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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.

book review

BOOK REVIEW: “BLACK GOD’S KISS” By C.L. Moore

First published in the pages of Weird Tales in 1934, C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry is the first significant female sword and sorcery protagonist and one of the most exciting and evocative characters the genre has ever known. Published alongside seminal works by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the six classic fantasy tales included in this volume easily stand the test of time and often overshadow the storytelling power and emotional impact of stories by Moore’s more famous contemporaries. A seminal work from one of fantasy’s most important authors, Black God’s Kiss is an essential addition to any fantasy library.

I’m continuing my journey down the rabbit hole of “sword & sorcery” fantasy from the early 20th century. While mostly dominated by Conan the Barbarian, I picked up Black God’s Kiss on recommendation from Reddit  listing it as a “must read”. Is it a must for fans of the genre? Absolutely.

paizo_black_gods_kissJirel of Joiry is a fantastic protagonist. Unlike most of the heroes (anti-heroes?) of this grim subgenre, she is well rounded. She’s a fierce warrior, but she displays a variety of emotions the basic trio of rage, arrogance, and lust that her male peers default to. Questioning her own motives and decisions, as well as her own capabilities make her a flawed and relatable heroine. She’s larger-than-life, but far more humanized and less of a “force of nature” than Conan, Kull, or any of the Burroughs archetypes.

Set in a fictionalized version of France, Moore’s writing is grounded in a familiar geography. Jirel’s adventures take her to fantastical lands and alternate dimensions, but she always returns home to her fortress tower.This re-occurring thematic element along with the French setting adds a tangible, central anchor to some otherwise wild stories. It also plays well with the romantic elements that wind through most of the stories.

The tales are fairly consistent, with Jirel facing off against different antagonists and risking her life for conquest, honor, and revenge. Moore’s prose is dense, as was the style of the time, and the word repetition wavers between poetic and redundant. These are not breezy reads. People in the 1930’s clearly read at a higher grade level.

“Quest Of The Starstone” (the 6th and final installment in the book) is the only entry I really didn’t care for. It focuses on Northwest Smith, another of Moore’s heroic creations, as the protagonist and Jirel is a supporting character. It’s what they refer to as a “cross-over” in the comic book industry, and just felt a bit trite, since Moore dis-empowered Jirel to give one of her other characters the limelight. This was a collaboration with Henry Kuttner, and another author’s influence in the mix surely had an impact as well.

Black God’s Kiss gets a strong recommendation for fantasy fans. Jirel is a great character, and was clearly the foundation for numerous other famous female warriors like Red Sonja and Brienne of Tarth. It’s also convenient to have the complete collection of her adventures in one book, since the “sword & sorcery” era is notorious for numerous incomplete collections which can leave a reader wanting.

If you’re searching for some intense fantasy action with a strong female protagonist, check this one out! You can buy a copy below using my affiliate link. While the paperbacks have gorgeous covers, they are currently out of print, and a bit pricey. It’s only about $1 for the Kindle edition, which is well worth it.

Black Gods Kiss (Planet Stories Library)

WHAT I LIKED:

  • Likeable, flawed heroine with more depth than is usual for her genre
  • Beautiful, complex, prose
  • Stories of (mostly) consistent quality

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  • Some of that beautiful prose had weird stylistic/editorial choices
  • The last story in the book is a little weak

 

book review

“Bloodstone” Review

BloodstoneBloodstone by Karl Edward Wagner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I count myself as a fan of “dark fantasy”, and Bloodstone was an excellent find in the genre. If you enjoy Conan and other grim worlds, the realm of Wagner’s anti-hero Kane should be right up your alley.

I ran across this book while scouring for older fantasy works, since I have been getting a bit bored with a lot of the modern fantasy I’ve been checking out as of late. Plus I have been playing Dark Souls, and it put me in the mood to read something set in a brutal realm. Kane is an interesting character, enigmatic and self-serving, but he’s the type of guy you love to hate. Wagner’s universe is oppressive and unforgiving; full of demons, vicious sword fights, and dark sorcery. His prose is DENSE, and the vocabulary he uses to build his vision demands full attention. I found myself re-reading pages to ensure I knew what was happening.

If I can level a few criticisms, the middle of the book lags a bit, but it’s not so horrible a slog that I became bored. Also, the authors penchant for “SAT words” (he was also a psychologist) ran a little rampant and he picked a select few to overuse. You can only read the word “coruscant” so many times before it becomes irritating. There was also some verbiage that I can only describe as medical terminology that arrived late in the story and felt a bit out of place.

Outside of those minor faults, it’s an excellent story that pulls no punches in creating an intense atmosphere that blends dark fantasy and science fiction. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a challenging read that is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the “Tolkien-esque” heroic high fantasy.

View all my reviews on Goodreads