Ray Bradbury, minority voices, and super old white dudes

Last Friday night, my boyfriend and I were arguing about Ray Bradbury in Target.

Well, “arguing” might be a strong word. It was more like a vigorous debate. And during such debates, my normally socially inhibited self suddenly forgets that other Target shoppers can hear the argumentative overtones of our conversation and my exasperated denunciations of “super old white dudes.”

Okay, I wasn’t straight up denouncing old white dudes. My grandpa was one, and so were some of my favorite authors. What it was, was this:

Ray Bradbury. My boyfriend recently finished both The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I myself haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 since ninth grade, and I didn’t like it. Paul says I should give it another try. I agree with this assessment.

What I didn’t agree with was Paul’s summary of Bradbury’s position (the position, not the summary) on so-called “minority voices.” Bradbury felt — and this was part of where Fahrenheit came from — that art should be free from the meddling and censorship of people who felt offended or took issue with any part of the artist’s work. Specifically, he brings up, there were a couple instances when he was written to and chastised(?) for not having greater minority representation in The Martian Chronicles. “No strong female characters,” a woman wrote. “No African-American characters,” an African-American wrote.

Apparently, this really pissed Bradbury off. I mean, I’m with him up to the censorship point. But lumping these “minority voices” in with whitewashed school editions and straight-up book banners makes Bradbury look like the asshole. Venturing into both the wrong side and the logical conclusion of the artistic expression debate: “Leave my work the f*** alone, even if I’m a racist old bastard perpetuating white male hegemony.”

For the record, I don’t really think Bradbury is a racist old bastard. What bothers me isn’t the fact that his casts were so white, or his heroes so male. It isn’t his demand for artistic freedom, or his morality in Fahrenheit (which I think can be read and appreciated from a lot of different angles, all over the political spectrum). What bothers me is his entitlement to complain so profusely about “minority voices.” It’s his position as a sci-fi writer of great repute, great success, who feels affronted by a few non-influential minority group representatives who, lacking the power to effect widespread change on a culture that overwhelmingly fails to represent them, had the gall to voice their concerns to him in ultimately ineffectual written missives.

I don’t know how passionate or how enduring a cause this is in Bradbury’s life, so I don’t know how much to hold it against him (though if this 1996 Playboy interview is any indication, it stuck with him for decades). I’ve read other letters he’s written, including this one to a teenage fan, and he actually seems like an entirely charming and funny guy. So I want to like him, very much.

LOL @ Whale of a Different Color. Photo credit: Paris Review.

What this all, also, gets into is the wider issue of minority representation in media and culture– almost an “affirmative action” of sorts, most recently embodied in the criticisms around HBO’s new series “Girls” (which quickly evolved/devolved into a debate about hipster racism). In a society and culture machine still dominated by whites, do white artists have a responsibility to represent minority voices? If they don’t, are they entitled to complain incessantly that people are telling them they do? If they are, is there a way they can do it without sounding like an asshole?

Sci-Fi Side Note: Been watching the Alien franchise for the first time. My favorite is Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 original. It’s for a lot of reasons– including the fact that its closest competitor, James Cameron’s Aliens sequel, is essentially the same plot with more people, more explosions and a little girl instead of a cat– but I especially love how the last three people in Alien to survive are the two women and the black guy. Ripley, of course, being a particularly kick-ass white lady. Ostensible white male hero (Dallas, no less) is murdered in the middle of the pack. Hurray for defied expectations.

So in conclusion:

Can I still like Fahrenheit 451?
Can I still like Ferris Bueller? (John Hughes was apparently some kind of hardcore Reaganite conservative.)
Does it make a big difference what the intent of the work was — if it can be received differently? If the creator’s political views actually were not expressed, intentionally or unintentionally, in the work?

All in all Ray Bradbury is and will continue to be an old white dude– hanging in strong at 91. Enjoy his books, enjoy him; just don’t hafta agree with everything he says.

Bradbury: Even more depressing is that I foresaw political correctness 43 years ago.

Playboy: In Fahrenheit 451, too?

B: Yes. [At one point, another character,] the fire chief, describes how the minorities, one by one, shut the mouths and minds of the public, suggesting a precedent: The Jews hated Fagin and Shylock – burn them both, or at least never mention them. The blacks didn’t like N***** Jim floating on Huck’s raft with him – burn, or at least hide, him. Women’s libbers hated Jane Austen as an awfully inconvenient woman in a dreadfully old-fashioned time – off with her head! Family-values groups detested Oscar Wilde – back in the closet, Oscar! Communists hated the bourgeoisie – shoot them! An on and on it goes. So whereas back then I wrote about the tyranny of the majority, today I’d combine that with the tyranny of the minorities. These days, you have to be careful of both. They both want to control you. The first group, by making you do the same thing over and over again. The second group is indicated by the letters I get from the Vassar girls who want me to put more women’s lib in The Martian Chronicles, or from blacks who want more black people in Dandelion Wine.

P: Do you respond to them?

B: I say to both bunches, Whether you’re a majority or minority, bug off! To hell with anybody who wants to tell me what to write. Their society breaks down into subsections of minorities who then, in effect, burn books by banning them. All this political correctness that’s rampant on campuses is b.s. You can’t fool around with the dangerous notion of telling a university what to teach and what not to. If you don’t like the curriculum, go to another school. Faculty members who toe the same line are sanctimonious nincompoops! It’s time to stop the trend. Whenever it appears, you should yell, “Idiot!” and back them down. In the same vein, we should immediately bar all quotas, which politicize the process through lowered admission standards that accept less-qualified students. The terrible result is the priceless chance lost by all.

7 responses

  1. When discussing the obligations of artists, an artist’s perspective tends to be useful:

    With that said, I think storytellers–first and foremost–must pledge their loyalty to the narrative as it comes to them. I don’t believe in creating characters out a of desire to please your audience or even to promote an ostensible social good. I think good writing is essentially a selfish act–story-tellers are charged with crafting the narrative the want to see. I’m not very interested in Lena Dunham reflecting the aspirations of people she may or may not know. I’m interested in her specific and individual vision; in that story she is aching to tell.

    The reaction to “Girls” actually seems more interesting through the lens of class: it’s revealing that its critics, many of them minorities from a narrow and privileged slice of American life, picked this show of all the shows that have largely white casts. Apparently they’re not dying to be represented on How I Met Your Mother.

    I realize you’re not demanding that Bradbury graft (the early 21st century conception of) diversity onto his books, but his correspondents — who apparently did — sound like the worst sort of philistines. Enforcing ideological orthodoxy among the authors you read is a wonderful way to deprive yourself of some great books. V.S. Naipaul’s a reactionary and cruel to his wife, so chuck him out. Don’t read Nabokov, either — he supported Nixon and the Vietnam War and was great friends with William F. Buckley. Gertrude Stein was a Vichy collaborator, so to the bonfire with her scribblings. Chinua Achebe doesn’t like Joseph Conrad, so nix him as well. (Conrad, not Achebe.) Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Céline, Evelyn Waugh, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Pablo Neruda: out, out, out, out, out, out, out out. (Speaking of Pablo Neruda, part of the reason I have a hard time taking this viewpoint seriously is the fact that it’s rarely applied consistently: the people who complain about “Girls” happily read the Stalinist Paul Robeson.)

    I feel deeply, of course, for the minority representatives who are forced to go on living (somehow!) in a culture that stifles their stories and voices. It’s one of the unbearable burdens of being a Bradbury-reading minority in a rich twenty-first century liberal democracy.

    1. The *worst* sort of philistines? Even worse than book-burning book-banning book-censoring types? Of course, because to say otherwise would be too in line with the liberal establishment. You’re so counter-cultural.

      I appreciate your breakdown of authors-to-be-censored (though Bradbury does essentially the same thing, in that interview). You’re right that upon closer examination we probably couldn’t enjoy anything from anyone if a requirement was their general agreeability to our political views, even more so as we move back on the historical timeline, though it’s worth pointing out most of these guys are super old *dead* white dudes. Which makes it all a futile exercise. (Interesting that you’re the one belaboring this point, when you freely admitted – yesterday! – that you’re pretty ambivalent on free speech.) My ruminations on this topic aren’t about boycott or censorship but are more along the lines of: can I still like the guy? Is he still, you know, cool? Also, to what extent does the work itself need to embody said disagreeable political views to discourage enjoyment of the work? Can you admire it for its form and ignore batshit old function (where function = political commentary)? How f***ing crazy does the mofo have to be to toss him out the window entirely? Hitler crazy, maybe.

      The other point I will concede is the role of class in cultural criticism. Again, I think this has to do with some kind of *expectation* — that educated, urban, young, liberal white America should know better. I really don’t know why it was “Girls” in particular that set this off—seems kinda strange—but at the very least the retrospectives that appear in most “Girls” criticism include “HIMYM,” “Seinfeld,” “Sex & the City”, a range of shows, and I think “Girls” just became an undeserving lightning rod (hipster racist Tweets aside) for the wider problem of the whiteness of American media. Which is worth discussing.

      In the end, like I said, I wasn’t so pissed about Bradbury not representing minorities, and I certainly don’t think he should change his works, past present or future, to appease critics (again, unless there was some Hitler shit going down). I was just pissed that he was so pissed. Get over it! There is a difference between when the majority and the minority is oppressing you. Because the minority can’t f***ing oppress you. You’re an old white dude, enjoy it, stop complaining, just keep writing what you write.

      1. Assorted points in reply:

        Yes, worse even than the book-burners: they may find the book ideologically unacceptable, but at least they respect its attraction and artistic integrity. It’s the difference between hiding away a Caravaggio and throwing paint on it.I know you weren’t objecting to Bradbury’s representation of minorities. That’s why I wrote the following: “I realize you’re not demanding that Bradbury graft (the early 21st century conception of) diversity onto his books …” and addressed my criticisms to Bradbury’s correspondents.Turning to what you did write, I wouldn’t lose much sleep deciding how congenial writers are as people. We’re being asked to read them, not have tea with them. (Of course, the question’s moot to the extent you’re able to befriend people with disagreeable political views–a useful skill that I urge everyone to cultivate.)An interesting case is where those disagreeable political views are the opposite side of the coin from admirable or even prophetic stances. Ross Douthat had a good piece about how Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Semitism was arguably part and parcel of the same worldview that led them to reject eugenics and totalitarianism at a time when many liberals made excuses for them.I don’t share your insouciance about the power of minorities. The most uncontroversial example I can think of to support my view is Ozzie Guillen.

      2. Ugh. Screwed up the HTML on my last comment. Mind deleting it and leaving this one?

        Assorted points in reply:

        1. Yes, worse even than the book-burners: they may find the book ideologically unacceptable, but at least they respect its attraction and artistic integrity. It’s the difference between hiding away a Caravaggio and throwing paint on it.

        2. I know you weren’t objecting to Bradbury’s representation of minorities. That’s why I wrote the following: “I realize you’re not demanding that Bradbury graft (the early 21st century conception of) diversity onto his books …” and addressed my criticisms to Bradbury’s correspondents.

        3. Turning to what you did write, I wouldn’t lose much sleep deciding how congenial writers are as people. We’re being asked to read them, not have tea with them. (Of course, the question’s moot to the extent you’re able to befriend people with disagreeable political views–a useful skill that I urge everyone to cultivate.)

        4. An interesting case is where those disagreeable political views are the opposite side of the coin from admirable or even prophetic stances. Ross Douthat had a good piece about how Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn’s anti-Semitism was arguably part and parcel of the same worldview that led them to reject eugenics and totalitarianism at a time when many liberals made excuses for them.

        5. I don’t share your insouciance about the power of minorities. The most uncontroversial example I can think of to support my view is Ozzie Guillen.

  2. [...] Conceit: Books are considered offensive — every part of every book was offensive to some person or group– so they are banned. TVs take up walls and empty, unthinking entertainment is privileged. [...]

  3. Well this has been mentioned, but it is true that everything gets a little weirdly revisionist whenever you lay contemporary expectations and social mores on older works. Bradbury wrote about white folks because he grew up in small-town Illinois in the ’30’s and rose to popularity in California in the ’50’s. An awful lot of good writing tends to come in a large part from “write what you know,” and that’s what RB, like so many others, did. Even in his reaching into speculative sci-fi, he cast his stories with the kind of folks he knew. To go back and say a midwestern white guy from the early 20th century should be writing more in-depth characters of color dealing with the issues of being a minority is like complaining that all of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ books are about South American people. (And I don’t mean that you suggested changing his works- you didn’t, but the original criticism RB received does look at mid-century lit with an end-of-century eye.)
    Another quibble I would have is the assessment that he wrote no strong female characters. (I don’t know that it was your personal criticism, but if you agree, You need to go read Dandelion Wine right now. That book is chock full of deep, funny, strong, and wonderful women. Also probably one of his least sci-fi type books. If it doesn’t make you cry, you have no soul at all.)
    A third thing I’d give as food for thought: Go back and read Martian Chronicles. Read R is for Rocket- as I recall, there are not a lot of instances in which he specifies the race of his characters at all. One great story that comes to mind is “Kaleidoscope”- 6 or 7 astronauts dealing with the explosion of their ship while life support runs out. An AMAZING story. I don’t believe it is ever once mentioned what the ethnicity of any of the crewmen is. So I pose this question: Is the lack of minority characters based on the fact that he writes them all white, or is it because he doesn’t specify that any of them ARE minorities, and readers presume they must be white, simply because they have not been told otherwise?
    I don’t bring up any of these points to be combative- just some things to consider. Ultimately, I don’t think anyone’s creative output is at all to be dictated by anything above and beyond what inspires them. If Ray Bradbury or anyone else simply has no frame of reference on the “minority experience,” or is not moved to write about “minority issues,” That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about social injustice, it just means that’s not what he’s moved to write about. If somebody’s a landscape painter, they shouldn’t be shamed into doing portraits just because of public opinion. And I think ultimately THAT is what Bradbury was so hacked off about. The idea that anybody outside of his own brain- minority or otherwise- should feel they get to tell him what to write about.
    And I had the good fortune to meet him a couple times- yes, he was a truly kind, funny, and just a wonderful (as in completely full of wonder-) guy. It’s okay to like him. :)

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think a lot of what you say is true, and as you said there’s not much value in measuring a mid-20th century writer by modern standards and setting expectations based on that measurement. However, many of the complainers Bradbury was talking about were his contemporaries, not people looking back 30 years in time, so obviously it was an issue to some even mid-20th century. And what really prompted me to write this post was my discomfort with Bradbury’s closeness to this cause, even decades later– that it seemed really important to him, and that he felt okay complaining about minority advocates and practically positioning himself as the victim. But again, I feel like I’ve made up with him after our one-sided argument :) And no, I haven’t read Dandelion Wine but I’ll add it to my reading list!

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