Coming to Terms With Writing in an Awakening World

Today was not a good day for Dr. Seuss. It seems a few of the Doctor’s books have been forsook. There were scowls and howls and frowns most foul. The readers raged! The readers screamed! When they turned the pages, the readers steamed!

Or, as The New York Times explained in an article: Six Dr. Seuss books will no longer be published because of their use of offensive imagery, according to the business that oversees the estate of the children’s author and illustrator.”

The books that will cease publication include offensive depictions of Asians and Africans. They were written a long time ago, before Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, had established himself as the Grand Poobah of children’s books.

Most of us have read Dr. Seuss books. Many of us love them. But these particular books were written during an era when it was deemed perfectly acceptable to depict certain ethnic groups with offensive stereotypes. That era has gone the way of indoor smoking, and with good reason.

I’ve read plenty of Dr. Seuss books, both as a kid and a parent. I don’t think I’ve ever read the books that got pulled. But based on what I’ve seen in the news accounts, I’m not surprised they got pulled. We have entered an era where that kind of thing just isn’t tolerated anymore.

What used to be acceptable doesn’t have to be acceptable now. Values change. Society changes. “Gone With the Wind” might be considered a classic movie, but its depiction of black characters can make you cringe. Similarly, Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” is considered a classic of American literature – maybe the classic American novel – but one of the main characters is N****r Jim, and that N word appears more than 200 times in the book.

More on that later.

The terms that are being tossed around for the pushback against certain works of art are “woke culture” and “cancel culture.” I don’t like either term, but for now, they’ll have to do. If you haven’t heard about woke culture, here’s a primer from the Guardian. Wokeness can manifest itself in different ways, from taking the time to learn about different cultures to establishing safe spaces free from anything that can be deemed offensive.

The Dr. Seuss news just happened to coincide with something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: how creative works from our past don’t translate that well to modern times. One of the reasons I’ve been thinking about it is because I’ve been reading George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London,” a non-fiction memoir of the famed author’s life as a homeless man in those two cities before he hit it big with “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

The memoir, published in 1933, gives a pretty brutal view of what it was like to be poor and out of work during that period. People spent weeks living on a couple slices of bread a day – if they were lucky. They might scrounge just enough money to pay for a slab of indoor floor to sleep in one of the flophouses, surrounded by dozens of other similarly miserable people. Life was an ongoing nightmare of hunger, filth, degradation, and uncertainty. I find the book fascinating – and disturbing.

One reason I find it disturbing is that there is a steady undercurrent of anti-Semitism in it. Jews are largely depicted as scheming and unworthy of trust. This anti-Semitism comes from the author himself. Orwell seems to have genuine animosity toward Jews. You have to remind yourself that this memoir was written during the 1930s, in Europe, just as Hitler was gaining power in Germany. A dozen years later, six million Jews had been killed in European concentration camps.

A few slights from society’s outcasts helped feed a general mindset that led to mass genocide.

So, would I recommend the book? That’s a tough question. On the one hand, it’s a fascinating piece of work, brilliantly written and full of valuable insights into the dregs of society. On the other hand, parts of it are just plain offensive. You have to weigh whether the value outweighs the malice. It probably depends on which side of the fence you’re sitting on.

Which brings me to the other reason the Dr. Seuss news coincided with something I’ve been thinking about lately….

As mentioned in my previous blog, I have a novel coming out soon (I’ll be mentioning that a lot in the coming weeks, so fair warning). The novel is “Voodoo Hideaway,” to be published by Atmosphere Press. It’s a semi-noirish, semi-comic crime thriller with a sci-fi element whose main theme is the lengths people will go to for money, power, fame, revenge, etc.

The novel contains some not-so-nice characters who say and do some not-so-nice things. They lie, cheat, steal, bully, double-cross, and inflict physical pain. Some use ethnic slurs, because that’s the way characters like these think and talk, and a big part of developing a character is getting inside of his or her head. I figure there are maybe a couple dozen instances of a character saying or relating something offensive. I counted, believe me.

And it’s that last part that worries me as a writer.

In 2021, you can have a character chop 40 people in half with an ax (I didn’t) and grill the victims over an open flame (I didn’t) with no real cultural backlash. But if that same ax murderer makes liberal use of racial, ethnic, religious, gender or sexuality slurs, you could find yourself in a world of trouble.

This is one of the side effects of woke culture. But maybe that’s too simplistic. There’s a pretty wide landscape when it comes to what represents “woke.” Some of it is easy to understand. Being woke means staying away from demeaning insults in public discourse, whether it’s the “N” word or the “C” word or the ““F” word or some other slur (feel free to figure those out on your own). You shouldn’t even have to think about those things. Just don’t do it.

But some of it crosses into a fuzzy gray area that’s very difficult to get your arms around. This is where art and literature come into play, and I have some real concerns in this area. Art has numerous purposes, and one of the most important is its ability to be true to its subject matter. One of the greatest truths about humanity is that people are a mixed lot, capable of great compassion – and great cruelty.

So what happens when a decision is made to paint over the cruelty? I’m not talking about Dr. Seuss depicting certain ethnic groups as stereotypes, because those stereotypes are not based in truth. They are fabricated images written from a majority-white point of view.

I’m talking about actually covering up the real truth. A couple of years ago, the San Francisco school board voted to conceal a series of murals at one school depicting images of slavery and violence against Native Americans because they were deemed disturbing to historically marginalized students.

The murals, painted during the Great Depression, were originally intended to reflect the hidden history of a country that rose to power through the enslavement of millions of Africans and the genocide of millions of indigenous peoples. Should we deny that this history happened? Should we paint a pretty picture over an ugly one?

I don’t think so. But my opinion probably won’t tip the scale much. It’s for future generations to decide. They’re the ones who will determine what’s acceptable and what’s not. That’s how it’s always been and always will be.

Which brings us back to “Huckleberry Finn.” Efforts have been made to eliminate all references to “N****r Jim” from future publications to protect certain students from the historical violence of that word. Personally, I don’t have a problem with eliminating the word. I’m not sure how eliminating it changes the theme or the story. If reading the “N” word over and over offends students, then what’s the harm in eliminating it? Huck is still Huck, and Jim is still Jim.

But that’s just one example. There are a thousand others where a character is written honestly, and changing that character changes the whole story. When Vito Corleone says in “The Godfather” that “women and children can afford to be careless, but not men,” that’s a sexist statement. It’s not in any way reflective of reality. But it’s true to the character. And whitewashing what the character says changes the character. I don’t think we want that, but maybe I’m wrong.

We’ll probably find out in eighty years or so. But most of us won’t be around then.

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