Sexism, Racism, & Deeply Flawed Human Beings: How Writers Alienate Readers

Somewhere in the house, I have a copy of Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, a  best-selling collection of  essays about sexism in literature that was popular in the 1970s.  I was daunted by Millett’s intelligence, though I happened to like some of the writers she felt were ruining society.   Still, my heart sank when she decimated D. H. Lawrence, whose lyrical writing I still love, and whose ideas about sexual relationships seemed radical to me.   I concluded I must exile him from my bookshelves.  Oddly, it was the professor of a Women’s Studies class who gently changed my mind:  she embraced the work of all good writers, male and female, and admired Lawrence.  

Radicalism was sometimes puritanical back then, and it seems even more so now.  These days, if a writer doesn’t have politically correct ideas, he/she ought to be banned or protested, they say on the internet.  And yet I must remember that in the ’70s I saw a radical feminist confront Betty Friedan at a lecture for joking about women.  The sense of humor is apparently the first thing to go.

Nowadays the list of potentially banned books includes the novels of the popular Laura Ingalls Wilder, whom I remember as an insipid chronicler of the pioneer days (but apparently Pa is in blackface somewhere in those boring books); Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer-winning  Gone with the Wind (so poorly written I couldn’t get beyond the first chapter a few years ago, though I’m sure there are stereotypical black characters). And wasn’t there a ruckus about The Vagina Monologues?

And now the brilliant critic Paul Elie has written an article for The New Yorker with the title, “Everything That Rises: How racist was Flannery O’Connor?”  My first impulse was to HIDE my books by Flannery O’Connor, one of the most important Southern writers of the 20th century, so no one can take them away from me. 

Most of her racism seems to be expressed in her letters, which I have no intention of reading.  O’Connor really, really hated James Baldwin. Writerly jealousy ?  One wonders.  In one of her letters to a friend in New York who was an enthusiast about the Civil Rights movement, she wrote her nasty feelings about Baldwin. Brace yourself for Baldwin-bashing!

About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind.  Very ignorant but never silent.  Baldwin can tell us what it feels like to be a Negro in Harlem but he tries to tell us everything else too.  M. L. King I don’t think is the ages great saint but he’s at least doing what he can do & has to do.  Don’t know anything about Ossie Davis except that you like him but you probably like them all.  My question is usually if this person would be endurable if white.  If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him for a minute.  I prefer Cassius Clay.  ‘If a tiger move into the room with you,’ says Cassius, ‘and you leave, that don’t mean you hate the tiger.  Just means you know you and him can’t make out.  Too much talk about hate.’  Cassius is too good for the Moslems.

I’m sure you’re all scandalized, but this was Georgia, and I sense she wants to be outrageous.  PLUS SHE HATES JAMES BALDWIN.  The thing is, there would be no one to read if we had to approve of writers’ views and character, especially in their letters. I don’t care if you ban Laura Ingalls Wilder from the canon, though it’s very silly; and Jonathan Franzen says he likes Gone with the Wind, so let him defend it:   I find it unreadable. 

But please let us have our Flannery O’Connor. She was a brilliant writer, but a flawed human being.  

3 thoughts on “Sexism, Racism, & Deeply Flawed Human Beings: How Writers Alienate Readers”

  1. I’m so glad to know that Gone with the Wind is so badly written. It was my mother-in-law’s favourite book, in fact just about the only one she read – often. For that reason I’ve always avoided it as she was a very flawed human being indeed. Now I know I’m not missing anything.

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  2. Coincidentally, I did just read Flannery O’Connor’s letters this year, having had a mini-Flannery burst of reading (before the library collection was off limits). And I did note that passage about Baldwin. As the collection was edited, it did stand out, in that she rarely went on at that kind of length about disliking someone’s way of being and/or way of writing, but there was an editing process, and because there was SO much about her reading, I wondered if there were other white writers who aroused that much disapproval in O’Connor and whether these thoughts and opinions may have been excluded from the published version of the letters because they were writers who shared her social circles (as did the woman who edited them, IIRC). Honestly, although I did a lot of Flannery reading earlier this year, I’d never read her previously, so I know very little about her, but in her fiction I found flawed and nearly-honourable Black characters and flawed and nearly-honourable white characters.

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