The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Monday, April 12, 2010

Steven King's "The Stand"

Social Media is fun. Facebook is much like a never-ending cocktail party where you can drift from conversation to conversation. I'm reading "The Stand," which is a terrific book. But it started grating on me once I became aware of certain racial aspects. There were no black people for the first few hundred pages, but many uses of the word "Nigger." Hmmm. Then there was a reference to a white woman feeling "as if she were being treated as if she was black"--in other words, badly. And then a couple of other negative references. Then when the first black characters appeared they were half-naked, grotesquely animalistic, murdering buffoons. Then the next was a very stupid junkie. And then finally Mother Abigayle appeared, the ultimate spiritual guide.

Catch the pattern? No human beings. Just the extremes of fantasy evil and fantasy good, with no stop at normal human. The white characters? A full spectrum along the entire range of human beings, weak to strong, rich to poor, good to evil.

I commented on this (multiple times, as I came across references) on Facebook, triggering defensive responses. King grew up in New England, they say, which is 97% white. He doesn't know black people...

Well, that would explain the lack of black people. It DOESN'T explain why those who appear are exclusively ghastly, or supernatural. And 100% out of the "Breeding Circle" (too young, too old, too gay, too obese or too dead to be reproductively competitive.) And it doesn't explain why King, coming from this position, would be the most popular author of the 20th Century. That wouldn't be possible unless his core values were shared by his audience.

Now, King may have been born in New England, but he's traveled the country hugely since then, criss-crossed it on motorcycle, done hundreds if not thousands of signings, worked in Hollywood extensively, performed dozens of concerts, etc. Treatment of black characters in his books hasn't improved much, despite the fact that he's met lots and lots of black folks (myself included). The temptation is to make a few speculations:

1) The social images formed in childhood stay with us the rest of our lives, absent large amounts of very specific consciousness-raising.

2) Fans will rush to the defense of an artist who has such thoughts. In their hearts, they are actually defending an entire class of thought.

3) That if you are not exposed to members of a group as individual human beings, all that remains is the extremes of imagery--very negative, or very positive. Humanity is reserved for "us."

Now, I love King. Have met him, and think him a good and decent man. But what is most frightening about his work is how he seems to reflect the hidden heart of America: the Other is strange, and terrifying, and either impossibly evil or a Spiritual Guide born to guide white folks to Paradise. Readers will try to imply that this is a singularity.

I maintain it is not. The science-fiction and fantasy field is FULL of this. I've dealt with it all my life, and every time I point out the imagery used by authors from Heinlein to Tolkein, it is explained away.

But this is all the "10% disconnect" stuff. It explains every negative aspect of our racial landscape without demonizing either side--this is a human characteristic, and only intimate contact can ameliorate it. Why do we do it? It is a survival value to assume the "Other" can hurt you, that's why. So human culture overflows with such imagery. It is a higher form of thought to attribute fully human attributes to the "Other." Oddly, it is easier to assume those others are fantastic and alien than that they might be just...human.

Don't we see this everywhere? In the "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" stuff that implies we can't know each other even if we grow up in the same homes? In the "Liberal versus Conservative" stuff where people rant and rave that the "others" are stupid, traitorous troglodytes? The Christian versus Muslim thing where, right here on this blog, arguments were made that Muslims worship a different God, value human life differently, and cannot be reasoned with?

In other words, this survival trait is also the cause of huge amounts of human misery, war, bigotry, and fear. Steven King is insanely popular because he knows what we fear, and trust me: most of that is at the level of Unconscious Competence. If his values didn't match the values of his audience, they would never have flocked to him, he would never have known how to get under their skin. Popular media, the images people absorb eagerly for entertainment, is my very favorite straw poll.

I've proposed a fairly universal answer to the "why" of much human misery: we don't fully extend our own humanity to others. It allows me to predict behavior, and understand our past. It amuses me when people squawk, proclaiming that "their" group doesn't do this. We're better because we don't think we're better.

Thank God I can laugh at this stuff, or I'd cry.

15 comments:

Reluctant Lawyer said...

I've found the treatment of race in much of science fiction to be troubling (not all of it - Perry, Dietz, others). The reason for the concern is that science fiction - more than any other genre - allows the author to create an entire world from scratch, if the author chooses. There need not be any points fixed in present day reality. An author can create his or her own world - his or her vision of how things should be. With that said, it saddens me that for many authors, in their idealized world, people who look like me simply do not exist.

Steven Barnes said...

In my entire career in SF, not one single time have I ever been in a SF convention Green Room, or party, with another black male SF writer. Not one time. My line: "SF is 99.9% white people and their imaginary friends." When you can create a world from scratch, you populate it with your subconscious urges. That tells you something very interesting about humanity.

Shady_Grady said...

This is really interesting topic Steve. I haven't read "The Stand" in a while. I do remember the Mother Abigail character but not some of the other problematic ones you mention. I'll have to go back and re-read.

I did like Ursula K. Leguin's "Earthsea" series. She quite deliberately made most of the protagonists non-white.

Dan Moran said...

Not being snarky, but you've never met Samuel Delaney? That surprises me a little -- just an accident of timing?

I wrote one story where every major character was black. My fan base runs almost exclusively white and about 90% male -- no one's ever commented on it. I've never been quite sure what to make of that.

Travis said...

Not directly on point but interesting news bout racial perception.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/individualswithraredisorderhavenoracialbiases

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I don't think it's just intimate contact which defuses prejudice-- it's got to be intimate contact with pretty good legal equality.

Otherwise, slavery would have led to diminishing prejudice.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

One more for your list: People who believe that anyone in business is innately untrustworthy because business is driven entirely by profit or who believe that anyone in government is innately untrustworthy because government is driven entirely by power-seeking and the desire for unearned income.

John E. said...

I seem to recall that Niven and Pournelle have a black astronaut in Lucifer's Hammer - the one who gives the "we used to control the lightning" speech - and also that in Oath of Fealty the manager of the arcology who gave the order to kill the intruders was black.

grandmother said...

SG is right about Ursula LeGuin. Her future humans are just one race. The Other exists, but her antagonists are not human. I have my own rant: 1) When I meet someone new, one of the first things I notice is skin color,for no good reason. 2)I have no black friends here, not a single family in our three-block neighborhood, nor my chuch. So I take out an ad? "White woman feeling Culturally Deprived would like to meet black woman with similar interests and education for purpose of sharing ideas and experiences,perhaps building a friendship." ) "Back in our day, there was only one high school in town." Wrong! There were two, one white and one black(explains item 1and King, also.)

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