I've recently been delving into some Agatha Christie novels which I always feel are comforting for winter days. There's something strangely cosy about a classic murder story, especially one solved by a little old lady and where justice and romance are always found. Right?
Not as much as I though. As I read I found myself thinking about the moral judgements we place on books and authors, and the lines we draw on acceptable racism, sexism and homophobia in literature.
You see Agatha Christie's books are racist and sexist. Sometimes I can ignore or skim over the prejudice, but as I read Nemesis this week these lines jarred my enjoyment:
“It seemed to me highly unlikely that it was a definite case of rape. Girls you must remember are far more ready to be raped than they used to be. Their mother's insist that they should call it rape. The girl in question had had several boy-friends who had gone further than friendship. I did not think it counted very greatly against him.”
Professor Wanstead p96 [emphasis mine]
and then here:
“Well we all know what rape is nowadays. Mum tells the girl she's got to accuse the young man of rape even if the young man hasn't had much chance with the girl at him all the time to come to the house Mum's away at work, or Dad's gone on holiday. Doesn't stop badgering him until she's forced him to sleep with her. Then as I say Mum tells her to call it rape”
Mr Broadribb p114
These lines are referring to a character who is convicted of rape several times, and then a murder. The plot in the novel is that he didn't commit the murder – so the other characters fall over themselves to excuse the rape too. The rape-case is never investigated by Miss Marple and everyone just agrees with this victim-blaming rhetoric.
The rape-apologist narrative is so frequent that flicking through the book to pull out a sample quote it didn't take me long to grab just these two. There was also a bit about it not mattering as much that one of the girls murdered in the story is dead because she probably would have only ended up on the streets anyway. Too many boyfriends you know? I found it genuinely upsetting and sickening to see these lines. The concept of 'genuine rape' is something that hasn't gone away in a 100 years. Politicians still say it. It's not so far from the “Some girls rape easy” comment you may remember from that time when Republicans just couldn't stop offending rape victims, women and decent human beings.
And yet, I already knew Agatha Christie was hideously prejudiced. I don't read the less well known Tommy and Tuppence spy books she wrote with their racist observations “Darn, we should have known he was the spy from the Russian shape of his jaw line”. (Not an exact quote but the kind of thing I remember reading.) But it has never stopped me reading her before, unsettling as it may be.
But today it got me thinking, what should I read? Where do we draw the lines between censorship and boycotting? What is too offensive to read?
You see I have abandoned, boycotted and railed against some books and some writers. I don't read Game of Thrones. In the face of all the Tumblrs and Twitters who love it, I do my best to cut it from my life, because I believe the books to be sexist. However, I've especially got problems where the book is good but the author is highly objectionable.
I'm talking Orson Scott Card here, for example. He was on the board of directors for the American group the National Organisation for Marriage. This group are vile, and consistently campaign against any equality for gay, lesbian and trans* people. So Orson Scott Card? I really despise him. But his teen fiction sci-fi novel Ender's Game? I liked it. I thought it was bloody fantastic in fact, well before I ever knew anything about the author. When faced with that dichotomy do you keep reading?
In my English Literature course we talked about Roland Bathes' Death of the Author. The concept that we should interpret books aside from the life of the writer and accept the works themselves as existing outside of the hands that penned it. Yet, sometimes the author is very much alive. Very much raking in the cash.
When Orson Scott Card was planned to pen a new Superman series, there was a huge response that he was completely unsuitable to write the classic hero and could not represent the values that Superman stands for. The sustained pressure and boycotts left DC pulling his stories before they were published. Yet when all that was happening, I saw some people declare that this was 'censorship'. They declared it in fact a hate campaign, shutting down and destroying one man's career.
Every year in banned books week I read the published list of books that were banned in schools in that year. It's often utterly sad and bizarre where you see Judy Blume or non-fiction books about Cuba banned. You read how parents want to shut down Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere because of one line about sex in it, one they've probably heard and giggled about on the playground since primary days. So I stand against censorship of books. I stand for education and knowledge and challenging, interesting stories.
When it comes to a boycott stopping a book being published – I am a little torn. In truth I am glad that Card got told by the world that his views aren't supported.
Freedom of expression doesn't mean freedom from consequences. If what you say consistently pisses people off so much the thought of you writing something new and mainstream makes people sick, then those are the consequences. It's not a hate campaign to refuse to buy something. We all choose what we spend money on.
But then Lolita and Fahrenheit 451 both spent a long time trying to get published because for different reasons people thought those books were unsuitable for public viewing. They were censored by Editors like many other unpublished books we'll never see or hear from. In time we love those stories for things we hated them for, and books that were once loved come round to be hated and slipped out of the bookshops.
Trying desperately to bring this to a conclusion, to tie it in to Agatha Christe. And I am realising that I just don't know how to. I hold a set of opinions that often contradict one another, and I tie myself in knots trying to come up with a personal set of answers that are full and righteous moral codes. Ones I could defend to the last - and I can't. As it is there are simply these few points. I work in and defend freedom of expression all the time. I think people should be free to read books they judge appropriate for themselves. I think racism and sexism are real and we can't hide from them. I'm not going to give any money to homophobic dicks. I'm going to keep liking Ender's Game: I'd just rather read the series from the library than from a bookshop.
Mostly, I wish I could go back in time and give Agatha Christie a shake and go 'You've got all this stuff wrong!'
What do you think? Do you ever have moral dilemmas over reading books, or even watching films, made by people you don't like?
Do you ever give up on an otherwise good book because of it's politics?