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Old 01-17-2018, 11:39 AM   #1
4691mls
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Sexism/racism etc in older fiction

I looked in on the book club discussion about Dorothy Sayers' Whose Body, having read it in the past, but realized I'd forgotten more than I remember about the book so I didn't participate in the discussion. However, I was interested in the discussion that was raised about anti-Semitism in the book. Treatment of servants was also mentioned.

Pretty much any fiction written decades or centuries ago will have attitudes that are different from today with regard to women's rights, racism, treatment of gay people, servants, slavery, etc. Does this affect whether you will read a book written 100 or more years ago?

When I have read older books I have tended to think "well, that's they way they thought at the time" and read it anyway. If I were going to think too much about women's lives in the early 1800's I wouldn't be able to enjoy reading Jane Austen's novels, where some of the women would potentially be in financial hardship if they didn't find suitable husbands.

However, I'm sure there are plenty of books with much more egregious treatment of a particular race/class/religion/etc. and now I find myself wondering what it would take for me to not read the book.

Have you ever stopped reading a book (or refused to start, based on what you've heard about it) based on such issues?
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Old 01-17-2018, 11:53 AM   #2
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Originally Posted by 4691mls View Post
I looked in on the book club discussion about Dorothy Sayers' Whose Body, having read it in the past, but realized I'd forgotten more than I remember about the book so I didn't participate in the discussion. However, I was interested in the discussion that was raised about anti-Semitism in the book. Treatment of servants was also mentioned.

Pretty much any fiction written decades or centuries ago will have attitudes that are different from today with regard to women's rights, racism, treatment of gay people, servants, slavery, etc. Does this affect whether you will read a book written 100 or more years ago?

When I have read older books I have tended to think "well, that's they way they thought at the time" and read it anyway. If I were going to think too much about women's lives in the early 1800's I wouldn't be able to enjoy reading Jane Austen's novels, where some of the women would potentially be in financial hardship if they didn't find suitable husbands.

However, I'm sure there are plenty of books with much more egregious treatment of a particular race/class/religion/etc. and now I find myself wondering what it would take for me to not read the book.

Have you ever stopped reading a book (or refused to start, based on what you've heard about it) based on such issues?
Hi and interesting side note: if you read the term indentured servants, remember those were typically poor whites that someone had paid for to take somewhere else and the servant had to work off the money paid and that usually took years or decades.
In the south, you also had sharecroppers and tenant farmers. (Again usually poor whites).
A good example would be Tabacco Road or God's Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell.

There have been times, I have had to look at the copyright date.
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Old 01-17-2018, 11:57 AM   #3
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Now as to older stuff, my mom commented on what she thought was an odd recipe. It had oleo and sweet milk. She said I bet those terms aren't in any "new" cookbooks. I had to inform her that yes those terms are still used in mostly regional cookbooks.
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Old 01-17-2018, 12:09 PM   #4
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I'd be more bothered by a book set in the 1800's, but written with 21st century world view, sensibilties, and speech patterns.
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Old 01-17-2018, 01:17 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by 4691mls View Post
I looked in on the book club discussion about Dorothy Sayers' Whose Body, having read it in the past, but realized I'd forgotten more than I remember about the book so I didn't participate in the discussion. However, I was interested in the discussion that was raised about anti-Semitism in the book. Treatment of servants was also mentioned.

Pretty much any fiction written decades or centuries ago will have attitudes that are different from today with regard to women's rights, racism, treatment of gay people, servants, slavery, etc. Does this affect whether you will read a book written 100 or more years ago?

When I have read older books I have tended to think "well, that's they way they thought at the time" and read it anyway. If I were going to think too much about women's lives in the early 1800's I wouldn't be able to enjoy reading Jane Austen's novels, where some of the women would potentially be in financial hardship if they didn't find suitable husbands.

However, I'm sure there are plenty of books with much more egregious treatment of a particular race/class/religion/etc. and now I find myself wondering what it would take for me to not read the book.

Have you ever stopped reading a book (or refused to start, based on what you've heard about it) based on such issues?
Occasionally, I will find the overt racism and antisemitism jarring, but for the most part, I just think that's how they thought back then. For some reason, I tend to find it more jarring in a movie than a book.
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Old 01-17-2018, 01:26 PM   #6
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I'd be more bothered by a book set in the 1800's, but written with 21st century world view, sensibilties, and speech patterns.
Ditto.

Now I have stopped reading a couple of books where animals were treated cruelly. Of course I know that people historically did much worse things than those described, but I just could not read further. Violence against adult humans in fiction doesn't bother me so much, except in case of children or old people, or especially graphic scenes.

You can find violent scenes far more often in books by contemporary authors, of course.

Last edited by Sirtel; 01-17-2018 at 01:31 PM.
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Old 01-17-2018, 01:42 PM   #7
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I thought the anti-semitism in Whose Body? was a bit gratuitous. It could have been removed and the story itself (while not good) would have been tolerable.

It just seems to be excess in this case. I grant that there are books where it's the way it was in the time period it was written in. But I don't have to like it and I don't have to finish the book or read any more from that author.
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Old 01-17-2018, 03:53 PM   #8
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I tend not to worry too much, different times and attitudes and all that, but I do find Dornford Yates unreadable now, and cast a leery eye at Sax Rohmer too. Mind you, I'm with Deskisamess in that historical settings with modern attitudes and sensibilities much more jarring.
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Old 01-17-2018, 04:33 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by 4691mls View Post
Pretty much any fiction written decades or centuries ago will have attitudes that are different from today with regard to women's rights, racism, treatment of gay people, servants, slavery, etc. Does this affect whether you will read a book written 100 or more years ago?
No. Unless this is just one more thing piled on to a book that is already poorly written. Now that I'm a Catholic convert, I've re-read some books that take for granted that "papists" are the anti-Christ. Before converting from Protestantism I hardly noticed these references – now they stand out. But it doesn't really bother me. I just figure that was their worldview at the time.
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Old 01-17-2018, 04:36 PM   #10
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Hi and interesting side note: if you read the term indentured servants, remember those were typically poor whites that someone had paid for to take somewhere else and the servant had to work off the money paid and that usually took years or decades.
Many were no different than slaves as those to whom they were indentured could claim they broke their agreement and have years added on to their servitude.

There were also Irish slaves, without the pretense of being "indentured."
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Old 01-17-2018, 05:09 PM   #11
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I read H.P. Lovecraft, so I can put up with some racism (and purple prose).

But it is a mark against the book (and can keep me from recommending the book as well).
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Old 01-17-2018, 05:18 PM   #12
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Occasionally, I will find the overt racism and antisemitism jarring, but for the most part, I just think that's how they thought back then. For some reason, I tend to find it more jarring in a movie than a book.
For some reason, any kind of 'ism, foul language, violence, ... in a movie is much more jarring to me. I think I have a little more of a disconnect when I read vs when I see/hear.

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Old 01-17-2018, 05:24 PM   #13
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I like the Lovejoy series by Jonathan Gash, but the way Lovejoy treats women in the first few novels is horrendous. And that's from the late seventies.

But casual racism and sexism in older novels? It depends. If it's the characters behaving as they would have done given the time period, it would be odd to have them behaving any other way. If, for example, the Dorothy L. Sayers was bowdlerized to remove the anti-semitic remarks of the characters in it, it would be a poorer depiction of the time period.

But if the racism/sexism is authorial, I tend not to continue.

But also, as a middle-aged, middle class, white hetrosexual cis man, I may not be as sensitive to such things as others, which may be a failing on my part.

Actually, anachronisms and inconsistency bother me much more.
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Old 01-17-2018, 05:39 PM   #14
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I like the Lovejoy series by Jonathan Gash, but the way Lovejoy treats women in the first few novels is horrendous. And that's from the late seventies.
Yeah, but think of the times - the first flowering of the sexual revolution before the grim spectre of AIDS, women's liberation, the zipless f*ck. Erica Jong, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem. Even then it was expected that a woman got married, had kids, looked after hubby and home. If she had a job, it was for pin money and wasn't a 'proper' career job. Heck, just watch 70s TV re-runs and see who women featured in those shows, especially the cop shows.

That's when I was in my early 20s - I graduated late 70s, worked for a while, then went back to get my masters before going back into the job market. Even though my Mum was fairly atypical and raised my sister and myself to be independent, we were still expected to marry etc, etc. As it happens, I didn't, but my sister did - she's the stay-at-home mum with 4 kids (she gave up work after #2 child), but I was the one expected to give up my home & job to look after Mum when she got too frail because I didn't have a husband and family.

And don't get me started on the attitudes I got exposed to in my secondary school. It was a convent school with all that entailed. To actually get a good science education I had to leave the convent and move to the Catholic boys school as mere females weren't expected to be interested in science.
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Old 01-17-2018, 05:39 PM   #15
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Many were no different than slaves as those to whom they were indentured could claim they broke their agreement and have years added on to their servitude.

There were also Irish slaves, without the pretense of being "indentured."
Actually the indentured slaves could do something that those from Africa couldn't do. Change their name (after running off ) and blend into society. That's the main reason why African slaves were brought over. They could claim they were not a slave but their skin color didn't change. The indentured slaves on the other hand could, and often did I gather, run off leaving those who had paid their passage with nothing to show for it. After all there were no DNA profiles or I.D. cards back then. You could be Henry Smith one day and Mark Jones the next. Who could say any different? In fiction some have been offended by writers like Mark Twain and the language of his characters but if you remove it then you paint a false picture of history I think.
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