’m a firm believer that genre stories can tackle tough subject matter, including social issues and politics. That said, outlets like Weird Tales and other pulp magazines were very much intended as entertainment during their heyday around the 1920’s. The very concept of “pulps” identified that this was not literature or high-brow stuff. It is writing as pure escapism, and I often read it because I want to escape the depressing and nasty things delivered by the media in a seemingly never-ending stream these days. So for it to appear in my escapist pleasure reading, I was angry and turned off.

I’m interested to know how the rest of you handle language that is offensive or distressing to you when you come across it.

Do you continue reading and try to “separate the art from the artist”? Do you stop reading it and find something else? Do you throw the book across the room and recoil in terror? Although I finished that initial story, I skipped later ones where I saw racist text, since I knew I wouldn’t enjoy the stories.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Dealing with Racism in Genre Writing

  1. inkbiotic says:

    It’s tricky, and I’ve abandoned books with unpleasant bigotry – I understand the context of the time, but it kills the enjoyment. Maybe there’ll be a point when racism (and other isms) will become a thing of the past and just a curiosity to be analysed, but we’re a long way from that. An interesting blog, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • B.L. Daniels says:

      Agreed. I’m not one to ever say things should be censored or taken out of print for content, but it’s definitely a fine line. I think the “analysis” you mentioned is important. I think as a society we need to analyze these things to ensure “history doesn’t repeat itself”, but that is also why the genre work struck me. When literature is tackling an “-ism” as a theme, I think it can promote healthy conversation. In the case of these stories I felt more like “Ugh, this fantasy tale is racist.” There was nothing really to analyze or discuss about it other than the authors own views bleeding through the words. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s