Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The happy golden years

with 4 comments

A few months ago, the American Library Association announced that it was renaming the Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, which has been awarded annually for over six decades for merit in children’s literature. (The decision was reached at the association’s summer conference in New Orleans, which I attended, although I was only vaguely aware of the discussion at the time.) In a joint statement explaining the move, which was primarily motivated by the “anti-Native and anti-Black sentiments in [Wilder’s] work,” the presidents of the ALA and the Association for Library Service to Children were careful to distinguish between the value of her legacy and the message sent by institutionalizing it in this particular form:

Although Wilder’s work holds a significant place in the history of children’s literature and continues to be read today, ALSC has had to grapple with the inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and its core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness through an award that bears Wilder’s name…This change should not be viewed as a call for readers to change their personal relationship with or feelings about Wilder’s books. Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children. We hope adults think critically about Wilder’s books and the discussions that can take place around them.

This seems reasonable enough, although Wilder’s biographer, Caroline Fraser, argues in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that the decision evokes “the anodyne view of literature” that the ALA has elsewhere tried to overcome. Fraser concludes: “Whether we love Wilder or hate her, we should know her. “

For reasons of my own, I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot recently. Last week at Worldcon, a critic who had recently finished reading Astounding commented that he wasn’t sure he would have wanted to meet any of its subjects, and I know what he means. (If I had the chance to spend time with a single person from the book, I might well choose Doña Campbell, or possibly Leslyn Heinlein, if only because I’d learn more from them than I would from any of the others.) I didn’t go into this project with any preexisting agenda in mind, but I emerged with a picture of these four writers that is often highly critical. John W. Campbell’s importance to the history of science fiction is indisputable, and I wrote this biography largely to bring his achievements to the attention of a wider audience. He also expressed views that were unforgivably racist, both in private conversation and in print, and he bears part of the blame for limiting the genre’s diversity, which is an issue that we’re still struggling to address today. I think that Robert A. Heinlein is the best and most significant writer that the genre ever produced, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to be the the same room with him for very long. Hubbard, obviously, is a special case. And perhaps the most difficult reckoning involves Isaac Asimov, a writer who meant a lot to me—and to countless others—growing up, but whose treatment of women looks increasingly awful over time. It was hard for me to write about this, and I expect that it will be hard for many others to read it. It’s safe to say that many fans made up their minds about Heinlein and Hubbard years ago, while this book will introduce Campbell to a larger readership for the first time in what I hope will be his full complexity. With Asimov, however, I suspect that many readers will need to revise their understanding of a man they admired and thought they knew, and that might be the hardest part of all.

At the convention, I conducted what I saw as a trial run for discussing these issues in public, and the results were often enlightening. (Among other things, I found that whenever I brought up Asimov’s behavior, many fans would start to silently nod. It’s common knowledge within fandom—it just hasn’t been extensively discussed in print.) At my roundtable, an attendee raised the question of how we can separate an artist’s life from the work, which prompted someone else to respond: “Well, we choose to separate it.” And third person nervously hoped that no one was suggesting that we stop reading these authors altogether. On the individual level, this is clearly a matter of conscience, as long as we each take the trouble of engaging with it honestly. Collectively speaking, it isn’t always clear. Occasionally, the community will reach a consensus without too much trouble, as it did with Hubbard, which is about as easy as this sort of decision gets. More often, it’s closer to what we’ve seen with Wilder. As Fraser notes: “While the answer to racism is not to impose purity retroactively or to disappear titles from shelves, no eight-year-old Dakota child should have to listen to an uncritical reading of Little House on the Prairie. But no white American should be able to avoid the history it has to tell.” In a New York Times article on the controversy, the scholar Debbie Reese makes a similar point more forcefully: “People are trying to use [these books] and say, ‘Well, we can explain them,’ and I say: ‘Okay, you’re trying to explain racism to white people. Good for those white kids.’ But what about the Native and the black kids in the classroom who have to bear with the moment when they’re being denigrated for the benefit of the white kids?” If nothing else, renaming the award sends a clear message that this conversation needs to take place. It’s manifestly the first step, not the last.

Which brings me to John W. Campbell. In 1973, two years after the editor’s death, the Campbell Award for Best New Writer—which is given out annually at the Hugo Awards—was inaugurated by the World Science Fiction Society, along with the Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I don’t know how this biography will be received, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if it led to a wider debate about Campbell, his views on race, and whether his name ought to be attached to an award whose list of recent recipients stands as a testament to the genre’s range of voices. For now, I’ll only say that if Laura Ingalls Wilder can inspire this sort of discussion, then Campbell absolutely should. If it happens, I don’t know what the outcome will be. But I will say that while Campbell absolutely deserves to be remembered, it may not need to be in this sort of institutionalized form. In the Post, Fraser writes:

If the books are to be read and taught today—and it’s hard to escape them given their popularity—then teachers, librarians and parents are going to have to proceed armed with facts and sensitivity…I’d like to think that what would matter to Wilder in this debate would be not the institutionalized glory of an award bearing her name but the needs of children. “I cannot bear to disappoint a child,” she once said.

Campbell, to be frank, might well have welcomed the “institutionalized glory” of such an award. But he also wanted to be taken seriously. As Fraser says about Wilder, we can love or hate him, but we should know him. And a discussion about the future of the Campbell Award may well end up being the price that has to be paid for restoring him—and the entire golden age—to something more than just a name.

4 Responses

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  1. I can’t help but think of Orson Scott Card in this context. Great writer. Many people justifiably refuse to read him

    dellstories

    August 24, 2018 at 4:08 pm

  2. Pound suffered his suburban racism.

    Ben Turpin

    August 24, 2018 at 9:12 pm

  3. Henry Rollins can enjoy Ted Nugent’s guitar playing for example but probably not be able to discuss immigration with him very usefully.

    Ben Turpin

    August 24, 2018 at 9:17 pm

  4. Even using Gill sans has its implications… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Gill#Personal_life

    Picasso

    The list is of course endless.

    In the end, if the person behind the art is a problem for us, that will decrease from the total experience of reading they’re work. We might be less often pushed over the threshold and go ahead and read/view/explore.

    Never meet your heroes.

    Darren

    August 27, 2018 at 4:25 am


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