Friday, June 14, 2013

Pulps and Race -- A Writer's Roundtable

Yeah, yeah, I know. It's been way too long since I posted an author roundtable here. So why not jump back in with one that just may get me run out of town on a rail -- pulps and race?

Yep, I went there.

How much content is there in the classic pulps that can actually taint the experience of reading it for contemporary readers who are either discovering or rediscovering it?

Shelby Vick: Thought I'd contribute from the point of view of one who actually lived thru the Age of Pulps.

Born in 1928, I discovered pulps at age seven. I must admit my initial introduction was thru Westerns and science fiction, altho I did get the occasional Doc Savage. I was limited to the reading tastes of my grandfather, and seldom bought any on my own.

It never occurred to me that there was racism in any of the pulps. Yes, there were no black characters - but, at the same time, all the blacks in my young life were in a minor position; maids, cooks, and laborers. I was aware of racism, of course. "Mama, why are there 'white' and 'colored' water fountains and bathrooms?"

"It's for health reasons, dear."

Frankly, that explanation didn't fly for me, even at that age, but I was not a crusader. It was wrong, but that was the way things were. What could a little boy do to change it? So, correct or not, I accepted it. It never entered my mind that pulp stories should be otherwise.

Today, of course, that's different. Tho e who are discovering pulps for the first time...well, how many read it with a cultural slant? They know they are reading something from the distant past; why would they even stop to think about the lack of the presence of blacks in pulp fiction? You can't go back and argue with Max Brand or others about their shortcomings in the cultural department. Whether they are discovering it or rediscovering it, what would set them off?

Mistreating others would, of course, be wrong - but (as I recall) the primary 'mistreating' was by not using them a t all. In movies, it was different; blacks were 'Stepinfetchet' sort of characters, for the most part. THAT was objectionable.

William Patrick Maynard: To my mind very little is genuinely offensive unless one allows political correctness to run rampant.

I'm not actually bothered by minor censorship such as what Ballantine did with Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books in the 1970s. It was disingenuous to claim the books were "complete and unedited," but the removal of casual racial slurs certainly doesn't hurt the stories and yes, might actually help them. The fact that Burroughs portrayed the Waziri as honorable men is proof enough the man wasn't a true racist, just a product of the thinking of his day. Leaving the slurs in could result in young African-American readers throwing the book down in disgust and never appreciating the fantastic fiction for what it is.

I'm more forgiving in racist and sexist slurs in hard-boiled fiction. It is part of the tough guy patter of the day and one expects it to a degree because everyone comes under fire. No one is good or trustworthy but the knight errant detective. When the worldview is that glum, I'm not bothered by the dismissal of people on the grounds of what would otherwise be baseless slurs.

My concern lies with political correctness. Will the day come that the likes of Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald will be censored because of the prevailing views of their day toward homosexuals? If we're talking the substitution of a word for a slur or a simple editorial note that the work contains views that are no longer held, I don't object, but the wholesale deletion of passages or the banning of works that are no longer politically correct is what I find unacceptable whether the basis is race, gender, or orientation.

Derrick Ferguson: I think it’s downright ignorant to deny that there is plenty of blatant racism and sexism in Classic Pulp and I’d never suggest that anyone who is coming to Classic Pulp for the first time shouldn’t be mindful of that. But I also think that one has to take into account that these stories were written in a less enlightened time and if you’re going to read Classic Pulp then that has to be taken into account.

Now some people say they can’t get past that and that’s cool. Some people honestly can’t separate like that. But I do have a problem when people suggest that Classic Pulp should not be read at all because of the racism and sexism. Classic Pulp isn’t just escapist literature. It’s also a historical record of the popular entertainment medium of that time period. You can’t ignore an entire genre or try to pretend it doesn’t exist because some of the depictions of race makes you uncomfortable or upset.

Lee Houston Jr.:  At times, not knowing slang terms, a limited knowledge of the past, and the shock of what would be considered racist today. For example: how many people know what a "saw buck" is, look forward to Fibber McGee about to open his closet door, or question why things such as bathrooms and drinking fountains were segregated beyond just the standard gender divisions?

I.A. Watson: For the main part I'm happy to allow that the stories were written in a time with different, more limited understandings of race. Its the same way I can excuse sexist behaviour in medieval and Victorian literature. It's just how it was.

I don't know if you Americans are familiar with the old children's toy, the Gollywog. It's a raggy doll that's supposed to resemble a black man - big white sewn-on eyes, big red stitched lips, frizzy black wool hair, usually with red-and-white striped leggings and maybe buttoned braces and a straw hat. It was based on the old Black-and-White Minstrels image from the stage shows. It was a popular children's toy in the UK up to the 60s - I had a second-hand one as a young boy.

Anyway, the most popular British children's writer of the first half of the 20th century, Enid Blyton, wrote a series of books for very small children about the gnome-like Noddy - and his best friend Golly, a golliwog. Various other toys appeared in the cast too, in the tradition of Winnie-the-Pooh. Noddy and Golly featured in dozens of books, comics, newspaper strips, and eventually as a BBC children's animated TV series.

And then... we all learned that black people shouldn't be depicted as rolling-eyed frizzy-haired stereotypes. Nowadays you'll struggle to find any Noddy book in any library anywhere. I learned to read from Noddy books in my first classroom, but you certainly you won't find him in schools today. Despite generally being the sensible friend who pulled Noddy out of trouble, Golly has become persona non grata, because he was based on a politically incorrect toy.

Now I can see why teachers don't want to expose their young charges to odd old material that requires context the children might not be able to grasp. I strongly object to teachers who vilify Enid Blyton for her "racism" and want her works excised because she was a product of her time.

And that's generally my view of those who want to criticise century-old works for not espousing the current perspective of race, gender, sexuality, geo-politics, or religion.

All that said, from a British point of view we have a different set of race sensitivities to the US ones. We don't have the residual cultural guilt of extinct Native Americans or of Negro slavery (we had slaves, and we sold a lot to America, but we got out of the game early and it never really impacted on us at home). So on the whole we're not as likely to be offended at the N-word or at depictions of black oppression. What we did was conquer or colonise a third of the planet, teaching generations of our citizens that the Chinese, (east) Indian, Asian, and African were in need of our benevolent guidance and rulership. Our literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is riddled with stereotype sinister Chinamen, comedy Indians, cruel Asiatic warlords, mad African queens etc., although there's also a generous subset of loyal Sepoy orderlies, dedicated Chinese manservants etc. I'm more likely to cringe at those characters.

From a writers' point of view, let us thank the muses for the Nazis, an Aryan movement of thoroughly unlikeable mass murderers, the last racial subset we can truly despise and happily blow up without feeling the need to show that their culture and viewpoints had merits that must be respected.

Martin Page: A lot of racism in the old Pulps is just background radiation, or economical story telling - like Shakespeare's Shylock. So - being White and European - I am happy to ignore that. Anything vitriolic or packed with Jewish conspiracies can go in the bin, however.

Ed Erdelac: I think if you come at it with a clear sense of the time period it was written in, you can basically get by. But there is a difference to me, between reading something written during a less culturally sensitive or inclusive time, and reading something by a writer who is actively promoting that racist viewpoint. Most white writers of that era would be considered racist by today's standards in thought and word but probably weren't (in the most important sense) by action. There's no question that Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs had racist views, but I can usually look past them. Conversely, I put down the Doc Savage novel Brand Of The Werewolf, and have never picked up a Doc novel since.

Is it better for pulp writers to just ignore the racism of the past and move on, or do we owe it to culture at large to be more intentionally inclusive in new pulp?

William Patrick Maynard: If one is writing in period, one should be honest. Rick Ruby portrays an interracial relationship but it would be disingenuous to suggest it was the norm for the day. Integrity in writing is important. Your characters can disagree with the prevailing views of their era just as Mark Twain did in his time. You don't have to pander to the lowest common denominator just because the era being evoked looks flawed from today's vantage point.

Lee Houston Jr.:  What was common practice back then is thankfully not accepted in these more enlightened times. However, that does not mean we (the public) should try to gloss over the past and ignore it outright. Those beliefs were wrong, and should be acknowledged as mistakes of the past.

Ed Erdelac: I don't think the racism of the past should ever be ignored, no, and I think candy coating it is equally wrong. You can be racially inclusive without sugar coating the past. My Merkabah Rider series features a white Jewish and an Ethiopian Jewish character traveling through the historical old West, and they are often confronted with and themselves confront racism head on. I believe it would do a disservice to the realism of the setting not to.

Derrick Ferguson: We can’t ignore the racism of the past but neither should we shoulder the burden of it. Those writers did their thing back then and writers of New Pulp are doing their thing today. The only thing we owe the culture at large today is to tell the most entertaining stories we possibly can and provide quality reading that won’t waste a reader’s time or money. That’s got to be first before any other consideration. Everything after that is gravy. That’s not to say if a writer intentionally wants to be more racially diverse in his work he can’t be. I mean, my character Dillon I created because the more I read Classic Pulp the more I felt that a black pulp hero was needed as there simply wasn’t one that I could find. And I tried. Couldn’t find one with a search warrant. But at the end of the day I should hope that people who discover Dillon and read his adventures do so first of all because he’s an interesting character who is living an extraordinary life. His being black adds an extra layer to his character, yes. But he’s got a whole lot of interesting layers as well that have nothing to do with his being black.

Martin Page:
Regarding moving forward, tell stories realistically. Don't assume a white male default, because that default does not hold in reality. And don't call what you do "Pulp."

Shelby Vick: Well, even at age 84, I'm not a crusader - but I see nothing wrong in treating blacks, or any group, in a more favorable manner. Have blacks and others handled in an even-handed way. At the very least, no put-downs. Yet I don't see that we 'owe' anything. Proper treatment, yes! 'Crusading'? That's up to the individual author. Nothing wrong with a black detective, a black superhero, etc, but remember: 'Entertainment' is a writer's field. So - entertain us!

I.A. Watson: I'm generally against including material that's not in service of the story as a whole. Unless a point of the story is to challenge racist perceptions then I'll omit it just as I will anything else that doesn't help with the things I want to say.

When I'm writing stories set in an era where particular prejudices existed I'll try not to ignore them. I'm happy to include exceptional characters too. I'll include a free-spirited, wayward Maid Marion who flaunts the straight-jacketed conventions that regulated the women of her age; but that's what makes her the heroine of the story. I'll happily depict a black man in the 1920s as being smart, brave, noble, principled - but not as being a top surgeon at a New York hospital. Likewise I'm comfortable with a 1920s black man being a cheat, a liar, a bully, and a sadist - but not because of his race.

One problem we face using non-white characters in some historic settings is that it can be hard for the story to be about anything other than race. If the amateur detective investigating the murder in 1922 New York is black then the story tends to become all about that. With a white character in similar circumstances it wouldn't be about him being white. On the other hand there are many eras and settings where race shouldn't matter, so why not offer cultural diversity? Would John Carter of Mars have been tremendously different if he'd been a black soldier? Would Buck Rogers in the 25th Century have been worse off if he was a half-Arab half-Australian Aborigine?

Do you consider race-based pulp a step in the right direction, or is it just doing with pulps the same thing some comics and comics movies have done, simply replacing characters (or types) with another someone of another color and trying to get people to accept it -- or just buy it because it's now being "marketed" to them as a more colorful version?

Ed Erdelac: I don't think it should make a difference really what the pervasive racial makeup of a book is. Considering so much of the old pulp was very nearly entirely white, why not have black or Asian or Hispanic pulp etc.? I do think the characters should be original. I don't care for 'takes' on established characters no matter what their race. Making a black Batman or an Indian Superman is lazy, and hearkens back to characters like Supergirl and Batgirl. While these characters have since gone on to have identities of their own, it's pretty clear they started as ways to 'get the girls excited about Bat/Superman.'

Derrick Ferguson: Race-based entertainment is nothing new and shouldn’t be treated as such. It grinds my grits to no end when race based entertainment is challenged. You have those who will make the argument that race based entertainment is in itself racist. Which is flat out bullshit. It’s not racist to want to see heroes and heroines of your own ethnic background in your entertainment whether it be books, movies, comics or television. Black cinema has been with us since the 1920’s. Movies made for black movie goers who went to black movie theaters to see them as they couldn’t go to white theaters. Same thing with Asian cinema. And I don’t see a thing wrong with New Pulp marketing to a specific ethnic group. Every other form of entertainment does it so why shouldn’t we? Especially modern day audiences that welcome and look for ethnic diversity in their entertainment.

Shelby Vick: As I said: Entertain us! 'Race-based pulp' is fine, so long as it's entertaining!!!

I.A. Watson: If the hook is "Hey, look, the character's Black/Hispanic/Inuit/Lebanese!" then that seems to me like a short-term strategy. It's like the profusion of female lead characters in the 70s and 80's: "Hey look- she's a woman and she's just as good a detective as if she was a man!" If the story's going to be about the protagonist's race or faith then fine, there's a reason for making the hero Jewish or Muslim or North African or whatever. If the story establishes the character's Black and then just gets on with telling a good story then that's fine too. If the story's there to show that a Chinese man's just as good as a White man then I'm the wrong audience for it.

I'm not an advocate of the school of writing that says only a woman can write a female lead and only a gay man can write good gay characters and so on, but I still cringe at those 1970s comics where White writers tried to attract Black readers by including "street hip" Black characters. Sweet Christmas!

William Patrick Maynard:
That depends on the characterization. Race-based pulp that is honest for its setting and depiction is to be lauded. Again, writing with integrity is the key. If you're writing a 1930s era pulp with a minority protagonist, then deal with what that would have meant the same way as if one was writing a crime story set in the rural South in the early 1960s with a black protagonist. Pretending history didn't happen is a mistake. Stories succeed on honesty.

Lee Houston Jr.:  For me personally, what type of person the lead characters are and why I should care whether or not they save the world and survive their current adventure are more important factors than the color of their skin or gender. That is what I also aim for in my writings, getting the readers interested in and caring about the characters.

What else can be done to broaden the racial or interracial appeal of pulp fiction, whether classic or new pulp?

Derrick Ferguson: First of all, tell good stories with good characters. That’s the foundation of pulp fiction right there. People will want to read stories about heroic characters fighting impossible odds to do the right thing and protect the innocent no matter what their ethnic background is.  Give people quality every time and everything else will follow. There are some people who are not going to read New Pulp no matter what and having heroes of color is not going to change their opinion or reading habits. And that’s okay. There’s a whole lot of other readers out there who will pick up a New Pulp book with interracial characters. And let me just say that New Pulp isn’t looking to replace or be superior to Classic Pulp. It’s an extension and an amplification of Classic Pulp. It’s no more and no less that the tropes of a genre updated for the consumption and entertainment of a modern day audience.

William Patrick Maynard: Embracing the diversity of the human race in your stories is a great idea as long as it never appears the writer is simply ticking the box just for the sake of it. Want to add a gay character in the first half of the last century? Great, show the closeted life they were forced to lead. Depict any character at any time who is a minority? Don't shun from the prejudices they faced. For the most part, it appears New Pulp does that just fine. From my perspective, so did Classic Pulp. It honestly reflected the thinking of the day. It may not be pretty, but it was what we were. For all of the offensive stereotypes, there were exceptions like the Jo-Gar stories that stand out. For all of the denigration of racism in writers like Burroughs or Rohmer, there is the undeniable portrayal of minorities as people of intelligence and integrity that was equal or superior to the protagonists in their work. That is the truth of pulp and all fiction.

I.A. Watson: We might look at establishing new settings for some of our historical tales. The Wild West's a great place for stories about Native American heroes, and the Mexican frontier would seem ripe for Hispanic protagonists, but there's lots of times and places beyond that, places where being White would make one the outsider. Is there no value in a pulp approach to the Shogun era, or to enlightened the court of Saladin, or in the troubled fall of the Roman Empire when the balance of power was with Attila's Huns? We've already seen some of this happening. Look at Airship 27's Sinbad series.

In fact the further the stories get from 1930s Chicago the easier diversity gets. A black hero in 1930s Congo has plenty to do. A Chinese hero in 2013 Chicago has plenty to do. Unfortunately, the further we go from the established times and places of popular former pulp, the more work it is for the author to get things right, the harder it is to write "from experience," the tougher the sell to readers who think they want "more of the same."

Lee Houston Jr.:  There are a lot of instances within my own writing where, no matter what else I say about how a character looks or the type of person they are, I never mention their race/skin tone. Granted, I have to be more specific with aliens in my science fiction work like HUGH MONN, PRIVATE DETECTIVE; but by not stating a specific color whenever possible, the reader's imagination has more room to wander, and thus gives my work a little broader appeal.

Ed Erdelac: Authors shouldn't waste time remaking the stories they used to enjoy. Move on. Write the stories that haven't been written yet. I don't subscribe to that every story's been told crap.  Not every combination has been explored or there wouldn't be an entertainment industry of any kind. Very often that includes telling the stories of people who haven't been put in the spotlight before. Look at the popularity of the movie RED TAILS. You can argue that story has already been told, but not in this way, and not with those characters. To broaden the appeal of pulp fiction, open it to the audiences that have traditionally not been represented in its pages. People gravitate towards characters they can see themselves in.