F. Brett Cox
A few scattered points:
When I was in grad school, we used to talk about “theory fear” vs. “theory hope”–the feeling that poststructuralism marked the death of art, autonomy, and evaluation, as opposed to the feeling that poststructuralism opens up new worlds of possibility. It was a baptism of fire for me, coming as I did into a high-rent theory-based doctoral program directly from a very traditional creative writing program (What do you mean, “there is no text”? I just wrote that!”). I wound up in the hopeful camp, at least to the extent that I realized that there was nothing in any theoretical perspective that prevented me from doing whatever it was I wanted to do as a writer. It just forced me to to be aware of a broader range of contexts.
One of the most useful theoretical texts I encountered during this time was Barbara Herrnstein-Smith’s Contingencies of Value, which concluded that, even if we say that all value is radically contingent, that doesn’t mean we don’t have values. (She also noted that a writer is reading what he/she writes and making decisions about the text based on that reading, so even if you adhere to a strict reader-response perspective, you can’t take the author totally out of the equation.) The fact that, say, Faulkner’s post-WWII reputation was enhanced in part by the simultaneous rise of a formalist approach to teaching literature that privileged what Faulkner was doing (the so-called New Criticism), or that the rise of the New Criticism was helped along by the degree to which it fit nicely within Cold War ideology that privileged irony and ambiguity, doesn’t mean that Faulkner isn’t a great writer, or that I’ve made some sort of mistake having that massively cool Library of America poster of him hanging in my university office. It just means the situation, like all situations, is more complex than it appears.
As far as what a writer should do or not do, here’s a thought that may put me at odds with all of you. Of course writers should strive to look beyond themselves and consider the world as it is at large and not just in their own neighborhoods. But if they can’t do it right, I’d just as soon they not even try. I always appreciated that one of Alice Walker’s reasons for admiring Flannery O’Connor’s work was that O’Connor didn’t pretend to understand African-Americans. And would we really want that miserable old racist Lovecraft trying to offer insightful portraits of women? I’d much rather read an sf story that honestly uses characters as vehicles for ideas than an sf story whose attempt “in-depth characterization” yields sentimentality and melodrama.
And for what it’s worth, I can’t imagine that my writing would be the same if I had been female instead of male, or born in Nebraska instead of North Carolina, or lived in New Mexico instead of New England.
Maybe there’s a difference between what you say about Flannery O’Connor and what you say about Lovecraft. The first sounds like a conditioned (hey) but seemingly honest statement, regarding her ability to enter certain areas, that she will abjure talking about that and about whom she knows little or nothing; Lovecraft, far as I know, uttered lots of opinion (a lot of it hurtfully negative) about the vastly larger moiety of the world and its humans (women, Jews, blacks, gay people, far as I know) of which he knew virtually zilch.
After many decades (last read him as a teen), I was prepared to find Edgar Allan Poe rather like Lovecraft in this. Very very pleasantly surprised at the relative absence of what (so long ago) I read as either pure fustian or viciousness. Maybe it was the hoax thing: he certainly did write two stories at a time, or more, almost always: the “naive” narrative whose storyableness pull us believingly along; and the simultaneous sharp needle of the hoax discourse. Like what we started to be talking about here.
Poe was not innocent of resorting to stereotypes (see “The Gold-Bug”) but he was also mindful that the stereotypes to which people resort gave them a very skewed and ill-informed understanding of their world (see “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”).
Lovecraft knew and was good friends with women, Jews, and gay people. His problem (or perhaps his saving grace) is that he never thought of individuals he knew personally in terms of the ethnicities or predispositions that he wrote so negatively about.
Yeah, the black man in “The Gold-Bug” is pretty caricatured, though with some mild “affection”. I do think, though, that here Poe was way within the lines of the permissible and the expected in 1843. Lovecraft was not as far beyond the then palatable as we’d like to think (as we all know, popular literature of the time could be pretty loathsome, as could “literary” fiction); but his “impersonal” characterizations of (say) Jews cannot really be excused by saying he didn’t notice what he was doing in words to people he knew in life.
You’ll get no fight from me on either of these fronts, John. Lovecraft’s worlds of horror certainly reflected HIS intersectionalized personality.
Next week we’ll get part 2 of the discussion, as well as an aside with some further comments on Lovecraft. There will also be another tangential post with some thoughts about urban spaces. Stay Tuned!