I read something yesterday in the UK Guardian that reminded me of the Retro Reading Challenge that I ran earlier in the year on this blog. (A challenge for which I haven't yet received all the entries - I'm looking at you, Kerry Clare and Amy Jones!) Literary journalist Alison Flood has written a thoughtful article on her attempts to read The Complete Chronicles of Conan, by Robert E. Howard. Yes, we're talking about that Conan, portrayed by Governor Arnold in two films back in the 1980s. Flood doesn't manage to get through the entire Conan oeuvre, but she describes the stories she does finish as "pure pulp fiction, and all the more enjoyable for being unashamedly so." She digs the melodrama for what it is and enjoys the preposterously fantastical plot lines as they rollick through the text. She makes comparisons to the work of Jane Gaskell, who was a guilty pleasure of Flood's childhood reading years.
But inevitably, Flood points out what jars so drastically for a contemporary reader with the Conan books: their thinly veiled attitudes toward race and gender. Texas-based Howard wrote his stories during the 1920s and `30s (he committed suicide in 1936 at age 30) and was by all accounts an unapologetic racist. His attitude toward blacks, and toward women for that matter, manifested itself in the prose of his Conan books: the darker the skin, the more evil the villains; the light the skin, the more beautiful the women. Flood points out that many contemporary readers forgive Howard for this bigotry because he was, after all, a "product of his time"; and besides, he wrote pulp-fiction "sword and sorcerer" stories directed mostly at teenage boys, most of whom couldn't recognize subtext if it clobbered them over the head.
But I read one of the Conan books the summer I was 13 (Conan the Usurper; it was dreadful!) and even then spotted the racist binaries that the stories therein had set up. And the passages that Flood cites are pretty cringe worthy in their own right - both in terms of race and of gender. Sure Howard was a product of his time and a pulp writer, but should that absolve him of the overt choices he made with his writing? Lots of writers are "products of their time": Mark Twain, Kate Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Harper Lee. Each of those more literary writers chose to tackle race and/or gender in their work, but did so with sensitivity and a broad perspective. One can write about racists without the work itself being racist (for an excellent example, see Eudora Welty's short story "Where Is the Voice Coming From?") and it's all in the product of the telling. Should we forgive Howard because he wrote what is essentially trash?
What do you think? Should pulp writers get a free pass when it comes to being "products of their time"? Does it matter when the writing is meant to be pure escapism?