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Tuesday, January 25, 2011 5:28 pm
The L-Shaped Room: Offensive Content in Older Books
Posted by: Misha Stone

I decided to read Lynne Reid Bank’s popular 1960s novel, The L-Shaped Room, after it kept popping up as a book I might like as I searched online. Customer reviews made it sound like a good read. I knew that it was about pre-Pill, pre-abortion England and that in it a young girl becomes pregnant and finds a new community where she will be accepted for who she is, rather than looked down upon for her condition. But what I discovered when I read the book was that it was behind the times in more ways beyond its central theme.

In the novel, I found myself bombarded with offensive, racist, homophobic, Anti-Semitic and just generally bigoted comments about other characters that the protagonist, Jane, encounters in London. It’s set in the 1950s, so some of this may have been commonplace, but it felt so gratuitous, so jarring and grating, that I had a hard time judging the book for its other merits. This book was quite popular in its day and spawned two sequels.

I bring this up because I wondered how many groups have decided to discuss classics or older works and found them full of unsavory elements from times when our social climate was less accepting and less humane. A friend of mine is reading through the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels chronologically and is writing about it on his blog, Following Pulitzer, and has run across some very outmoded attitudes in many of those works.

Has your group been surprised or caught off guard when discussing older works? What were they, and how did you discuss them? Which works stood the test of time, despite their offensive attitudes, and which did not?

3 Responses to “The L-Shaped Room: Offensive Content in Older Books”
  1. James Rosenzweig Says:

    Thanks for the link, Misha! As far as your question goes, honestly I don’t think my group has read any older works (older than, say, 1990 or so) other than “The Age of Innocence” (which doesn’t offend much, if at all — I can’t recall any wretchedly racist material). It makes me wonder if it would create a good discussion, especially if the book was otherwise of sufficient quality to appeal to a lot of us: maybe “Of Mice And Men” and its depictions of the mentally challenged, women, and African-Americans? Of course, picking a book many of us may be familiar with might blind us to the presence of prejudices a bit. Misha, have any of your book groups taken on novels like this?

  2. misha Says:

    James–My book group chooses books from a pre-selected Book Groups Collection, so I don’t recall our discussing something of this kind.
    I just edited a post by a colleague about copyright free materials available for e-readers:
    http://shelftalk.spl.org/2011/01/27/catnip-for-the-technophobe-learn-to-love-e-books/
    In the post, he adds a caution for the 21st century reader.
    I imagine some groups have read one of the authors he mentions and if so, I would love to hear about it!

  3. Nita Adams Says:

    We cannot judge books of bygone years by today’s standards. The “offensive” comments which so shocked Misha would not have been gratuitous at the time. They simply reflected the ethos of the era.
    Books of all eras must be read with an open and unbiased mind.
    Shakespeare’s works contain hundreds of phrases which would shock us if they were seen in a book or play published today but we have to accept that this is now and that was then and, perhaps, congratulate ourselves on how things have changed (OR maybe feel depressed at how little they have??)
    Authors today do not directly depict these attitudes as though they are the norm because political correctness frowns on it and legislation forbids it.
    However, it could be argued that,as much as we would like to believe that our society has been freed of homophobics, racists and misogynists because the laws have been changed, the sad fact is that these attitudes have simply gone underground


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