Product-of-Your-Time Rhetoric – Is Awareness the Answer?

Agatha Christie is my third mentor for this year, and she’s also the third British writer who published actively in the ’20s and ’30s. Woolf, Wodehouse, and Christie could, very conceivably, have hung out and had some beers together. They were all about the same age and wrote throughout both World Wars. What’s so interesting about reading these three authors back-to-back is their approaches to literature are so startlingly different. Stream-of-conscious Woolf. Humorous Wodehouse. Mysterious Christie.

However, I noticed a disturbing trend as I read through these three writers. I hesitate to bring it up, only because it involves the potential to insult these writers whom I’ve worked so hard to talk about. But I think if we are to learn anything from a mentor, we have to examine the subjects that come up, flaws and all. So I’m going to risk it and hope that you’ll share your thoughts and comments below.

Underlying the different techniques and the approaches to language in these writers, there was one thing that they all hit on at one point or another: disparaging commentary toward minority groups. Specifically Blacks and Jews.

The book that brought my attention to this directly was the original title of Christie’s And Then There Were None. At first that book was called Ten Little Niggers. Then Ten Little Indians. The final version I read had no reference to either of the previous titles – the song used in the book refers to ten soldiers.

My brain spun at the idea that a book could be published at all with the two original titles. Then I thought about Wodehouse and Woolf, remembering that there had been one or two times where a derogatory term would pop up. I flipped back through and here are some examples of what I found:

• from The Voyage Out: “ ‘I want people to like me and they don’t. It’s partly my appearance, I expect,’ he continued, ‘though it’s an absolute lie to say I’ve Jewish blood in me….’”
• from Jacob’s Room: “she liked that man Jacob better than dirty Jews.”

• from “The Little Nugget”: “It is always the bad nigger who gets religion most strongly at the camp meeting, and in my case ‘getting religion’ had taken the form of suppression of self.”
• from Mike and Psmith: “Unfortunately, he used the sooty hand and the result was like some gruesome burlesque of a nigger minstrel.”

And there are more examples from each one of these writers. I’m not saying that to bash their stories or their accomplishments. In fact, as I turned it over in my head, considering the drastic differences in style, method, selling-ness, and experiences of the authors, I found it strange that all three could consistently mention Blacks and Jews in such a fashion: just throwing down the words without expectation of reprisal.

Then it occurred to me: in the time period these three writers were producing work, it was – while not necessarily encouraged – accepted that “nigger” or “dirty Jew” could be thrown into a story as a legitimate metaphor. Readers wouldn’t have thought twice (unless such terms were thrown into the title…and even Ten Little Niggers got past enough editors to get published). The rhetoric of the culture allowed such things to be said.

While, today, we bitch and moan about having to be Politically Correct, there are some darn good reasons to watch what we write or say. First off, piled-up rhetoric is very convincing.

Imagine, if you will, that thousands of people are reading just these three authors (as they were and are). Therefore, thousands of people are exposed to the language “nigger” and “dirty Jew” thrown around in casual conversation/popular literature. That casual language sets a layer. Now, imagine a talented rhetorician comes around, notices what is or is not acceptable to talk about, and starts emphasizing certain things, i.e. “You have no money, but that dirty Jew shop owner does.” Another layer. And imagine a rhetorician with a film camera commenting on The Eternal Jew. Another layer.

No! Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I do not in any way blame Woolf, Wodehouse, or Christie for Hitler – or for slavery/segregation/American politics until the 1960s for that matter. I’m merely illustrating that what we say (whether in writing, in speech, in blogs) has a layering effect. It’s like millions of pieces of paper or bytes leaning and piling on top of one another.

And, unfortunately, we may not realize that what we said added to the layers of negativity.

Not to get any more political, but only to illustrate today’s potentially rhetorical danger zone: Today, as we know, Osama bin Laden is dead. The Middle East is in upheaval. And there are going to be literary reactions to all of it, on all sides. Books have already been written in reaction to 9/11 (The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Hamid, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Safran Foer, and The Terrorist by Updike to name three wide variations on this theme).

While great writers try so, so, so hard to remain balanced, to just tell the story, to examine what could be the truth from all sides…the truth is, writers are only human. They have biases and prejudices – often fed by their Time. They’re (we’re) bound to fuck up. And only future generations can tell how much so.

But I think, by being aware of what we’re saying, we’ll be able to say it better, without offending too many, and without compromising our own integrity or the integrity of our work.

Okay, I’ve gone on waaaay too long. You’re turn. What’re your thoughts on political correctness? Derogatory terms? The three mentors’ language? Or, you know, if you know a good joke that’ll lighten the heavy discussion…. =)


7 responses to “Product-of-Your-Time Rhetoric – Is Awareness the Answer?”

  1. Al Avatar

    It seems we need to judge people by the standards of the time.

    Language like this raises an issue for authors. In writing historical fiction I want to be authentic, but I don't want to alienate a modern audience.

    A conundrum.

  2. Jenny Maloney Avatar

    Oooo, historical fiction raises a whole set of questions: How authentic? How alienating? Like you said.

    But then you've got genres within genres within the historical genre as well. Generally historical romance won't bring that kind of language in, even to create authenticity. And the newer genres that mix sci-fi/fantasy with history won't because they almost have too much in the text anyway. But literary fiction? Are you almost obligated, as a writer, to get that authenticity in there? If so, how on Earth do you do that without (as you're so rightly concerned about) alienating the savvy audience-of-today?

  3. Debbie Avatar

    Good points. I just finished reading The Help. “Colored” is used all the time with an occasional “nigger” thrown in. It wasn't alienating to me, because that's how people talked then. As a matter of fact, I would have expected more derogatory terms used more frequently.

    The term Politically Correct has been demonized over the past decade or so. IMHO, it simply replaced what used to be called being aware of other people's feelings. And a lot of that can be avoided by not lumping people into categories.

  4. Jenny Maloney Avatar

    Deb-I just picked up The Help today. It was actually the movie preview that convinced me. Somehow, working with all those books, seeing that it was a bestseller, I hadn't looked to see what it was about until I was waiting around to watch Bridesmaids.

    I don't know what that says about my taste….

  5. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    I disagree with revising old books to remove anything our current sensibilities deem is “wrong” – I mean, wouldn't it be silly if a hundred years from now our books were edited to remove, I don't know, any reference to Republicans vs Democrats or something?
    I agree with you that it behooves ([g]) authors to pay extra attention to their word choices. Since words are our medium and we ought to be aware of which ideas and views we're perpetuating.
    It *is* odd that Christie and Woodhouse should have repeated some of those ideas, if only because they both lived through WWII.

  6. Jenny Maloney Avatar

    I'm pretty sure that the examples from Christie and Wodehouse are earlier works–pre WWII.

  7. Deniz Bevan Avatar

    Aha, that's what I thought. I bet that would have made a difference to them.

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