CD: It’s okay to judge works by modern standards. Not all books are problematic. There are books of the same age by marginalized authors that could be read.— SFWA, Inc. (@sfwa) May 17, 2018
We give older books passes. Tolkien was a racist, and he wrote amazing things. We need to acknowledge this.
I don't know which smug, entitled jerk spouted this crap at a recent nebula Awards panel*, but unfortunately he's not unique. There is a whole generation of uneducated idiots out there who think Robert Heinlein is a misogynist fascist, Tolkien is a racist, and more recently, Larry Correia is pro-rape. They can't actually provide any kind of citations to back up those assertions, but enough of them are running around saying these things that it's a useful object lesson in Goebbels' assertion about the Big Lie. The lie makes it hard to have a civil discussion with these people about the state of the genre, because they seem hellbent on erasing the past, unpersoning the great writers of the past (not all of whom were Dead White European Males, by the way**) and erecting their own pathetic totems to worship.
Case in point: one commenter in the responses to the above tweet asserted that Tolkien must be a racist because China Mieville and Michael Moorcock said so. Well, so what? What makes those two writers, neither of which begin to compare to Tolkien in terms of accomplishments, authorities on the subject of racism? Where is the evidence Mieville and Moorcock cite as proof of this alleged racism? What relevance does our current obsession with skin color have to a heroic epic involving actual separate humanoid races set thousand of years ago, anyway? Further, why would any sensible person act like this toward the man who arguably made the fantasy genre what it is today?
Also relevant is the way Howard Phillips Lovecraft has been treated. His views on race were hardly unique in his time, and were shared by such progressive luminaries as Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, and FDR. More to the point, HPL (like Tolkien) was a formative author in his genre, opening the way to a very different and uniquely American form of horror, as Stephen King acknowledges in his excellent primer Danse Macabre. King, I think we can all agree, knows what the hell he's talking about when it comes to horror. So what have our current crop of bright young things done? Well, the World Fantasy Convention used to hand out little statues of HPL as their awards, but they don't do that any more because Lovecraft is problematic and somebody might be offended by having to look at the old racist's visage. Personally, I think if someone is that easily triggered, they ought to stay the hell away from fantasy and horror to begin with, but I'm not in charge here.***
No, judging works and people by "modern standards" is not okay, and SFWA should be publicly shamed for asserting this. The classic works of SF, horror, and fantasy are what they are because they're still entertaining almost a century or more after they were originally written, and if you have to stop and consider the historical context of the author and his work, you're trying too hard, or you're an English major - but I repeat myself. Not everything has to be a timeless literary masterpiece, and not everything has to be analyzed to death by humorless scolds who can't accept that sometimes a rocket ship is just a rocket ship and not a phallic symbol.
I seem to recall that SF writer and English professor James Gunn once told a story about coming into a classroom at UMKC and finding that someone had written on the blackboard "GET SF OUT OF THE CLASSROOM AND BACK IN THE GUTTER WHERE IT BELONGS". Well, the problem isn't so much that it's in the classroom, but that the classrooms of academia -which have now extended to the major publishing houses- seem intent on making sure that nothing gets published but SF and fantasy that fits comfortably in the English faculties of America. This is the sort of thing the Sad Puppies were and are opposed to, and you can see reflections of the same attitude in Gamergate and Comicsgate as well. It's a good thing. People want to be entertained, preferably without a bunch of lecturing and scolding, and given their druthers, they'll take entertainment that has a lot less lecturing in it.
*and I can't be bothered to look them up, because they're just a useless cog in a broken machine anyway.
** I was particularly unamused by some feminist critic passing over Anne McCaffrey, C.L.Moore, Leigh Brackett -and in the unkindest cut of all, Judith Merril- when compiling a list of great female SF&F writers. According to this numpty, the history of women in SF apparently began with Ursula LeGuin.
***And just as well, because the operations & maintenance budget for the military helicopter budget would go through the roof.