Political Correctness

December 1st, 2015 by Max Allan Collins

“Politically correct” is a term I wouldn’t mind seeing junked. Also the concept. What makes it worthless is that both the right and the left are abusing it.

Take Donald Trump (please). He is making a political campaign out of saying outrageous, offensive things and then hiding behind the notion that being politically incorrect is an attribute. Many voters who are lining up with him see the Donald as a straight-talker who is not afraid to offend. He tells it as he sees it and doesn’t care what you, or the facts, or human decency, might think.

How did we get to a place where being against political correctness could be seen as a plus? Whose fault is it that political incorrectness has become a badge of honor? I know whose fault, since you asked – the left. Right?

At a time when major political candidates are gaining followers by putting down minorities, women, the afflicted, and any religion that isn’t Christianity, many on the left spend their time complaining about people who say the wrong things. Who have the “wrong” attitudes. How many celebrities or other public figures have had to “walk back” innocuous things they said because they’ve been taken to task by the self-appointed arbiters of what is and isn’t acceptable? God help us if any of us are offended by the opinions or remarks of others. It’s now our responsibility to make sure the Facebook posts and Tweets of the famous reflect only what we consider proper and, well, nice.

Since this is the Christmas season, I want to spread the joy around, so I’ll point out that the right can gang up on somebody for trivial, stupid reasons, too, such as the tempest in a teapot over the holiday coffee cup at Starbuck’s. It’s the war on Christmas! Some people really, really need a hobby. Ironically, of course, Starbucks was just trying not offend anybody. Good luck with that.

I have run into this kind of thing in reviews – both professional and amateur – for many, many years. In my case, it’s mostly a byproduct of writing historical fiction. More times than you’d think, when a character in one of my period pieces uses a word like “colored” to describe a black person, or “girl” in reference to a grown woman, I have been taken to task.

It’s a tricky position for a writer to be in, as when I’m dealing with Mike Hammer in a manuscript I’m completing that was begun by Mickey Spillane in the late ‘40s, ‘50s or ‘60s. Attitudes toward homosexuals, for example, are a bitch to deal with. I usually sort of split the difference, and have the character reflect attitudes of his or her times but not emphasize them, and avoid words (like “faggot”) that come off as painfully harsh to modern ears.

But modern ears need to cut a writer of historical fiction some slack. When I write about Nathan Heller, the format is an old man writing his memoirs about things that happened a long, long time ago. He should not be expected to reflect current attitudes. In fact, if he does to much of an extent, I’m doing a bad job as his Boswell.

Would you like to know what offends me? Thanks for asking. I’m in the odd and somewhat enviable position of having my older novels come back into print. These date as far back as the early ‘70s. Recently (as you probably know) Hard Case Crime has been doing new editions of the original five Quarry novels, four of which were published in 1976 and 1977 (the first novel, QUARRY, was started around ‘72 and completed in ‘74). This week I got a lovely review of that novel, one that pleased and even flattered me. I want to make that clear right now, because this reviewer was not only complimentary, but also very smart in discussing the anti-hero aspects of the character.

But he raised a point that frankly made me close my eyes and count to ten (incidentally, about the extent of my math abilities). Here is what the reviewer said:

“Unfortunately, the book does suffer from its age, specifically when it comes to homosexuality. Boyd is a homosexual, and this fact is brought up several times during the story. While Quarry insists that he doesn’t have a problem with Boyd’s sexual orientation, the fact that he constantly brings it up puts his assertions into question. Now, I don’t think that Collins is homophobic, or even that Quarry was, but it does definitely stand out and is out of place with modern sensibilities.”

A couple of things. That in a novel written in the early ‘70s, I chose to give Quarry a gay partner, and that Quarry himself had no problem with that, is something I’m proud of (and that other modern reviewers, looking at this decades-old book, have commented favorably upon, as something fairly innovative and forward-thinking). But more troubling is the notion that a book written over forty years ago has a responsibility not to offend “modern sensibilities.”

When the early Quarry novels were being prepared for re-publication, Hard Case editor Charles Ardai gave me the opportunity to revise any passages that might offend the delicate ears of today. I declined to take advantage of the opportunity, because the books are the books. They were written when they were written, and I’m not going to spend the rest of this lifetime updating them to please the opinions of new generations.

This reflects a special aspect of political correctness that I would guess drive any writers who’ve been around long enough to see early works of theirs described in the present say as “dated.” I think, in the critical lexicon, the word “dated” should be stricken or at least used very carefully. Of course my novel QUARRY is dated. Read the first few chapters of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY and check out Marlowe’s now racist attitudes and vocabulary. All books that weren’t written yesterday are “dated.” Shakespeare is so dated, his language so difficult to penetrate, that he’s considered to be the greatest poetic playwright of all time.

This mini-rant was sparked by the paragraph I quoted (in which the word “dated” does not appear), but in fact this reviewer is very smart and generous, and you should read the other things he had to say here.

Speaking of Quarry, I am delighted to report that J. Kingston Pierce has selected QUARRY’S CHOICE as one of his ten favorite crime novels of 2015. As always, I deplore such lists unless I am on them.

And I’m pleased to say reviews for FATE OF THE UNION (what a wonderful Christmas present a copy of that would be for your family and friends!) have been rolling in. Check out this terrific one.

Finally, as a sort of sidebar to this week’s discussion of political correctness, here is a mini-review from a conservative reviewer who has no problem with the hero’s “leftish politics.” Those of you who remember how some conservative Amazon reviewers objected to SUPREME JUSTICE will understand why I’m so gratified by this write-up.


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11 Responses to “Political Correctness”

  1. Tom Zappe/St Louis says:

    Two things:

    1. Read Mark Twain’s introductory notes for Huckelberry Finn concerning the use of the language therein. You may well want to consider how people have tried to “clean up” that language in the ensuing years.

    B. Speaking about books, Max, I am just a few months younger than you but about a full year behind you in the Grampaw category. Grammaw has informed me that when our impending grandson stays with us [probably about 2 days a week] I will be in charge of his literacy development and she will be in charge of his toy horses, barns and tractors enrichment.

    Figuring that he will not be ready to meet Nate Heller until about age 7 or 8, what would you and/or this esteemed assemblage recommend as appropriate crib side reading material?


    Have you had the opportunity to see “Trumbo”? After seeing Helen Mirren’s performance I hope you can somehow squeeze Hedda Hopper into a future work. That’s what I call EVIL.

  2. Bill Crider says:

    John D. MacDonald is one of my favorite writers, but I deplored his updating of the stories included in THE GOOD OLD STUFF and MORE GOOD OLD STUFF. I applaud you for not doing the same to the Quarry books.

  3. kahr40 says:

    I think this applies to those who give the author crap over the attitudes of his characters.

    “And a special acknowledgment to the author of Niven’s Law: “There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is ‘idiot’.””

    And thanks for the comment and link. Much appreciated.

  4. Max Allan Collins says:

    Tom, idiots continue to screw with HUCKLEBERRY FINN, which is perhaps the greatest American novel (next to my novelization of G.I. JOE, that is). Barb and I saw TRUMBO this weekend and loved it — Cranston and the whole cast, really, was wonderful. I can’t think of another movie about a writer that felt more like it was actually about a writer. Hedda Hopper did one good thing: she gave the world Paul Drake. Otherwise, she was a dreadful excuse for a human.

    Bill, this comment is much appreciated.

    Gary, thanks for your comment, too. Means a lot. I also get liberals thinking that I share Mike Hammer’s political beliefs — which can be summed up in not voting and shooting people. So I’m hit up for being a liberal and a conservative. One of the amusing things about my career is how often people complain about some thing Heller or Quarry said, but never comment on the fact that they are both by definition murderers.

  5. Sean Kelly says:

    Don’t forget to plug Antiques St. Nicked. I just ordered it.

  6. Mike Doran says:

    I’m working on a detailed disquisition on “Political (In)Correctness”, which is tough because I don’t want to repeat stuff I’ve said, here and in the past.
    But your comment about Hedda Hopper brought something to mind …

    Ever see the movie MYRA BRECKINRIDGE?
    I did – once, on a self-imposed dare.
    Rented the videocassette (remember that ancient practice?).
    I didn’t know all that much about the behind-the-scenes lunacy (which apparently was more entertaining than the film); I’d heard that a number of great old character actors turned up in bit parts, which is always bait for me.

    So anyway, I rented MYRA the Movie, and it was every bit as bad as promised.
    But one cameo performance was a real stunner:
    Turning up late in the movie, as a pot-smoking judge –
    – William Hopper, in what proved to be his final screen appearance.
    He’s in a tight close-up, delivering an anti-Commie rant (much reminiscent of his mother’s later works) between puffs on an independently-made cigarette.
    I’d often read that Bill Hopper only started acting at Hedda’s behest (read: nagging), and drove her nuts because he wasn’t as ambitious as she wanted him to be. He was just fine with being Perry Mason’s second banana, while Hedda felt he should be The Biggest Star Of All.
    I’ve often wondered if Hopper’s role in MYRA was his belated way of sticking it to Mama (she’d died several years before this).
    All speculation on my part, of course …

    I’m still stewing over the PC business – if I come up with anything new (or newish, anyway), I’ll get back to you.

  7. Yonatan says:

    Mr. Collins,

    Over the past 12 months I’ve been consuming a good number of your novels and am enjoying them very much. Don’t change anything. You will never be able to not offend those who relentlessly seek to be offended. This is their pastime, their hobby, what makes them get up in the morning, and what makes them feel worthwhile.

    However, I do think that most of the fault for the craziness that PC has become is on the left. That is a sad thing, but true nonetheless.

  8. Mike Doran says:

    Is there really anything more to say about That Phrase?

    Beyond Bill Maher’s eternal regrets that he didn’t trademark IT in his own name when he had the chance?

    I could rehash my lifetime’s experience with all forms of IT, left, right, and whatever, as I’ve done here and elsewhere for years, but what’s the point?

    I might as well complain about the A-hole who insisted on putting ‘t’ right next to ‘y’ on the keyboard, thereby increasing my writing time on these comments …

    After too long a time, I finally broke down and bought a Blu-Ray.
    Holiday weekend sale at Target.
    Big stack of them in the store.
    And they were the ONLY DVD players of any kind in the store.
    And after the holiday weekend, the price went back up.
    D’ya think maybe someone’s trying to tell me something?
    (I’ve pretty much given up on finding one of those “all-region” players …)

    Only four weeks left ’til 2016 …

  9. Adrian Werner says:

    People who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. It makes no sense to edit old works to make them less offensive. Reading them allows us to peer back at eras long past and see them not just for their glory, but also ugliness. This is what makes us appreciate modern more civilized times and strive to improve further.

  10. Max Allan Collins says:

    Thanks for all of your comments. I am tempted to turn this weekly update over to Mike Doran, who is consistently smarter and funnier than me. What’s the idea?!?!

    Sean, I’ll try to talk about the ANTIQUES novellas in some update this month (not next week — that’s already written!). For those who don’t know about them, there are three ANTIQUES novellas that Barb and I have done that are available only as e-books, and ANTIQUES ST. NICKED is the latest!

    Yonatan, political correctness is definitely a concept of the left, and demonstrates how the left stupidly plays into the clutches of the right — by being so unreasonable and illogical about opinions and attitudes they communally agree upon, the left gives the right a perfectly good reason to be contemptuous.

    Adrian, I agree with you 100%…well, make that 90% because I don’t entirely agree we’re always more “civilized” as the years go by — for all the improvements, we have an awful lot of idiots around. “Idiots” is the wrong (if fun) word –” ignoramuses” is better, because we have bred a big underclass of ill-educated folks who can’t help looking stupid. For this I blame the right — chipping away at education, and extolling a good ole boy mentality. Trump “tells it like it is!” And what it is is ignorant racist pap that he doesn’t believe in, but is brilliant at peddling in his pandering. On the other hand — and back to political correctness — the left is pretty stupid, too, when it comes to things like thought control on college campuses. And they don’t have ignorance as an excuse.

  11. Mike Doran says:

    Duuuuuuhhhhhh …

    See what happens when you set high expectations (or expectorations)?

    I don’t remember if I wrote this here or elsewhere; I’ll try to keep it brief.

    “Political correctness” belongs to both wings … even as they try to fob it off on each other.

    Right-wing PC is mainly about religion and patriotism – or more accurately about religiosity and hyper-nationalism.

    Left-wing PC is mainly about “the liberal pieties” – which must be not so much taught as rigidly enforced; no bad habits (smoking, drinking, ethnic jokes, etc.),

    This is coming out all wrong, so I’m scrapping it.
    But I kind of like the opening, so I’m sending it in anyway.
    Sorry about that …