Judging Yesterday’s Books by Today’s Standards

Last year around this time, I posted a review of Frank Deford’s excellent 1981 novel about a college football hero, Everybody’s All American. The novel deals with a football star who goes on to play on professional teams and slowly declines in every way over the years. It’s a sad tale with many moments of blinding insight on everything from wives of pro players to the Jim Crow South.

old-books-theresa-taharaBut to set up his theme of faded heroes, Deford starts each section of his novel with an excerpt from a fictional biography of the Confederate officer Jeb Stuart, who died young. The purpose of these excerpts is obviously to contrast Stuart’s “heroic” place in memory because of his early death with that of the football playing protagonist who outlives his moments of glory.

I skipped the Jeb Stuart parts. They weren’t necessary to understand or appreciate the gestalt of the story, and today, romanticizing a man who fought to retain the institution of slavery has an unsavory whiff to it, to say the least.

But when Deford wrote the novel, that wasn’t the case. Civil War monuments to Confederate leaders dotted the South with little to no controversy. It was only in recent years that many of us became aware of their racist heritage, how many were erected well past the Civil War as taunts to minority populations.

Times change. Awareness grows. Deford wasn’t a bad man. He didn’t write an “effing racist mess” of a book. He was a man of his times, writing of his times. Even in 1981, reverence for Confederate heroes abounded in the South and was shrugged off in the North as respect for the dead fallen in battle. If Deford had written the novel in 2020, he might not have used Jeb Stuart as the epitome of a hero.

More recently, I remember Kathryn Stockett’s riveting 2009 best-seller The Help criticized in some quarters for how she wrote the dialogue for the African-American characters. Dropped g‘s abounded in their speech, said some critics, while white characters spoke with the finesse of grammarians. Was Stockett a racist for this? No. Insensitive, maybe. But not a racist. Who knows? Maybe she’d rewrite passages today in light of new awareness.

When novelists are writing historical fiction (which The Help, set in the 1960s, is), the use of stereotypes isn’t meant to offend but to reflect the tenor of the times. It’s a challenge for writers to capture that zeitgeist without unintentionally hurting someone’s feelings today. 

Fresh insights can change writers’ perspectives, however. For example, romance novels are often referred to as “bodice rippers” because not too long ago, the heroes in them were almost always alpha males who took what they wanted without permission. Now, of course, we are repulsed by men who force themselves on women, as well we should be. And romance novels have changed to reflect this. I’ve written about this on my editing blog, a post called “Writing Sex Scenes in the MeToo Era.” Were the novelists who wrote those alpha males back in the day sexist? I don’t think so.

I don’t think Frank Deford or Kathryn Stockett are racists for penning novels that today might be criticized severely for treatment of various characters and themes. I don’t think romance novelists of the bodice-ripper era were anti-women.

Times change. Awareness grows. Unless the intent of a novel is to glorify racism or sexism, we can still appreciate the stories even if we skim over the dated material.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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