Arts & Letters Daily pointed me to this…
Conroy’s shift into the present tense here neatly illustrates why the “ancient history” defense cannot stand: I am reading Gone with the Wind not in 1936 but in 2010. While I read it, in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world. It does so even in the way it imagines “me,” its reader: to read Gone with the Wind sympathetically, at a minimum you have to be white. The resulting segregation is not a historical phenomenon but something I consent to in the present if I keep reading.
Maitzen here is talking about a phenomenon I’m intimately familiar with … Gone With the Wind was a beloved fixture of her youth, and her go-to book for comfort and solace growing up; but reading it for the first time as a critical adult, she has trouble getting past the reprehensible bits.
Like Maitzen, many of my otherwise-favorite authors have some really loathsome qualities. I’m particularly thinking of Robert E. Howard, who seems to have largely viewed history as a “battle between the races” for supremacy (because obviously living together peacefully and treating each other as fellow human beings was not a viable idea), and of course H.P. Lovecraft, who particularly in his younger days viewed anyone other than educated (i.e., aristocratic) northwestern-European males with fear and loathing. And these ideas often inform their work, occasionally to the point of poisoning it. (A story like “The Street” makes me want to invent a time machine just so I could slap HPL upside the head. Ditto REH with “Black Canaan” or “Vale of Lost Women”.)
And, like Maitzen, at the end of the day I have to decide just how much of such shenanigans I’m willing to hold my nose and tolerate in order to salvage the good bits. As she says:
Although, again, a simpler answer would be more comfortable, I think the only possible answer is ‘it depends’—on the depth and quality of our relationship overall, on all the contexts and complications of history and personality. Don’t we all have an elderly relative who holds fast to some absurd belief, some intractable prejudice? While hating their sins against our own cherished principles, we still manage, most of the time, to love the sinner, ideological warts and all. Of course, while we don’t choose our families, we do choose our books. Still, I think the situation is analogous. Rather than shunning, or censoring, we can be aware and critical, allowing for the good while not excusing the bad. We are capable, after all, of complexity, and often both life and reading demand it. There’s no doubt that intimacy and trust are undermined by such moral compromises, but other factors may compensate, or at least make the relationship worth preserving in its diminished form.
It’s entirely possible that if HPL and REH were around today (and hadn’t gone completely senile due to old age) that they might have very different views about such things, and view their past statements with regret. And even if they didn’t, that doesn’t make something like Tower of the Elephant or The Case of Charles Dexter Ward any less riveting a story. Or for a more contemporary example, I can still see the brilliance of Ender’s Game, even if I wish Orson Scott Card would shut his stupid piehole. It is true that I’ll probably never quite enjoy it the same way I once did, but that’s no fault of the work.