Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Battling The Modern Condescension

     Today I am going to talk about my greatest pet peeve as a historical fiction writer, a history major, and a reader.

     I recently was reading a comment on someone's Goodreads review where a reader was admitting that she didn't usually like reading historical fiction novels because she thought they were too depressing. I found that odd. I've read many depressing historical fiction books...but I've read plenty of comedic, romantic, and adventurous ones as well. It all depends on the plotline and subgenre.

     However, this attitude plays into a phenomenon I've seen in far too many books that tackle historical characters and events. It's a bit of a two part problem, so I'll do my best to explain.

The Historical Pity Party


The Unaccountably Modern Viewpoint

     Both stem from a somewhat arrogant and spoiled view of ourselves: that people of history who lacked modern conveniences, rights, or scientific knowledge couldn't possibly ever be as happy as people are now. Every woman trapped in petticoats and unable to vote must have been miserable; every man who didn't know that the earth traveled 'round the sun was lost in an abyss of ignorance that prevented him from true happiness.

     That's not to say that certain periods or events in history are not tragic. Any book centering on something such as the Holocaust, for example, will be serious and even graphic in its portrayal of human suffering. But there is a difference between a true account of an actual, historical tragedy and portraying a middle-class Victorian heroine through the lens of a 21st century writer who can't help but pity every part of her life in the 19th century simply because it was a part of the 19th century. Things were hard back then- of course they were. And I don't mean to view the past with rose-colored glasses and deny its moral and social problems. But every generation views itself as more advanced than those that came before it; many of these people we are pitying thought they had it so much better than those before them. An Edwardian Mamma wasn't mourning her lack of a computer because it never even crossed her mind that something like that even existed. She was probably too busy looking at her new vacuum cleaner and thanking heaven she had it so much easier than her grandmother. (Which is why I'm annoyed when people say, "Oh, I could never have lived in [insert time period]- I'd never survive without air conditioning/television /automobiles/pop music." Yes, you would have because you wouldn't have known anything different.) In a hundred years, I'm sure there will be technology that I've never dreamed of. Should these citizens of the future pity me or think I am incapable of a satisfied, joyful life because I don't have access to these things?

Obviously, anyone living in the twenty-first century must have been miserable and primitive- I mean, they didn't even have a cure for cancer yet! And no jetpacks. tsk, tsk, tsk.

     A hundred years from now, I don't want someone pitying me because I wasn't aware of or didn't have access to their "modern" conveniences. We live in a fallen world where there will always be problems, and those problems are real- I'm not making light of them. But we are not somehow "better" than those who lived in the past. And it does not do to disparage or disdain those in history, as if they were not as smart (or moral) as we are now. You, reader, only have your superior scientific knowledge because someone before you figured it out. You are not better because you own a dishwasher and a car and an ipod- did you invent those things? I didn't think so. You find the very idea of slavery morally deplorable? I don't blame you. But can you honestly say you'd think the same if you were living back in Ancient Rome when it was considered simply a way of life?

Not that I'm not thankful for what I have in this year of our Lord 2016.

     I like my laptop and my Avengers movies and my itunes account filled with NEEDTOBREATHE songs. I'm thankful for modern medicine and God bless the man who invented air conditioning.

And I sure am glad computers don't look like this anymore
      So what's my problem? When I read a piece of historical fiction, more times than not I'm confronted with characters who seem almost resentful that they do, indeed, live in the past. It's a resentment that surpasses the universal and timeless human theme of discontentment with one's circumstances to a pointed discontentment with their personal timeline. It doesn't make any sense, because characters shouldn't have any sense that they are living in the past. To them, it's the present, with the future just around the corner. And one thing I've always wondered about the authors of such novels: what's the point of writing historical fiction if you're going to make your characters hate it so much? I suppose what I hate so much is the victimization of such characters (and real people of history): when they are made to be the objects of pity by a more "enlightened" people.

     The thing is, there's so much good in history in addition to the bad. There's heroism and humor just as much as there is villainy and sorrow. Honestly, I think we have a lot to learn from the past- not just from humanity's mistakes, but from their triumphs, too. There's a lot our ancestors got right, and half the time I find myself looking at the ridiculous "new" statements about God and the Bible people make today or roll my eyes at certain political movements and think, Good grief. We went over how flawed this idea was back in the 1700s...you missed the boat on that one, guys. 

     Another thing I've noticed is that often historical characters will have unaccountable modern knowledge that smacks of an author who just couldn't let her characters actually believe in period-correct ideologies, or even scientific "facts." Let's face it: Not many historical heroes and heroines actually think bloodletting or corsets are good ideas, because they are both frowned upon today. And if the characters do believe these things, the story must show how deadly they are.  (Ah, corset horror stories, which tend to make historical reenactors and those who've worn corsets livid, from what I understand. Also, here I insert kudos to Julie Klassen for The Apothecary's Daughter, the first modern novel I read that kept period-correct medical practices that were approved of by the main characters, even if the reader knew they were wrong). Many historical protagonists are stripped clean of politically incorrect ideas common to the time period they are living in, as if they somehow entered into the world with a postmodern, 21st century view of religion and politics right off the bat. Granted, there are some "common" historical ideas that really are hard to stomach and would make for a pretty difficult hero to like. However, I've seen many authors go beyond a simple neglecting of problematic ideology in their character to a direct proclamation of historically inaccurate statements, often used to make the more conventional (and historically correct) characters look foolish or unlikable. (I'd say the biggest culprits here are male characters who promote traditional roles for women and are made to look like domineering abusers who obviously only believe such things because they want to oppress and dominate women (or are ignorant and backwards). It's not like they could ever have some valid concerns or a Biblical basis for their ideas.)

     Sometimes this isn't intentional; sometimes it's simply ignorance (I'm totally guilty of this one, too, I'm afraid). Just as being an American can make me blind to Americanisms when I'm writing fiction set somewhere else, the same can happen in unintentionally giving characters modern views. It's a forgivable error, but a horribly common one. So many times we (yes, myself included!) take so many things for granted that we automatically insert them in novels, not even thinking that such an idea, turn of phrase, or mannerism is "modern" or time-specific. Yet novels are so much more encompassing and rich if authors can really delve deep into the philosophy, manners, and social constructs of the time period they're exploring. If you want to write historical fiction, I recommend reading books written and published during the era you're writing about. It's been one of the most helpful things I've ever found in my writing journey, and it's pretty darn fun, too. I understand that depending upon the time period and location of your story that this can be near impossible, but it is a wonderful resource if it's available. It can help you slip into the lingo, speech patterns, and nuances of the time that research from non-fiction can't always accomplish. It can also give you wonderful insight into the attitudes that prevailed during the time as well. The social and emotional climates of certain time periods are worth looking into. (contrast, for example, the optimism and patriotism of the "gay 90s" with the frenzied, desperate glamour of the "roaring 20s" just thirty years later. I love both time periods, but they are handled much differently in my writing.)

     Annnndddd.....my post is over. I feel like all of my writing-related posts can get a little annoyed and ranty, and for that I apologize. When it comes to blog posts and journal entries, I'm a bit of an "angry writer": I write to let out steam, which means I'm largely silent when I'm happy and very vocal when I'm not. Probably not a good trait to have. Personally, I'm just tired of reading historical fiction that make historical characters look ignorant, foolish, or evil because of the time they live in, or where characters are only likable and lauded if they are ahead of the times or espouse "progressive" views. Is this a problem any of you historical fiction readers have noticed? Or have I just been over-exposed to some very annoying books?


Livia Rachelle said...

I noticed that a lot of the main characters are absurdly forward thinking in Christian historical fictions . . . like to the point point of being unChristian . . . like stereotype feminist. Of course that is only the tip of the iceberg in historical inaccuracies.

Unfortunately, the whole attitude of superimposing our modern mindset on people, documents, events, etc. of the past and condescending to them doesn't start or stop with historical fiction. I majored in history in college and saw it THERE. If we think like that when studying, how on earth are we to learn anything. I was literally thinking about this attitude today. People literally expected people to think far into the future and guess at current moral consensus (because often it is just that, not fact, consensus about "how we now know" that this or that behavior is acceptable" or scoffed people for not joining them. Really?! That is insanely self-focused. Of course it stems from treating people who treat everyone who disagrees as an idiot and flings around insulting epithets rather than engage in honest, intellectual debate.

This is definitely not just something you've seen. I noticed it, and it is part of a major trend. I just haven't seen anyone point this particular facet out. That may be why I am not drawn to historical fiction sometimes. I mean I love some of the characters (well, Nat) in A Witch of Blackbird Pond. But my stars what stereotypes!

Elsabet said...

Yes! Yes yes yes yes yes! I read a lot of fantasy, and my mum doesn't like this, she tells me I need to read more "suitable" material. I asked her what that meant and she said books about real time periods dealing with "real" issues, saying that they would be more uplifting and more educational.
But really, the reason I stopped reading historical fiction was because books set in REAL time periods are often so saturated in the modern thoughts of the writers that I absolutely CAN'T get a single thing from them! The issues in historical fiction are real problems but so often I see historical authors handling them so badly that they cease to be real and are instead simply reflections of the author's personal "enlightened" opinion.
I just can't find any historical fiction worth reading anymore. I've combed through the library shelves hundreds of times, but I've long since exhausted the supply of truly solid historical fiction, and I don't dare buy anything I haven't read yet. I've lost my faith in the genre.
Since the beginning of this year, after reading ninety-four books, only two were historical fiction books that I actually enjoyed. Two!
I'm so sick of this problem. I love history, but I usually get stuck with dry biographies and crumbling treatises rather than a richly written story. Don't get me wrong, I like reading biographies and treatises, but the writing styles for such things are so stiff and boring, not the vivid prose I crave. If there are any favorite, well written historical fiction novels you know of that are at least more-or-lesslyish historically accurate I would be eternally grateful if you would recommend them. I'm dying to find something new to read.

Natalie said...

I can't say I've noticed this a LOT in the books I read, but I LOVE all the points you made and 100% agree. I'm curious to see if I notice this in any historical fiction I read next!

Hayden said...

Livia: You're totally right! People today really don't understand a lot of the mindsets and ideologies of different time periods and so they look at events and actions from times past and imprint their own conclusions based upon their own modern experiences or "political correctness." I think generally human nature doesn't change, but what society deems acceptable, moral, or immoral does, and so it gets messy...which one of the many reasons why I'm so glad for God's Word, which doesn't change! :D

Elsabet: I totally understand the struggle! I'm coming up blank with good historical fiction titles (although they are out there!) but I do like a lot of historical fiction that wasn't necessarily "historical" when it was written--stuff from the 1800s or early 1900s is always pretty good. But then I'm just really fond of the classics :D

Natalie: I'm glad you haven't noticed it as much! There are definitely some good historical fiction books out there (even ones that might be a little on the modern side;)) but I do come across some really annoying books in this regard every once in awhile (although I do run into it less, now that I've been a little more selective with my reading material lately.)

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