I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Struggling with the Whiteness of Classic Literature

For anyone who believes there aren't giant ongoing structural barriers to Blacks feeling like full, equal members of American society, I'd like to inform you as politely as possible that you are utterly disconnected from reality. You might look at Black Americans and think, well, what barriers are left? Congress and the courts have passed laws ensuring that Blacks can vote, and that discriminatory practices like redlining are no longer legal. But, gerrymandering by both Democrats and Republicans conspire to ensure that, while Blacks can vote, they do so in areas where one party has a lock on local elections, effectively giving them no real choice for who they are going to vote for. Laws that prevent felons from voting even after they've served their time disproportionately hit Blacks. Redlining might not be legal any more, but there are still "Black" neighborhoods in most cities where property values are a fraction of surrounding areas. When these parts of town get improved, the "improvement" seems to consist of white people buying property once occupied by Black people, restoring or razing them and building something new, and selling it to other white people.

These problems disturb me, but when I start groping about for solutions, it gets difficult to think of any remedy for discrimination that doesn't turn into more discrimination. When it comes to neighborhoods being gentrification, what would a viable solution be? Ban white people from owning property in certain areas? Require neighborhood quotas? I'm not worried about the ramification of "reverse discrimination." But what would happen to the property values of black people if you legally excluded half of the population from bidding on their homes?

There is, however, one problematic area where I do think there's a solution. There's no question that there are different educational outcomes between black and white students. If you're white in America and enjoy reading novels, you're in luck. You've got centuries worth of literature written by white authors who assumed they were going to be read by white readers, even if they weren't consciously aware of this. An author like Jane Austen was writing about the mating rituals of a white elite. Black people simply aren't part of the picture. A great deal of literature fits in this box. From War and Peace to the Wizard of Oz, there's a nearly infinite well of books that feature white protagonists and never give a second thought that other races exist. If you're a white child reading these books, the whiteness of the protagonists never even crosses your mind. But if you were a Black child, you probably notice at a fairly early age that all the heroes in older books are white.

And God help you if you're a Black child and your class reads a "classic" that actually contains Black characters. Edgar Alan Poe is a great and important writer, but his portrayal of a Black servant in "The Gold Bug" is cringeworthy. He's shown as a comic figure, mangling the language, and too stupid to know his right hand from his left. (Literally. This is a plot point, that they initially fail to find the treasure because the black character couldn't tell right from left.) On the other hand, Poe practically invented the short story, and was a great influence n horror, science fiction, and detective stories. Leaving him out of the broader literary cannon would be like trying to study biology without any reference to Darwin.

Mark Twain wrote a powerful book with an anti-racist theme in Huckleberry Finn. Yet, his primary Black character mangles the language, believes in superstitious mysticism, and makes stupid choices again and again. In fairness, so does the white protagonist, Huckleberry. I can't believe that, if I were a young, black reader, I'd take comfort in this. Especially if white classmates were reading it, I'd imagine slogging through this book would be agony.

In book after book, when black characters appear, they are poor, stupid, or immoral. I'm currently rereading Look Homeward Angel. The "n-word" gets thrown around casually and frequently. In the section I'm currently reading, the minor Black characters that appear are mostly servants and maids, and the author mentions the way they smell numerous times. I don't think that Thomas Wolfe was writing from a position of overt racism. I think he was primarily recording the world he lived in, and reporting the racism because it would have been dishonest to pretend it didn't exist. His characters are racists for the same honest reason that some of his characters are abusive drunks.

In the book club I'm part of, First Monday Classics, we try to include books by black authors. But since a sizable chunk of the books we focus on predate the 20th century, a lot of black authors from that era are understandably focused on slavery. White authors were free to write about anything they wished. King Author! Trips to the Moon! Cowboys! Treasure! Romance! But if you were a Black author, pretty much you write about slavery. It's possible that slavery was such a vast psychic scar that Black authors simply had to grapple with it in their writing. But I also wonder if this mono-subject was the product of white readers, who only bothered to pick up books by black authors of the era if they are going to be about slavery and racism, since these are the only subject matters they thought that Black authors could speak to authoritatively. White readers simply didn't care what Black authors might have had to say about love or family or nature or God. (I'm not certain this is very much different today.)

Yet, despite the lack of diversity, I find great value in old literature. Old books are a kind of time travel. They let you see the world as it was through the casual observations of writers who might not have even been aware of what it was that they were recording. Poe never intended to document the naked, unblemished racism of his day, which makes it all the more illuminating and instructive. I encounter people on social media who claim that today is the worst time in American history, that our politics are terrible, that we're more racist, sexist, and class divided than ever before. This seems as willfully blind to reality as those who pretend that everything's fine. Books like The Jungle or Grapes of Wrath remind the reader that, as rough as things can seem now, we've dealt with worse problems in the past and turned the dial at least a little toward a fairer, more just world. If you don't grasp the past, you'll be utterly baffled by the present.

To quote Look Homeward Angel, each and every one of us is born upon the "spearpoint of history," feeling that we're the culmination of history, not quite grasping that we're still collectively writing the opening pages of the story of mankind.

Still, as much as I love old books, wow, I wish that the "classics" weren't so overwhelmingly white.

I think I know one source of the problem. It could be changed tomorrow by an act of congress, but it won't be, so I'm not under the illusion that identifying the problem is going to lead to a fix. But, one reason the cannon of literary classics is so stubbornly white is copyright laws. There's a reason some classic novels stay in print for centuries. There's a reason I can walk into any bookstore in America and pick up a book by Jane Austen. Older books are part of the public domain. Any publisher can reproduce them and not pay royalties. Free material equals bigger profits! There's a financial incentive to keep classic literature in the hands of readers.

Copyright exists to protect creators, and ensure that they alone earn revenue from their creations. But, this used to be a fairly limited window of time. Copyright lasted decades. Then, in 1928, Micky Mouse entered the world. Since then, copyright law has been distorted, extended again and again, so that most work created from the 1920s is still covered by copyright.

The unintended effect is to create a sort of literary dead zone. Books written before the 1920s are relatively easy to find. Even if they are obscure, someone somewhere has scanned them in and made them available online. This creates a vast library of freely available works... from an era when Blacks were extremely limited in their access to publishing, and restricted in the subject matter of what they could write about.

But the 1920s saw the Harlem Renaissance. It saw an explosion in black authors, and some of these authors, like Langston Hughes, are still in print. Others fell out of print, and current law makes it difficult to put them back into the literary cannon. We're talking about authors who might be dead for fifty, sixty, or seventy years. Legally, to republish their work, you'd need to track down every family member who might own part of an author's estate. This is a tremendous barrier to rerelease an obscure book that might sell a few hundred copies. Since no one can republish these works, few scholars write about them. Why study an author that no one else can read unless they are willing to dig through antique stores searching for crumbling copies of long forgotten books?

To protect a mouse, we've condemned thousands of authors from one of the most exciting eras in American life to invisibility and obscurity. If a book was written in 1935, and had fallen out of print and can't legally be reprinted, did it ever really exist?

I honestly don't think many authors would suffer if copyright laws protected work for their lifetime, plus maybe twenty years. If this change was made, I suspect that a huge trove of older novels by Black authors would enter the public domain. Books that haven't seen print in decades would suddenly be available as free downloads online. The best of these would soon appear as prestige, scholarly print editions accompanied by literary criticism. It's true that there would also be white authors entering the public domain, but so what? There are likely underrepresented voices there as well.

I know this seems trivial, like I'm throwing a teacup of water at a bonfire and expecting that it will do anything at all. But I can't help but think that the horrible racial imbalance in public domain books is one element in the disparities in education. White children have a vast library of public domain stories where white heroes do any number of wonderful things. Black children have a public domain of slave narratives and white authors who treat their black characters like dolts or kindly pets or exotic savages. Both races have equal access to the great library of mankind, but one race has their story told as a rich tapestry of heroes, and the other has an unending list of insulting stereotypes and nakedly offensive language, when they are depicted at all.

Old literature is an ongoing conversation, the way the past speaks to the future. What we write to day answers this, and gets passed on to the future. We can't change what these old voices said, but we could, with a simple change of copyright law, bring more voices into the conversation.

Friday, January 17, 2020

My Impeachment Rant

This is the third impeachment process I've encountered in my life. I was just a kid when they were making the case against Nixon (who, I know, wasn't technically impeached). My main interaction with it was that the hearings preempted Gilligan's Island when I got home from school so I had to just go outside and play. Still, I remember all the adults in my life talking about it. I don't even remember my family being all that active politically, but I remember there being some sort of family gathering it was the topic of discussion for all my aunts and uncles. It felt like something really big, but not something I had any hope of understanding. 

I was an adult during the Clinton impeachment. This was riveting stuff from beginning to end, partly because it was a story breaking right as the internet was turning into a real medium for news. It was basically an all you could eat buffet of coverage. I remember arguing with my friend Greg, who insisted it was a hack job by Republicans to toss out a president they didn't like, and that the sex element was the only reason anyone cared, and of course it was no big deal Clinton had lied about having sex. Even if he had lied under oath, it wasn't in the course of his presidential duties, but a civil trial unrelated to his office. I wasn't as sure that the purgury wasn't a big deal. I gave those in favor of impeachment the benefit of the doubt that maybe they were really upset about a crime that pretty much everyone agreed had occurred. But, ultimately, when he wasn't convicted by the senate, I felt that this was fine. It just felt too much like a personal failing and not some sort of intentional betrayal of the nation. 

And now with Trumps impeachment... it feels just weirdly lost in the noise. I see posts about in on Facebook, but I don't stumble onto people talking about it in real life. But, that's true of a lot of politics. People rant on Facebook, but when I'm at conventions or parties or hanging out in a bar with friends no one is all that eager to talk about politics. The kind of arguments I could have with Greg seem like a long distant memory, when I could hold different opinions on matters of policy, vote for different candidates, and champion radically different visions of how the world should be and we'd still be friends. If anything, we might even have been better friends than if we'd been in lockstep. We both appreciated the other person keeping us on our toes. I didn't argue with him so much to prove him wrong as I did to find out if my arguments and opinions had any merit or internal logic. But, back to Trump, my larger point is that, in my personal circles, it just seems to be far in the background. 

Which is odd, because I feel like the case against Trump is far more consequential than the one against Clinton, but also far more debatable. I don't think you need to commit an actual crime to be guilty of abusing the power of your office. I think that's kind of the point behind labeling something "abuse." Sure, we give the president broad powers to conduct foreign policy and criminal investigations. There's a reason the articles brought by the house don't feature any actual transgressions of criminal statutes. But, the lack of crime doesn't indicate a lack of abuse. We invest a president with these powers intending for him to use them for the country's benefit, not his own self-advancement. 

Conversely, we elect politicians knowing that they will do things that benefit them politically. The list of deals and double-crosses and dirty tricks employed by past presidents is pretty long. The idea that Trump was trying to dig up dirt against Biden, or even just to slander him with completely false and malicious accusations, doesn't strike me as beyond the pale. Maybe I'm jaded. I'm much more bothered that he'd withhold foreign aid to try to strong arm Ukraine, but this is where things get murky, since Ukraine claims not to have known they were being strong armed. Right now, I think the piece of evidence that's lacking to make this a simple, clear cut case of abuse is that much used phrase, "quid pro quo." I feel like the thing that's missing is an actual transcript or recording of anyone of consequence in the administration saying to anyone of consequence in Ukraine, "You will do this or you'll never see the money." Hints and implications and hearsay aren't enough for me. Why the house didn't go to court to compel testimony and documents from Bolton and Giuliani mystifies me. I know it would have dragged things out, but holding onto the articles of impeachment for a month doesn't demonstrate any serious urgency. New evidence is emerging. Why didn't they fight things out in court and continue collecting the evidence they must know is out there and bring the charges in April or June or August? Take the time to do it right. Relying on the Republican led senate to summon witnesses that you didn't bother summoning feels like a very bizarre strategy. 

On a far more cynical level, for all the talk of Pelosi being a political genius, the other huge advantage of dragging the investigation out several more months is that, if Ruth Bader Ginsberg passes away, Pelosi would have had the power to just shut down the Senate for a month or more to keep them from being able to process a new nominee. 

For a closing thought, I don't feel like this has been a very traumatic event for the nation. Maybe things will change over the next few weeks, but I feel like people had their sides going into this and no one is changing their minds. But I also don't feel like anyone is trying to change minds. The connections between the two factions have been severed so that people just talk to their fellow partisans and either curse or ignore the other side. Everyone plays to their base. As a political outsider who belongs to neither party, I feel a little sad that no one bothers to try to win me over to their side anymore. I'm very, very open to hearing good arguments. I'm open to long and complex chains of logic that might not change my mind, but at least make me believe that the person arguing is sincere, thoughtful, and fair. Tweets and sound bites and memes are all that's left, it seems. Man, it makes me feel old. 

Monday, December 30, 2019

Best of 2019: Flora

One of the most wonderful things about travelling with Cheryl is her eye for spotting flowers. I can't tell you how many rides we've completed where I've not seen a single thing I thought was worth taking a picture off only to have Cheryl show me a dozen or more breathtaking shots. Most of these are just taken with her cell phone, a Pixel 2XL. It's a good camera for a lot of situations, but these up close detail shots are definitely one of its best features. 

Best of 2019: Landscapes and Sunsets

Adventure 2019 Part 2!

More memorable moments!