So the other week Kate at CrossExaminingCrime published this interview with one of the editors at Dean Street Press in which it was mentioned that a potentially-offensive racial term had been edited out of one of the DSP books, with said editor saying that doing so was “the right decision”. Being unhelpful as I am, I picked up on this as a sentiment I completely disagree with – I don’t think it was the right decision at all – and a few of us kicked around the points in the comments for a while (I’m sorry to say that it was a very adult and mature set of comments, in case anyone was hoping to encounter a flame war). I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and thought I’d try and get my thoughts into some sort of order over here so that I’m not filling up Kate’s blog with yet more comments on this stuff.
I feel I should make it clear up front that my issue is in no way with Dean Street Press – they’re far from the only publisher doing this, and all are well within their rights to put out whatever material they see fit, I just think it’s a point that needs addressing, that there is a platform in favour of these books being retained in their original form which is too easy to overlook when under the impression that only one course of action is acceptable.
Hopefully it goes without saying (but let’s not take the risk) that I in no way support racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia or any other form of oppression. I’m a very live and let live kinda guy. But I do think that editing references to these things out of books whose primary intention is to entertain is an unconscionable act that shows both insensitivity and ignorance. I have in the real world (but so far not online…woo!) been subjected to quite vituperative abuse aimed squarely at my race, my gender, and my sexuality, and am all too aware of the harm this language does and these attitudes cause. Nevertheless, the reactionary opposition to this language in GAD novels is conflating two entirely separate things in a manner that manages to miss the point of both of them.
There are several points to address, so bear with me.
The clear fear, as I said at the time, is that there seems to be a confusion between “this has been published” and “the publisher of this book shares this view”. The specious reasoning here is hopefully clear: three books I browsed in Waterstones this weekend featured the murder of a child as a key plot point and two promised alarmingly inventive serial killers unlike anything I’ve previously experienced, for instance, but we’re not worried about those homicidal publishers heading out to sate their bloodlust. Equally, the authors of these books should not come under similar suspicion even though they’re the ones who dreamed this up in the first place. It is after all, we’d be reminded if we raised this objection, just a story.
The second issue is one of misrepresentation – I seem to remember (but I’m too lazy to check the details) that in the wake of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code a furore was raised over its portrayal of an albino gentleman as a brutal assassin. Apparently it was felt that a reminder needed to be posted that this was not representative of all albinos. Now here we’re nearer the mark – unflattering representations of minorities in popular culture is always going to touch a nerve, even though in Brown’s case there’s arguably a point behind that particular choice (not albinism per se, but something that places the character outside of the mainstream of society). Here we’re at the edge of wandering into ignorance, and the fear is that we believe the first thing we’re told – that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that if enough people put their religion as ‘Jedi’ on census forms then it will be officially recognised, take your pick.
And so to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
I do not contest that some of the language used in novels from this era would be considered inflammatory today. No publisher today would put out a book with the title Ten Little Niggers, especially if written by a middle-class white lady in her late 40s, in the same way that a novel which made cheap jokes at the expense of Jewish characters on pecuniary grounds wouldn’t be tolerated. Equally, laughing at foreigners because they’re so different and don’t speak the language correctly, what, is quite correctly not going to be tolerated. I do not lament the passing of these notions from detective fiction, but I do maintain that they are important for the history and representation of both the form itself and the wider issues they address.
It’s perfectly fair to say that there is nothing in these books that is trying to promote racist, sexist, xenophobic or similar attitudes – they are not pretending to be dissections of ideology, these are a few stray mentions amidst a complex murderous scheme which have no overall bearing on the plot. The counter-argument here is, of course, to quote Thomas Paine that “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right” – in short, if these things are published without opposition then there’s the creeping dread that these attitudes steadily achieve some collective momentum and will force open doors that we’re still as a society struggling to nail shut once and for all. But, as Paine concludes, “time makes more converts than reason”: allow these things to remain, allow them to be seen in their proper context, and it will be easily understood that – along with a house not having its own telephone, or the fact that the crime can’t just be looked up on CCTV or solved with forensic pathology – it’s a facet of a story that belongs to a different time.
To take a recent example, the BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None had no compunction over a character remarking something akin to “at the bottom of every problem you always find Jews”. Was there widespread criticism of this line in the aftermath? No. In fact, I haven’t seen a single reference to it apart from the one that I made in my own laudatory post on the dramatisation. Anyone watching understood that it was a comment appropriately contemporary to the attitudes of the time – attitudes of intolerance and ignorance and naivety, but nevertheless a realistic historical beat from the era. The history of marginalisation faced by certain sections of society and the historical cataloguing of this marginalisation are the two points that are getting confused in this debate, and this example demonstrates perfectly how to treat an audience as enlightened and informed, how it is not necessary to automatically assume offense on their part and so rush in to quell the flames before their tiny, obstreperous brains get a chance to light up.
As I said in the comments of Kate’s post, I fail to see how the issues surrounding these points are resolved by bowdlerising them out of history. They will always be uncomfortable, and are especially prescient given the recent controversies around the forthcoming Academy Awards, but by proscribing the mentioning them in all their forms we run the risk of never having the option to engage with them intelligently. If I tell you that an idea is too complex for you to understand and so refuse to allow you access to it, I am displaying at the very least a remarkable insensitivity towards you. Undoubtedly some of the attitudes under discussion here may well have been promoted in the material that mentions them, but then the concept of context comes into play: it can clearly be determined if such an agenda is being forced on the reader, and they have the option of deciding if that is enough to dissuade them from reading further. But they should at the very least be trusted with that option.
I apologise if this seems like some of agenda-fueled jeremiad, that’s really not my intention. It’s not even an individual liberties issue for me – the old wherever will this end?/slippery slope argument – it’s simply a matter of it being plainly wrong. You are, however, most welcome to disagree. Let’s talk…