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Critical Failure

G D Penman By G D Penman Published on December 2, 2015

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I recently wrote in defence of H P Lovecraft, saying that his mess of personal fears and xenophobia fuelled his writing. It created much of the racism contained in his work but also the underlying sense of terror about the world and the universe beyond. I have heard arguments made that we should forgive his views because they were “of the time” but I disagree entirely. Firstly, his racism was extreme even for the period in which he lived but more importantly, there are people living in the world today who hold even more extreme positions on the same scale.

Civilisation is not a slow march forward, views that were progressive in ancient Rome are still considered progressive now and views that we now find abhorrent were perfectly acceptable a decade ago. Classics are censored for containing words that are no longer acceptable. Fascinating books are abandoned because the author has expressed their politics. Books from foreign cultures, with foreign values are disdained. Discarding any literature that does not support our current world view is cowardice.

For the “Sad Puppy/GamerGate” anti-diversity block those books are the work of John Scalzi, military sci-fi that features all of the key traits that they list as vital to a good book but that they insult and deride because Scalzi has expressed left wing views in interactions with the public.

For me the book was Ender's Game, a classic of the sci-fi genre that dealt with child soldiers, genius tacticians and intergalactic war. The author, as he advanced in years, began expressing vitriolic homophobia. To me it made no sense, a book focussed on the value of love and acceptance had come from the mind of someone preaching hate. I was put off the book. I stopped recommending it to people. It took years before I was able to mentally separate the book from its creator.

There is, increasingly, no distinction made between a writer and their work. Thanks in no small part to social media. If a writer holds political views that differ from us, then their books are bad. If a writer is pushing our agenda, then their books are good. All objectivity in literature is being devoured by concerns about whether a book is feminist, representative or problematic.

Representation of female, queer and ethnically diverse characters is absolutely vital in changing the way that people view the world and the assumption of a straight white default has been crippling genre fiction since its inception. It has been discussed in great detail by better minds than mine and many essays appear online on this subject, Google it.

The issue that I am trying to address is the crippling of creativity by fear of association that our “call-out culture” has created. If a writer has a racist, sexist or homophobic character portrayed in any way except as an outright villain then the writer is assumed to hold those views themselves. Human beings are complex and by eliminating an author's ability to explore the negative parts of humanity and contrast them to the positive we are curtailing their ability to do that. There is no distinction between a book that puts across a problematic message and a book that has problematic characters and events. Criticism is not of the writing or of the story's quality but of which “side” its content supports.

Bad books are praised, good books are cast aside and neither side of a debate is interested in the opinions that the other side are expressing. More importantly, these surface readings of material often completely overlook what is actually being explored. A book dissecting the effect of racism is accused of being racist. A book about an imperfect woman is called anti-feminist. An imperialist book about military service is accused of pushing a socialist agenda.

The point is being missed.

G.D. Penman writes about queer monsters for a living. He is the author of Call Your Steel, The Year of the Knife, Heart of Winter, Apocrypha and many other books. He is also a full-time freelance ... Show More

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