What if Butler Were White?

I have not read Harold Bloom,, but I understand loosely that his notion of the anxiety of influence describes the proposition that authors are sort of tied to their predecessors and can never really escape their influence. So, Wallace is frequently compared to Pynchon and Gaddis and is in turn cited as an inescapable influence on Levin. Jemisin may have some difficulty escaping the influence of Butler in the reception of her work. I wonder if there’s a name, though, for the phenomenon wherein something (the history or personal traits, say) of a book’s author influences how the book is received by the reader.

I think of David Mitchell, for example. I read all of his early novels and found Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet especially virtuosic. When I got to The Bone Clocks, I expected more of the same and was disappointed to find it a much less accomplished work. Like, it was bad within the broader context of Mitchell’s capabilities. My expectations based on what I knew of Mitchell’s prior work made it hard for me to read The Bone Clocks on its own terms.

In these books of Butler’s, I have so far kept right in the very front of my mind the fact that she is a widely read and respected Black woman author of speculative fiction. So of course her books will include a lot about racial injustice, right? Since this real heavy stuff seems sort of a given, I find myself picking other nits rather than spending much time thinking about and applauding the obvious.

And there are nits to pick. I like my fiction to hew pretty closely to the reality it presents. It’s ok if that reality is wacky as long as it’s fairly consistent. There are a fair few things that’ve stuck out to me in Parable of the Talents that do not seem consistent with the reality Butler is presenting. Paul mentioned a few of these in his post from week one: Would systems like taxation and copyright really be upheld in this lawless country? Compulsory voting seemed far-fetched to me too, given that there are so many squatters scattered around the country in settlements lacking real infrastructure. Butler’s description of the housetruck is of a very formidable military-grade weapon, to my mind. Such a thing would cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars — likely more given the inflated value of money in this world — and it beggars belief that the Noyer family could really have afforded such a thing. Maintenance on such a vehicle would require specialized knowledge and materials unlikely to be available to the Acorn community and yet they manage to keep the housetruck in fairly good shape. Later we learn of the maggot vehicles, which seem like souped up versions of housetrucks. Who is manufacturing and distributing these? And how can Dreamasks and slave collars possibly be widely available in an impoverished society? Who is mass producing such things in these times? And how does Bankole keep medical supplies in stock? There are carefully guarded shops out there, sure, but are they really likely to carry more than the basics in terms of medical supplies? Have they suddenly stopped requiring prescriptions for the more potent medications? In other medical marvels, Bankole seems to be able to determine that his child will be a girl long before she’s born and without the benefit (presumably) of any sonogram machine. There’s a lot of this sort of fracturing of the reality Butler presents, and it’s been very distracting to me.

I wonder if I’m being fair, though. If, for example, a white man had written this book, might I find myself focusing on the themes of racism and feminism in the book instead, and thinking the author pretty woke for bringing them up, and excusing a little more freely these nits? Is it fair that Butler, by virtue of the marginalizations she cannot escape, should have to do the work both of highlighting these marginalizations and of writing an air-tight speculative fiction narrative?

I think the very best work manages to do both of these things. Le Guin wrote great speculative fiction (at least the bits I’ve read) and also wrote about gender. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy both presents a marvelous, consistent world and pokes at the cruel use of Black bodies to serve the populace.

Still, I wonder if my expectations here have been fair. Am I holding Butler to a higher standard than I might a white writer because, in a way, she gets the anti-racist stuff for “free” or as a given? Hold that thought for a moment while I provide a less fraught example. Say a former professional baseball player who lived a long baseball life took up novel writing and indeed wrote a baseball novel. I think I would expect that the baseball parts of the novel would be flawless and also less effortful for him, given that he lived them. So I would really want the other parts of the novel to shine. That’s what I’m getting at when I say that Butler gets the race and feminism stuff for “free.”

Only of course she doesn’t get it for “free.” In fact it’s a greater burden to exist as a Black person in America and perhaps a hardship or an annoyance to feel that one must write about it as well.

So that’s what I’m chewing on as we head into the last half of the book and the final in this series. If I’m finding some of Butler’s work to be less to my liking than work that maintains a consistent (even if wacky) reality, is that fair? Would I feel the same if Butler had been white?

7 thoughts on “What if Butler Were White?

  1. John Armstrong April 23, 2021 / 10:30 am

    I see your concerns about the realism in the novel, and I think they tie back to something I’ve found myself thinking about. Trying to make the connection has helped crystalize some of my thoughts.

    Like Gibson said, “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed”. That goes for the downside too. A state doesn’t fail all at once, but it starts from the margins. Olamina is writing from the margins where the USA has already failed, and sarcastically repeating the official stance from areas that haven’t yet. Taxation and voting systems still exist, and the government insists that they be followed, but out on the margin their “compulsory” nature begins to fray.

    Even in real-world failed states you can still get technical work done, or find medical supplies, but it’s expensive and there aren’t exactly warranties. I’m willing to give Butler some leeway on the science-fictiony aspects; 35 years of imagined improvements in computer technology can do a lot, and I tend to read the “housetruck” as something like an uparmored RV with computer-driven guns.

    What I’ve found myself contemplating is what this world looks like from a part outside California, where the state hasn’t failed yet, and to what extent it looks a lot like ours does, from my fairly comfortable position within it.

    • Jeff Anderson April 24, 2021 / 5:09 pm

      This seems key to resolving that tension about realism. As an example: This year’s FCC Broadband Deployment Report has almost 14.5 million people in the US still without access to high-speed broadband. It’s honestly a little hard to imagine by this point what that would even be like, but it’s everyday reality for that many people here in this country.

      The “unreality” of that disparity is almost certainly part of the point—”afflicting the comfortable” with the existence under our noses that we aren’t forced to see and are therefore likely to choose not to see. The situation in these books isn’t that there’s been a catastrophe (whether natural or political) that makes modern society impossible, it’s that the social contract has been so definitively eroded that it no longer applies to even the incomplete whole we’ve been conditioned to accept as the whole. (When the suburbs are no longer safe for White people…) The state will still serve those it intends to. That’s just not the group we’re seeing in these novels.

      • Paul Debraski April 25, 2021 / 2:35 pm

        Jeff, I think you completely answered the question I posed in my comment to john. And yes, Knowing Butler at least a little by now, I see what you mean, that it’s clear that this book is not “about” anyone else.

        Even as I somewhat facetiously said what happened to MY east coast, I clearly forgot that I was looking through the lens of someone who probably wouldn’t have been affected by this in the way that Olamina was. I tried to imagine what I would do if I were in her place, but I think if I’m asking the questions I’m asking, I probably wouldn’t be in her place. That’s a n eye opener and more than a little embarassing.

      • Daryl L. L. Houston April 26, 2021 / 10:41 pm

        Really well put (both your comment and John’s). Thanks!

    • Paul Debraski April 25, 2021 / 2:30 pm

      John, I have wondered the same thing about outside of California (especially since I live on the East Coast–what does MY town look like?). I imagine a lot of reader of these books have the same question. And I wonder how deliberate a choice it was on Butler’s part to (almost) never mention anything outside of our character’s general vicinity.

  2. Paul Debraski April 25, 2021 / 2:49 pm

    Daryl, I love the audacity of suggesting that Butler gets a “free pass” or that you’re holding Butler to a higher standard because she is a black woman. Because I totally understand what you mean. You kind of go into this third book expecting to get a story that tackles racism, sexism and classism. So, with that as a given, what else do you get? It’s a place of privilege for sure, but almost an earned place. I’ve read two of your books already, I’m allowed to ask harder questions.

    I think though, if you (or me) can be still shocked or impressed or made to think twice about something aspect of racism, sexism and classism (which I know I did), it ‘s kind of nice to feel like she’s been pushed to write even more (or better, or harder or whatever).

    But the question you raise are certainly interesting. If a white male had written this book, if he wasn’t hounded for cultural appropriation (a whole different can of worm I’m not going to open), people would probably say he was bold or daring or even powerful for writing these things. So for sure, Butler is not only writing from a disadvantage as Black woman, she’s even writing from a disadvantage when writing about the subjects she writes about.

    Says the white man.

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