Stereotyping in the pulps

There are those who believe that the past was uniformly dark. With the pulps, this attitude leads to an unreasoning belief that all pulp authors and editors were biased, that they never challenged any social or cultural norms and tacitly endorsed the biases and prejudices of their times. That this is wrong should be obvious, for there were always opposing voices.

But idle talk convinces no one. Instead, here is an article from the first issue of the fanzine Futurist, sponsored by the National Fantasy Fan Federation and edited by Redd Boggs. This issue was published in 1950. The author, like Dashiell Hammett, refused to betray his colleagues and comrades to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was sentenced to six months in prison as a result. Wikipedia has an informative page on him:

He’s also a published pulp author, having appeared in Planet Stories with one story and more in digests – Astounding, Star Science Fiction and Infinity under the names Chandler Davis and Chan Davis. He wrote into his sixties and is still alive at 94. Here’s wishing him many more years of happy life.

One thing we’re missing is the readers’ responses to this article. Alas, the second and last issue of this fanzine, published in 1951, didn’t have a letters column. We will never know what readers felt. Unlike them, you can make sure you record your feelings for posterity by leaving a note in the comments.

Stereotypes are Dangerous

THE SUBJECT of stereotyping has been discussed enough to be almost as dull as the stereotypes themselves. And it doesn’t really matter too much. So we meet in every story the megalomaniac genius or the clean-cut, woman-chasing slipsticker. So what? It just means we are reading mediocre fiction, which after all is our prerogative.

But sometimes — all too often — you run into stereotypes which are of more concern. Take L. Ron Hubbard’s The Automagic Horse in Astounding Science Fiction for October 1949. In this story appear the following: a rough-hewn, stingy R-rolling Scot; an uneducated, tough, wise-speaking Italian-American; and a Jew who peddles insurance to his uncle’s employees. If I remember right, each is the only character of his population group to come on the scene. In the same story (this is so usual I need hardly mention it) we have the handsome, carefree engineer hero, who one assumes is Irish-American, and the sexy wench; apparently Yankee.

Edd Cartier illustration for The Automagic Horse by Ron L. Hubbard, Astounding Science Fiction, October1949

Pretty routine sort of casting, that’s all — or so you might say — and I’ll stipulate right away that, it’s not the kind of consciously fascist racism you find in John Buchan. I’m sure that if there was a conscious thought in Hubbard’s mind while he wrote The Automagic Horse it has not found its way into print. It’s farthest from my mind to accuse him of ill will towards anyone in writing the thing; what I’m charging him with is his very thoughtlessness. Readers who are convinced that all Italians talk like gangsters and follow the races will give an internal uh-huh reading Hubbard’s words; readers who habitually assume that an Italian they haven’t met yet is going to turn out to have those same stereotyped characteristics will be reinforced in the habit; readers who are Italians will quite possibly be insulted. All of these reactions will be below the conscious level in most readers. That doesn’t matter. They are still there. They still will make it harder for Italians in this country to get the marks they deserve from nominally unprejudiced high school teachers, or to get the jobs they need from nominally unprejudiced employers. The Automagic Horse is one more straw on the back of an overladen camel which if this were a cartoon I would label “Democracy”.

My complaint isn’t only against Hubbard. If it was, it would be gratuitous and malicious for me to do my complaining publicly. But also, if he were the only offender, there would be no offense. It is exactly because reams of the stuff are written that it is dangerous. It is for the same reason that Hubbard, casting about randomly for cute characters for his story, picked a collection of stock types as the easiest to handle, and picked these particular ones as the easiest and most familiar of all. It is for the same reason again that very few readers, even those who would bristle at the word “kike”, will bristle when they read The Automagic Horse. To summarize — it is because these characters are stereotypes that they are stereotypes.

And it is a serious matter: character-typing of this sort does a lot more harm than just detracting from the interest of a story. What’s to be done about it? Robert A. W. Lowndes gave part of the answer a few years back when, as editor of a Western magazine, he said he would accept no story with a Negro, Indian, or Mexican villain unless in the same story there was a member of the same group who was sympathetic and unstereotyped. That’s an excellent rule of thumb for weeding out the worst cases, though I think it should be extended to weeding out a story, like Hubbard’s (which had no villain), stories like A. Bertram Chandler’ s in which all the British enlisted men (though not villains) speak with cockney accents and limited vocabulary. It’s still only a rule of thumb and only a palliative at best, and few editors follow it.

The best place to look for a remedy is to the writers. What’s the trouble there? Usually, as I say, thoughtlessness. The chances are that Hubbard has Italian friends who speak the same dialect he does and Jewish friends who are neither businessmen nor nepotists. The chances are that Chandler didn’t change his pronunciation of the initial “h” when he himself left the enlisted ranks. They just don’t think about the effect of what they write.

Writers could, perfectly well, avoid stereotypes. Even editors who wouldn’t follow the Lowndes Rule would not reject stories which avoided the stereotypes. But writers can go farther than mere avoidance. The easiest way to prevent direct offense is to name all your characters Farnsworth or Dodd, and let it go at that, but this is no good, for my money. A writer has the opportunity to do something positive; to illustrate in his stories the trivial and unobtrusive fact, still worth pointing out as often as possible, that Flannery and Sarafian can be buddies. It adds verisimilitude, too. I remember reading the works of one prolific ASF author for years before I realized how monochromatic his engineers were. When I did realize, I saw also that it had been bothering mb all that time. Were this author’s friends really so uniform that he cast his stories this way automatically? I’ve learned since that they aren’t, but the stories remain the same. Myself I’ve rarely been in schools or jobs where my associates didn’t include Negroes, Jews, and what-have-you; when I have been, I’ve known why and I haven’t liked it.

But leave verisimilitude aside . To the reader we are most concerned about it may not seem natural that Flannery and Sarafian drink beer together. It may even stick out like a sore thumb: the reader has after all been presented for years with even more segregation in his pulp fiction than he is likely to have seen in his daily life. That doesn’t matter. Slug him with it. Let your slipsticking hero be Negro; let his buddy be Chinese or East Indian. Why not? After a while the reader will get used to it which is exactly the object.

What’s more, don’t forget that Flannery and Sarafian can be buddies even if Sarafian speaks with an accent. This is something that’s often forgotten by those who would agree perfectly with the rest of what I’ve said. The movie Gentleman’s Agreement, for example, conveyed strong indignation at discrimination against Jews, but it considered only Jews who look, talk, and act like; Yankees. Now I have Jewish friends who “look Jewish”. I have Jewish friends who speak with one accent or another. For that matter, practically all Negroes “look like Negroes,” and most of the Puerto Ricans in this country are foreign-born and show it in their speech. The case against discrimination does not rest on the fiction that people are all alike. Nor does rejection of such a stereotype as the Italian fruit-vendor mean that all Italians holding fruit-stand concessions should sell them to Yankees. However, if an author needs a fruit-stand in a story I don’t think he should make its proprietor a Verdi-singing Italian, even though there is nothing wrong with such a person’s having such an occupation; the reader will have met the character previously in a disproportionately large number of stories.

In short, complete stereotypes are very, harmful even when handled as sympathetically as in H. L. Gold’s Trouble With Water, but it may be desirable sometimes to give a non-Yankee character some traits (such as a foreign accent) which have been unfairly represented as objectionable by the stereotypers.

You may have been bothered a few paragraphs back by a suspicion that my suggestions were departing from the realm of the immediately feasible. I’ll settle that right now: They are. A Negro hero would not be tolerated by many editors. And I suppose practically all editors would prefer that you make him white. I don’t know any market except for leftist, magazines or arty ones where a Negro hero would be allowed to get the girl if she was white. There is an instance from my own writing experience: a (sympathetic) character in one of my stories was a Negro physicist, in manuscript; in the story as published it was not mentioned that he was Negro. In breaking this resistance down, readers as well as writers should help. Letters criticising chauvinist stories would go a long way toward persuading editors to accept positive ones. (I should add that already ASF has had many stories with sympathetic, unstereotyped characters who were East Indians, Italians, Jews or even Negros. No major reform is necessary for this precedent to be followed.)

I haven’t said anything yet about the specially science-fictional aspects of the question. In s-f you’re not writing about the world of 1950 which, as far as inter-group harmony goes, stinks. You’re writing often about the distant future, when we hope the present divisions and oppressions will be eliminated. This makes a difference. Example: In a story about the near future you should, include Negro scientists, even though there are tragically few of them in fact. In your 24th century America there should be Polyhesian and Eskimo scientists as well, because you can be sure they’ll be around when the 24th century arrives. Second example: Characters who you might name Iso Yukawa or Selma Hirschman in the 20th century might, if the time was more remote, be named Vassily Yukawa or Christiana Hirschman. You want to assume that all population groups will participate in future civilization, but you want also to recognize tliat they will not remain as separate as they have been. (The once-oppressed Welsh are still a distinct group, yet no Englishman would forbid this daughter to marry an other wise qualified Welshman.) Third example: In the 24th century, Parker Hollister will be as likely to speak with a non-American accent as Karel Kowalewski, or almost as likely.

There is one type of stereo typing which I haven’t discussed in spite of the fact that it raises problems similar to those of nationality stereotyping. I mean the Kinder-Kuche-Kirche line which is followed appallingly often in American popular literature and has occasionally appeared quite blatantly in science fiction. The reason I haven’t discussed it is that here s-f or at least ASF is way ahead of most pulps, and still improving. Women in s-f are frequently educated (even the stock hero-marrying daughters of professors); they are also frequently dominant characters, important to the story as more than love-objects. It is unfortunate that as illustrated recently in ASF, doctors of the future all are male and are assisted by female nurses. But on the whole s-f authors invent women who are people almost half as often as they, invent men who are people, which is more than you can say for mystery writers.

I hope the recommendations I have made will be taken seriously especially by those of you who are editors and/or writers. To go along with the tradition, that Negroes, Jews and Italians can be admitted into fiction only in minor roles as stereotyped comic relief is to reinforce readers’ minds in the prejudice, which I assume is abominable to all of us, that Negroes, Jews, and Italians cannot be admitted to equal positions in American life. It is not enough to refrain from expfessing biases; it is necessary to counteract the bias present in practically every page now read by Americans.

The criterion of your success in the next story you write will not be your adherence to my suggestions; They are only my suggestions and I’d like to have discussions of their correctness. The criterion will be the reactions of your readers. Write a story that will give a few bigots the jolt they need. Write a story that will open the eye of the unconsciously bigoted. Write a story that will compensate, for some Negro reader, for the insults he has taken from white people in just the day preceding.

Remember that the large majority of your readers — the large majority — either discriminate or are discriminated against. keep that in mind all the time. Then write a story that satisfies your conscience.

The end

Originally appeared in Tumbrils #23, edited and published by James Blish for the Vanguard Amateur Press Association

Fanzine scan courtesy Transcription and all errors are my own.

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