“A product of their time” – Observations on racist (but lauded) writers after Octopussy

Octopussy CoverYesterday I decided to use my last Audible credit on a collection of Ian Fleming short stories.

I’m working through Fleming’s original canon very slowly and when I saw that the audiobook for “Octopussy and The Living Daylights, and Other Stories” was read by Tom Hiddleston, I just had to have it. Tom Hiddleston reading James Bond seems like the perfect combination of my interests and I have been talking about how badly I wanted to see Hiddles in a Bond movie. I figured that this was the closest I’d get.

Here’s the thing though: as much as I have complained about the racism in the James Bond films, the books are much worse.

The audiobook does not help. In fact, hearing Tom Hiddleston narrate Fleming’s weird and clunky prose on top of the racism that the first story is rife with is pretty terrible.I now have the pleasure of knowing what it sounds like when Hiddles reads the stilted, clunky dialogue that Fleming wrote for his stereotypical portrayal of Chinese merchants the Foo brothers. (He uses an accent. A white person’s idea of a Chinese accent. Obviously, not all of the racism here is Fleming’s.)

I also now know what it feels like to hear an actor you adore use a racial slur thanks to Fleming’s use of the term “nigger-head” to refer to one geographical feature or another. (Fun fact; it feels like being punched in the chest. I wasn’t sure that I had heard it right before but it just jarred me right out of enjoying the first story in the book.)

Whenever we listen to or look at media from another time, one thing that keeps coming up when we critique it or try to is how the creator is “a product of their time”. The more beloved a historical creator is liked (be they a writer, artist, or inventor), the more likely it is that there are scores of people waiting for them to be criticized so that they can handwave it away as them being a product of a racist time.

They’re not wholly wrong, they’re not. Essentially, all of the media people go wild about is the product of a racist time. I mean, let’s be real here: people have been dicks to one another over perceived differences in race for ages and sometimes (okay, oftentimes), that shows up in their works.

There’s a difference though in being aware that a noted and beloved figure was a huge honking racist in the 40s/50s/60s and excusing that mess in the 2000s. There’s a difference between celebrating racist authors because they were geniuses or pioneers of a previously unknown genre.

Ian Fleming was a product of his time, but he wrote a ton of racism and misogyny into his works. Seriously, I don’t think he ever even imagined a world without it. And that’s weird because he imagined the end of the Cold War 20+ years before it happened.

Yes, Bond has his own issues with nearly everyone in the canon, but I think that Fleming’s are a bit more obvious overall.

Ian Fleming was a hot mess of a man who glorified British colonialism and the wide-reaching drive for the country’s imperialism well after the British Empire started to crumble. He’s a man that didn’t see women as people in his stories but rather as rungs on a ladder for Bond’s various missions or plots. People of color were stereotypical caricatures. I love James Bond, but I am always highly aware of what my source material comes from and what it represents.

(Part of why I really love Warren Ellis’ diverse James Bond comic out from Dynamite is because he’s looked at Fleming’s Bond and the world around him and actively decided that Bond in the 21st century requires a cast of supporting and background characters that are appropriately diverse.)

Look, I still can’t understand why the World Fantasy Award was still using a bust of Lovecraft’s ugly mug into this year. Aside from the fact that the actual statue is so very ugly, Lovecraft was a racist jerkwad. He wasn’t just a product of his time. He was an active and aggressive bigot and he hated people of color. Dude was like Rudyard Kipling on racist steroids.

And they made a bust of him and touted it as one of the highest honors that a fantasy author could receive.

Why? Were they expecting no people of color in the history of ever to win one? (Okay, sadly that probably didn’t even come up on their radars.) Were they assuming that no one could use google and find out that Lovecraft had a particularly intense hate-on for Africans and African Americans? It still absolutely confuses me how anyone could’ve thought that Lovecraft of all people was the best figure to put on a (frankly UGLY) bust that you’d wind up giving people for forty years.

(Seriously, it’s a fantasy award. Let’s get some dragons in here or a skull or something other than the bust of a man who was literally more racist than the people “of his time”)

But I digress. The people behind the World Fantasy Award have voted out the offensive bust and something else will take its place in the future. That’s cool. Whiny Lovecraft meatpuppets are creating their own (racist) award to celebrate “getting one over on the liberal left”. That’s… less cool, but I’m assuming that they wouldn’t have won a WFA in the first place so it’s not the biggest of loss and hey, now we definitely know who the assholes are!

Anyway, what’s still not cool is how many people are using and will continue to use the phrase “a product of their time” in order to silence critique of these “classic” authors who filled their books with bigotry.

The thing about assuming that these racists — the Flemings and Lovecrafts of the literary world — are merely products of their respective times is that well — they’re not. That assumes that every single writer who came out of the post-WW2 era and the tail end of the Victorian Era was like them. And they’re not. I still can’t get over the fact that researchers found that Lovecraft was actually prone to more racism/racist beliefs than his peers.

If these men and women are products of their times (and therefore somehow free from criticism because of it), then what exactly does that say about the people that throw in for them at every single opportunity? Instead of looking critically at their literary idols, these people simply buff their pedestals up at every chance they get as though shining the ugly busts makes it harder to notice the racism and misogyny.

Seriously, you can’t give writers a pass on something just because you love it or because you find their work to be formative influences in your life or career.  That’s really not how that works.

Note: The link for Octopussy is an affiliate link. Just in case you’re still like “man, I want to listen to Hiddles read this anyway”, it’ll send me a little bit of change if you buy it! Nothing else in this post is an affiliate link though!

2 thoughts on ““A product of their time” – Observations on racist (but lauded) writers after Octopussy

  1. These are two separate but related issues — yes, there are people who will use this phrase as a blanket statement to silence critique, but taken as context, it is true that, while there were exceptions, but generally speaking most people born 100 years ago held views that we would find abhorrent.

    Taking Fleming’s genre alone, and English authors in particular of a similar age and background, authors like Sapper (author of Bulldog Drummond) or Geoffrey Household (author of Rogue Male) fall very much in line with the views Fleming espoused (I tried reading one of the Drummond stories once but it was extremely off-putting — he and Mikey Spillane are my personal bete noir when it comes to racism in thrillers).

    On the Lovecraft thing, there is a valid point to be made about what the standard is for judging historical figures from the past. One example that comes to mind is Thomas Jefferson — I mean he owned and raped people, not to mention that he actively dissuaded the US from helping Haiti when there was the uprising there. There is no doubt that all the flaws of an individual should not be hidden away, but should we take down all of his statues too? Lovecraft is no Jefferson (I personally have read only one of his stories and did not find it particularly interesting), but it does make me wonder where the line is for revising how we memorialise the past (better education, I suppose).


  2. Just another excuse to applaud bigoted authors. Ugh.
    One idea I’ve seen come up in relation to more recent works is that we should separate artists’ work from their “personal lives”. The two specific examples I’m thinking of are Johnny Depp and Orson Scott Card. Excuse me, why should I give my time and money to assholes who hate and abuse LGBTQ+ people (of which I’m one) when there are plenty of other artists who don’t?


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