They certainly are too smart to be lost. I admit it’s tricky about the language, but we’re all still reading Charles Dickens—and Mark Twain, who is regularly subjected to gratuitous attempts to clean him up, which of course ENTIRELY miss the point. When Dickens was a racist, he meant it.*
I remember reading THE GLASS SIDED ANTS’ NEST for the first time** not long after it came out, which means I was still a teenager. It totally blew me away—I had at that point never read anything that was such a combination of sharp intelligence and, well, thrills, it being a murder mystery and all. I read all of the Pibble books, and (nearly) all the rest of Peter’s adult novels, some of them genre mysteries and some of them not, pretty much as they came out***. What can I say. He’s a brilliant writer.† And maybe I’ll go on about this some more some other night, when I haven’t already written enough words to make a blog post and when I haven’t put myself back an hour I needed for SHADOWS by inadvertently starting to reread GLASS SIDED which I had responsibly pulled off the shelf merely to check the original pub date. . . .
* * *
* I’ve recently written an introduction^ to a Classic Work of Fantasy Literature^^ that has exactly this same problem and I knew going in that I was going to be blunt about it. Here it is, I would say, and there’s no rationalising it away. But I love the book anyway and I hope you will too. Fortunately the editor agreed with me. And this is my take on this kind of thing: there probably are exceptions, but as a principle I would say that you don’t mess with what the author wrote. Introductions, notes, flap copy, author bios and so on can annotate what needs it. Again there are probably exceptions but generally speaking you’re already aware of historical context by the time you run up against something that makes you go ‘oh dear’—at which point you decide whether you can roll with it or not. Generally speaking I will roll with racism and sexism—both kinds of sexism, genderism and sexual-orientation-ism—and, er, classism, that’s (say) a century old or more . . . and diminishingly put up with it the nearer it is to the present day. I will pretty flatly not put up with it in any writer my age or younger, which means there are great swathes of modern literature, including F&SF^^^, that I won’t touch with a barge pole and, in some cases, make me froth at the mouth and wish to kill things.
I’m also aware that Twain’s hands aren’t clean either. He was still a man of his time. But I believe he was genuinely sending up the dishonesty and cruelty of the society Huck Finn found himself at odds with. Do you play the Who would you like to have a cup of tea with? game, about characters in books? (The rules of the game say they would cooperate. Whether you’d get along with them or not however is open to delicious speculation.) Who in HUCK FINN would you like to have a cup of tea with? Me, it would be Jim. Huck himself is only second.
^ Which is another story. Due to Circumstances Beyond My Control I found myself doing this at the end of January. Yes. This January. It was Stimulating. Not in a good way.
^^ I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about it in public yet, and I can’t check till business hours tomorrow and I want this piece about Peter to go up NOW. I’ll certainly tell you when my intro comes out.
^^^ I’m a bit puzzled that Fowler+ says ‘whereas fantasies keep their timeless appeal, crime novels are subject to changes in society and language.’ What? Do we have to cite any examples past . . . oh, say, HP Lovecraft? ( . . . Edgar Rice Burroughs? Robert E. Howard? . . . JRR Tolkien? I can’t read Burroughs or Howard any more, but I still read Lovecraft, who is grotesquely racist++, and Tolkien, who doesn’t get his knickers particularly in a twist about miscegenation+++, but all of whose good guys are white and a lot of whose bad guys are swarthy.) And on the other side of the genre fence I don’t believe either Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers would win any awards for prescient political correctness and they’re still in print and, I believe, much loved.++++
+ Whose own books are a lot of fun and great reads, especially for those of us with a penchant for tangents.# The Bryant and May series is London as You Have Never Seen It Before (and Rather Hope It Stays Between Book Covers). http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/christopher-fowler
# ahem. ::whistles::
++ I belong to the faction that believes that part of why Lovecraft’s best creepy stuff is quite so effectively creepy is because he was so creepy a human being, with a menagerie of private demons. This makes me sad. Again, generally, I want to believe that the healthier a human being a writer is, the better they write. So if Lovecraft hadn’t been a sick dude maybe he’d’ve written The Great American Novel.
+++ Unless you want to count Saruman’s experiments with orcs, but that doesn’t give off miscegenation fumes to me. I could be wrong.
++++ Although not by me.
** AAAAAUGH. . . . And I’ve just spent the past hour reading . . . well, the first hour’s-worth of it again. Several things strike me, very much as they struck me thirty-odd years ago: how frelling intimidating I find it^: too clever by half, with both an intellectual sparkle and a creativity to scare me silly. The murder victim is—was—the chief of the remains of a primitive (black) New Guinea tribe who were moved to London to save what was left of them, by a (white) British woman who is nonetheless a member of the tribe. (In what manner she is a member of the tribe is one of my favourite bits. She’s also the character I want to have a cup of tea with.) This tribe, the Kus, are fully developed, with a history and a society, with rituals and habits and points of view, and these are totally fascinating.
The other thing about this book—and, for me, about all of the Pibble books—that glares out at you like a searchlight is how unpleasant most of the people are.^^ To me—and to the teenage American I once was—the reason the author gets away with the ‘wog’s and the ‘nig’s is because the people who use these terms are underlining their own reprehensibleness. ‘Wog’ and ‘nig’ may have been in common usage in England in 1968—I wouldn’t know—but I’d bet on it that you weren’t demonstrating the finest flower of humanity by using them.
^ I’m . . . what? I’m married to the author? You’re joking, right?
^^ Peter has kind of a line in scintillatingly unpleasant people. Most of the time I’m dazzled and drawn in and riveted by how plausible they are and how well the author understands them+. Every now and then they just make me cry.
Pibble himself is a case in point. I don’t like him. I never liked him. I don’t want to have a cup of tea with him. But I like his bitter, skittery mind, his own awareness that his self-deprecation is half-real and half-resentful, and that (I would say) there’s a deep depressive streak underneath it all. Yes. I get this too well. That I don’t like him makes this mix of comprehension and aversion all the more effective, all the more evocative, to me-the-reader.++
++ Favourite Pibble novel? Probably SLEEP AND HIS BROTHER. But really I should reread all of them to be sure. . . .
*** Up through into my era, that would be.
† I didn’t discover his kids’ books until I was well dug in to the murder mysteries—over a decade later, in fact, and after BEAUTY was out and I was working in the Little, Brown children’s department, and lo, on their shelves, a row of Peter Dickinson novels.
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