Why Do People Think Huck Finn Is Racist?

This month’s It’s Lit is going to talk about one of the most controversial classics of literature.

I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was very young. The former was an easy and entertaining read, but the latter I remember being a slog to get through. When I revisited Huck Finn as an adult I came across some history of the book which suggested Twain had battled to write the book over many years. This was certainly how the novel felt in reading.

Both times I read Huck Finn, I was struck by just how infantalised Jim’s character was. It felt wrong. And giving it any level of thought leads you to conclude that this was the way white people viewed African Americans at the time the book was written.

You could argue that this is to draw the reader in and have them empathise with the plight of African Americans. But then wouldn’t you also have Jim grow to become an adult equal to other people by the end of the novel? Or was that something Twain struggled with, as it may have not being judged “realistic” to his audience?

Previously, I’ve discussed banned books and Huckleberry Finn. Something this video raised is what I had said about schools teaching Huck Finn, and that is the idea of complex discussions. It’s hard to teach an older text, provide the context, provide the complex subject matter, and do it all justice. Especially when that subject and context is something like racism.

People might say they are no longer teaching or will attempt to ban Huck Finn because of the N-word. But realistically, it’s because they aren’t willing to put the effort into teaching a complex topic and text. Double that unwillingness if they are someone who wants to pretend racism doesn’t exist.

I’m still a fan of old Samuel Clemens. But as noted in the video, this book isn’t without flaws and there are plenty of other authors and books who probably need highlighting more than Twain and Huck Finn.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by American author Mark Twain is both considered one of the great American novels and one of the most frequently banned and contested novels due to its use of the N-word and racial stereotypes. This has launched many debates as to if the work should even be taught in schools.

Today we are going to attempt to crack the case: is Huckleberry Finn an anti-racist work? Or is it just plain ol’ racist?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

The Unappreciated Female Writers Who Invented the Novel

This month’s It’s Lit covers Amatory Fiction.

This is an interesting video for several reasons. I’m always amused when the topic of rethinking “great authors” comes up and people without pearls start clutching them.

The literary canon excluding certain types of authors and books shouldn’t be news to people. But there always seems to be plenty of reactionary debate making excuses for why, for example, Grapes of Wrath got published while Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown (written the same year on the same topic, both using Babb’s notes) took 65 years to be released. Yeah, that was a thing.

I’ve covered this before when calls have been made to increase the diversity of the literary lists for students in the hopes that more diversity of texts will be taught. Getting people who don’t read much to acknowledge that “literary greats” are less about talent than luck (timing, contacts, $$, etc) is a hard task. Trying to get those same people to acknowledge that women, people of colour, and non-Americans might have written books throughout history is often a hurdle they are unwilling to even attempt jumping.

Which brings me around to one of my favourite topics here: snobbery and guilty pleasures. The It’s Lit video shows how snobbery essentially relegated an important part of literature to the unknown and unappreciated baskets of history. Combine that snobbery with a bit of the old bigotry of the pants and you will have people trying to ignore a segment of literature that broke boundaries (e.g. Behn wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery novels).

For more on Sanora Babb’s novel, it is worth watching this video:

The guy typically credited with inventing what we know as the modern novel was Miguel de Cervantes with his cumbersome 800+ page book, Don Quixote. But what if I told you that the real antecedent for the modern novel was created by… ladies.

Before the rise of what would become the modern novel, there was Amatory fiction. Amatory fiction was a genre of fiction that became popular in Britain in the late 17th century and early 18th century. As its name implies, amatory fiction is preoccupied with sexual love and romance. Most of its works were short stories, it was dominated by women, and women were the ones responsible for sharing and promoting their own work.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Octavia Butler, The Grand Dame of Science Fiction

This month’s It’s Lit! covers Octavia E Butler.

The most interesting part of this particular video for me isn’t about Octavia Butler. It’s about what I did after watching it.

Let’s face it, her novels sound really interesting. It feels wrong to use the term “fresh voice” for an author who went pro before I was born. But that’s what I thought when her work was being described.

So I logged onto my library e-reading app. Nothing.

I logged onto my local library catalogue. Nothing.

Okay. Don’t panic. Check the state library catalogue and get the local library to request it… Nothing.

Wait, let’s revise that search for all libraries in the state, not just the main library. Ah, success!

Literally. We have a suburb named Success and their library has a copy of Parable of the Sower. That ordering it from Success probably also means the pages have been dipped in meth and I’ll be able to read it in an hour is probably a bonus.

The point I’m making is one I’ve made about several non-cis-het-white-guy authors. It seems common for them to be less available to read. This is annoying. How can we discover new and exciting authors if they aren’t in libraries and stores?

But sure, keep plenty of Dan Brown books on the shelves.

If you are a fan of science fiction a name you should be familiar with is Octavia E. Butler (cough especially if you watched our telly award-winning Afro-Futurism video cough) One of the most prolific and important Black authors in the genre, Butler’s storytelling pushed the boundaries of what Black people were allowed to be in science fiction. Today we will be highlighting the Grand Dame herself, how her novels were important, and sometimes, oddly predictive.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Jane Eyre: Why We Keep Reading It

This month’s It’s Lit! is all about Jane Eyre, even some of the fan-fic it inspired.

Having not read Jane Eyre, after watching this video I’m even less motivated to do so.

I’m fickle I guess.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte was there for the weird girls, the quiet ones who watched and listened, the ones who pined away for someone to accept them in all of their weird, dark glory.

But in the nearly 175 years since its publication, the collective definition of what it means to be “a woman on the outside of society” has changed and expanded dramatically—and yet here we are, still dissecting Charlotte Bronte’s words and gravitating towards Jane as a protagonist.

For those of you who have never read Jane Eyre or enjoyed one of the 8000 films, television, stage, or radio adaptations not to mention countless literary retelling here we go.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

What’s in a (Pen) Name?

This month’s It’s Lit! discusses author names and why they are often pseudonyms.

One of the things not discussed in the video is just how ancient the idea of pen names are and how they are/have been used to denote multiple authors.

Homer’s works were probably written by many people, making Homer a pen name. Lao Tzu was also likely to be an attribution for the Taoist collection Tao Te Ching, based upon a semi-mythical founder of the philosophy and religion. The author favoured by business and military leaders, and people with aspirations to being serial killers, Sun Tzu, is believed to have never existed. Instead, decades or centuries of knowledge was collected under the name.

More recently, we see pen names being taken for collaborations. James SA Corey of The Expanse fame is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Grant Naylor of Red Dwarf fame is actually Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon write under the name Ilona Andrews for their adventures in urban fantasy. And Tom Clancy is famously half-a-dozen homicidal monkeys taped together.

In all these instances, you can see why a pen name was utilised. Having two authors on the cover of a book is reserved for franchises, like James Paterson and Clive Cussler. The name that will sell the book is at the top in bold, and the flunky who actually wrote it is attributed somewhere they’ll be missed. So writing teams need a pen name. The more historical examples appear to be about attribution to a progenitor or (semi) mythical figure, either to honour the inspiration for later works (particularly from more oral traditions), or to collect work under one banner.

This makes pen names very interesting. Particularly as knowledge of the author/s fades into history. The art outlives the artist. Yet we still try to figure out who they were and how they came to entertain and influence us long after their passing.

Maybe one day our descendants will be arguing whether James Paterson was a real author or just a marketing brand for blooding new authors. Maybe by then the Clancy monkeys might have mellowed out a bit.

To some people, the idea of a pen name seems kind of weird. If I, a writer, am going to put countless hours of hard work and thought into my masterpiece, why wouldn’t I want to put my own name underneath the title?

But from Stephen King to Ben Franklin to …., who had their own secret aliases, to Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss, whose pseudonyms became so famous that they are remembered by their pen names and not their actual names, the nom de plume has a long and proud history in the literary world.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Unraveling the Myth of Ernest Hemingway

This month It’s Lit! discusses the (mythical) life of literary icon Ernest Hemingway.

I have to admit… Yes, you know what’s coming. I write that line whenever one of these interesting videos covers an author or book I haven’t read.

Anyway, my exposure to Hemingway is decidedly limited. The very helpful Hemingway App is supposedly named for his love of clarity and precise sentence structure, creating simpler, clearer writing. Yet the short stories I have read of his have decidedly complex sentences that are often pushing that clarity level to its limits.

Or to say it another way, similar to what was discussed in the video, there is a myth around Hemingway’s style of writing.

Maybe it’s time to give one of his novels a read.

Here’s the problem with tackling Ernest Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway himself. While the iconic author is mostly known for his feats of literary prowess, from The Sun Also Rises to For Whom the Bell Tolls, to countless short stories—perhaps his greatest fiction of all is his own self-mythologizing. As his brand grew in the 1920s and 30s, so too grew his celebrity and, well, his ego.

So, with Ernie all the while throwing so much self-mythologizing in the mix that it became nearly impossible to separate the Man from the Myth.

But gosh darn it, we’re going to try.

Literary Icons You NEED to Know From the Harlem Renaissance

For Black History Month, It’s Lit! are discussing the Harlem Renaissance, a movement I was completely unaware of until now.

In the video, Princess Weekes made a comment about Langston Hughes being taught in school. Well, maybe in some schools, but certainly not mine.

This ties into a point she makes at the end of the video about how a lot of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance aren’t discussed as much as you would expect. Highly influential poets and authors would normally have a place in the modern literary canon. That they aren’t taught more widely, especially as part of that larger discussion of history and society, is something of a perpetuation of the problem.

But totally worth it so that I got to read ee cummings. Soooo glad I didn’t miss out on his stuff. Playing spot where the punctuation should be is waaayyyy more important than understanding peoples and cultures within our society to help stop marginalisation.

I’ve discussed previously how worthy authors are usually just lucky. Part of that luck is systemic. Being the right colour, writing in the correct language – English being the correct one, preferably in the USA so they can do their cultural imperialism thing – and not being too mean to the orthodoxy fits into the system. If you can’t manage that for some reason, then the literary canon is not for you.

One of the most influential periods in Black American History post-slavery is the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City.

Novels like Passing by Nella Larsen, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and the poetry of Langston Hughes were all written during this period and have become important pieces of the American literary canon.

Still, when discussing this topic we tend to flatten the dynamic personalities and identities of the Black folk responsible for making this period so iconic in the literary sense. Not only in America, but as part of the entire Black diaspora.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Are Graphic Novels… Novels?

This month’s It’s Lit! dives into the world of graphic novels.

Obviously, I’m a fan of graphic novels. I think that the format provides an interesting and engaging storytelling method. Sometimes I think of graphic novels as a step between novels and movies (storyboards anyone?). Other times I think of them as a great way to pair down a story to its elements. And then there are the times when I don’t think too hard and just enjoy reading graphic novels.

I’ve previously written about how the snobbery of literature is especially pointed when it comes to graphic novels. And it always seems to come back to holding up a very certain kind of novel as “literature” and everything else as “unworthy”. Something I’ve come to call defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.

Maybe if people just gave graphic novels a chance to entertain them…

In the past few decades, literature has expanded to not only mean the “novel” but “graphic novels” as well. Today we are gonna break down how the graphic novel went from the comic book store to the classroom. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

The (Stephen) King of Horror

This month’s It’s Lit! is looking at the career of Stephen King.

I’m not sure I fully appreciated Stephen King until more recently. When I was younger I didn’t get into his books; IT was particularly popular when I was in primary school. Then when I was a bit older, I tried a few novels with mixed results (Carrie was great, the first Dark Tower didn’t grab me).

My view of King changed when I picked up On Writing. Every writer recommends it as a must read for budding authors. It was while reading this book that I realised just how prolific and successful King has been.

Take a look at the NYT bestseller lists for fiction. From the mid-70s through to today you will battle to find a year where King didn’t have at least one bestseller. That’s without even looking at top 10s for those years either. There aren’t any authors with that sort of staying power and talent. Most would battle to even churn out something half-readable after a decade or two.

So:

Few writers have had the sheer staying power, popularity, and prolific output as Stephen King. From insatiably flesh-hungry clowns and sentient cars to telekinetic teenagers and mystical gunslingers, if there’s one author who has taken up valuable real estate in that part of our imaginations, it’s Stephen King. But it’s not just his monsters that have lasting power—it’s also the very human and very psychological elements in his work that linger.

So come with me, Constant Reader, while I lead you through the dark and twisted world of Uncle Stevie, the King of Horror…

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.