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Other people's toes: a rant

So yesterday I finally got around to reading the May issue of the SFWA Bulletin, the one focusing on the Nebulas. Lots of interesting stuff, as usual and all the regular features, so far so good. And a piece by Connie Willis on Blackout/All Clear.
Now, I was underwhelmed by seeing these win the best novel award, because the historical errors in them are, frankly, parlous, and -- as an Oxbridge historian -- I am personally rather offended by how stupid she thinks my kind are, apparently (I had the same issues with Doomsday Book). But that's my opinion, and the Nebulas are a US award and people do make cultural errors. So and all...
Then I read her short piece in the Bulletin. Here's the key excerpt. 'That era [Britain in WW2] is just so fascinating -- the blackout, the gas masks, the kids being sent off to who-knows-where, old men and middle aged women suddenly finding themselves in uniform and in danger, tube shelters and Ultra and Dunkirk, and running through it all, the threat of German tanks rolling down Piccadilly! What's not to like.'

That was when I looked up, and said, very sharply, 'How about all the dead civilians? That's not to like at all.'
Because, you know, the Blitz was *not* fun. My Uncle Bob served in the army and was at Dunkirk, and subsequently, due to shell shock, was put to digging bodies out of the rubble left by bombs in London. He never got over it. My Auntie Florrie contracted TB of the bone while working as an army nurse and died young as a result. My mother, then a junior school child, lived less than 8 miles from where Hess was being kept as a prisoner, though she didn't find this out till she was in her 50s. She remembers the evacuees, too, miserable and terrified and confused. My father can remember finding the hand, still in its glove, of a Canadian pilot whose plane was shot down. None of that is fun.

Here's my point. History is not a theme park. It's not a story, either. It's people's real lives. If you're going to write about it, about any part of it, you need to do your homework properly, you need to be respectful, because -- as Ms Willis did with me -- otherwise, you're going to find someone's sore place, someone's vulnerability, someone's sacred or difficult or secret thing, and you're going to do damage. Other countries aren't theme parks, either, nor museums, nor big bags of useful resources. They're homes to millions, they're people's lives, too.

I didn't know I had a hot button about the Blitz. I was taken aback, rather, by how strongly I felt about this. Doomsday Book annoyed the hell out of me, because the errors were so egregious and so easily avoidable. The same is true of the errors in Blackout/All Clear. And I'm inured to people's assumptions about how stupid, how dim, how un-rigorous and unscientific and woolly historians must be because, after all, anyone can do that job, anyone can read books about the past, can't they? You don't spend 30+ years specialising in an obscure historical period without hearing every negative view going about your value, status, skills and profession.

But the Blitz is not likeable, it's not fun, it's not an adventure playground. And talking about is as if it is lessens us all. I'm sure Ms Willis didn't mean her comments that way, either. I've never met her, but what I've read suggests that she's a perfectly nice, intelligent woman. She written some books I like and some I don't like. That's on me, not her. I'm sure she didn't set out to hurt or offend. This is about my perceptions, my reactions. I accept that completely.

And while I'm talking about this, let's have a look at another phrase I'm seeing a lot lately, 'Eurocentric fantasy'. This, as far as I can tell, means fantasies set in backgrounds drawn from a sort of default idea of mediaeval Europe (usually Western Europe at that). I understand what people mean by this, and what they are thinking about. The thing is, as a European myself, these fantasies don't feel 'Eurocentric' to me. They don't feel like Europe at all, they feel like a mix of 50s Hollywood historicals and Las Vegas, they are theme park fantasies -- right up there with that 'England' where everyone is either Hugh Grant or a Cockney, and we have names like Rupert and Gwendolen (not in my lifetime, oh Buffy -- and Wesley is a surname, not a first name in the social class that Wesley Windom-Price is supposed to come from). I get how this happens -- we have 'theme park' America here, a land of cowboys and drive-ins and deep-fried bacon. I got into a discussion a few days ago on jimhines blog about the term 'First World', and how to me it means something different to what it seems to mean to many non-Britons. We have different understandings of the world, depending on who we are and where we live, on what we are, on what we have learned and observed. But when I see the whole 'Eurocentric' thing as a slam, while my head understands what is meant, my heart hears something else. My heart hears, "well, *your* past is rubbish and overdone and bad, and we've mined it out and used up all the fun stuff anyway and now it's just this huge negative thing that we don't want any more". (I am not here demanding that we get a free pass against the many many bad things done by the British through history. I am talking about 2ndary world fantasies drawing on European cultural tropes.) Plus, some of the tropes and themes mean different things to us now to what they did in the past, or to what they mean to the European diaspora.

I'm not saying all fantasies based on European histories are bad. There are many good ones -- I've written about Judith Tarr's and Kit Kerr's before. And there are more. But those are properly researched, properly thought through. They're not highlights and assumptions and 'isn't this cool'? I do my best to be careful with my own books: I read about the same volume for my fiction as I do for my academic writing and I try to do my best. I probably make mistakes. My feet are clay. I hope I'm not doing too desperately badly.

I guess what I'm saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people's things, histories, homes. We don't all understand the same things in what we read, we don't all have the same assumptions. We start from different places. It's far too easy to discount, to elide, to erase people by not respecting that they may not be just like oneself. It's far too easy to trample, to damage, to stamp hard on sensitive toes.

And this is a very British blog post. I seem to be turning into the poster girl for this kind of thing, lately. But it sits in my head and it niggles, and... Well, that's me, I guess.
I'm friends'-locking for now: will open it if others think that would be a good idea.

Skirt of the day: jeans.

Saturday update: I'm still here reading but today I won't have time to post. I will be back and commenting tomorrow. Have a great day.

Comments

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klwilliams
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
You make very valid points, very good points. It made me think of the last day of Milford, where there is a choice about local places to visit. One of them is a modern electric company (? -- I don't know for sure, since I didn't go). As an American, I don't want to see anything modern like that in England, I want to see castles. We don't have castles in the U.S., or Sherwood Forest, or anything with an English name to it that's older than a couple of hundred years. And as an outsider, when we look at other places we're looking for the different, colored by what we know. The Blitz is all Connie Willis described for us, but of course very few Americans are going to think of the people's pain, because for us WWI and WWII took place somewhere else, and our soldiers went there and came back. Very few of us saw civilians. And that's a very interesting point, because I don't know if the lives of the civilians would have occurred to me, either, in the same way that I forget to put rainstorms in my stories because I live in California, where it rarely rains.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:24 pm (UTC)
Whereas to us hydro-electric power is rare and cool!
But I think it's natural that we want to see the things that are different. We're a curious species. It's how we try to understand each other.
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fidelioscabinet
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC)
You go, girl.

I have an American Civil War-related twitch similar to your Blitz twitch. What my mother's family in Missouri, and my father's in Mississippi, lived through in no way resembled Gone with the Wind; even Cold Mountain doesn't do justice to the experience of living in the middle of a guerrilla war (Missouri) or a collapsing society under constant threat of armed assault from invaders (Mississippi).
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:34 pm (UTC)
I can absolutely see that.
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leahbobet
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC)
Hrm.

I think I see what she was trying to say ("There is so much story here...") but I also see what you are saying, and it is not wrong.

Also, there is possibly a whole discussion in the notion of Americentric fiction, and the fact that this is not an extant term/an unmarked state, and what that says about everything, really.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC)
I think the lack of defined terms is a lot of the problem, in fact, because we all understand different things from the same set of words.
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tamaranth
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:18 pm (UTC)
CW's 'what's not to like?' seems the perspective of a voyeur squinting through the glass at those funny little puppets: it shows a distressing (and, yes, bloody offensive) lack of empathy, and an apparent disregard for those of her readers whose grew up in post-war Britain (a vague and fuzzy period that I'd say continued until the late 60s) and whose childhood was shaped by parents who'd lived through conflict, bombing and the constant threat of invasion.

If she'd said 'powerful stories there, extraordinary times, resilience, Blitz spirit, let's all have a cuppa' it might have sounded less superficial.

I feel she should be pointed at [I cannot believe I am recommending this rag ...] the [OMG] dailymail feature on new colour photos from the Blitz. (They've actually picked a powerful selection).

But hey, it's all theme-park!Britain.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:09 pm (UTC)
Oh, those are just heart-breaking. Thank you for that link.
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aberwyn
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
But I am an American, and I have close relatives who also suffered in the Blitz. One of my grandmother's sisters was killed in it. My cousins Mary and Peter were evacuated right into the path of what might have been Operation Sea Lion. My Great-Uncle Will, who was at Gallipoli as a young man, was an air raid warden during it -- one of the men who climbed onto the dome of St.Paul's to knock away the incendiary bombs when Hitler ordered the cathedral targeted. My cousin Frank was an electrical engineer engaged in secret war work.

I think you forget how many Americans have family in the UK and in Europe. These stories are not just your history. Much of it is also ours.

I deplore bad historical writing, as you and I have often discussed. But it's not just the Terrible Americans who do it. The British and the Europeans have their delusions, too. Consider Neil Ferguson -- and he doesn't even admit that some of what he writes is fiction. :-) If everyone in France who said they were in the Resistance had actually been in the Resistance, the Nazis would have been kicked out in six weeks. And so on and so forth.

It's not that the British have done many "bad things". It's that they imposed their culture and their language over half the world by the force of gunfire. America is your creation. Now it's come home for a look at the creator.

shweta_narayan
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC)
It's not that the British have done many "bad things". It's that they imposed their culture and their language over half the world by the force of gunfire. America is your creation. Now it's come home for a look at the creator.


I agree with this, but it doesn't actually contradict the OP. When said look at the creator is imperialistic, voyeuristic, and utterly lacking in empathy, it really ought to be called out. And being the UK's creation in some sense does not absolve Americans of responsibility.
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joycemocha
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:22 pm (UTC)
Very good points.

Another piece of the Americentric nature of current fiction is that not all regions of the US are held in equal value. There's some egregious categorizations of certain regions which are as farcical as the faux Eurocentric fantasies can be.

My twitches tend toward representations of the US frontier days. The stuff is NOT that hard to research but some of it is...sigh.
aberwyn
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:02 pm (UTC)
The whole idea that New York City is the center of the universe comes to mind. Alas, since so many publishers live there, that idea still shapes some of what gets published, though it's not as bad as it was in the 1960s and 70s.
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dancinghorse
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC)
Theme-park fantasy! Yes! I believe you've coined a phrase.

I got in trouble with another very popular writer who also got WWII Britain wrong, with a protagonist who had the values, diction, and worldview of a late-20th-century American suburbanite. I asked her why she didn't just write the character as such. She got extremely huffy. "My readers don't agree! They all think she's perfect!" American readers, I presume. I don't think British readers would quite agree.

Doomsday Book annoyed me, too. Ah, the Middle Ages, when everyone was nasty, brutish, and short.

I think it's very hard to realize that your world, your culture, your values are not the default. As historians we learn this, internalize it, and then see the world through it--and that puts us at distinct odds with most of the rest of the population.

Look at medieval paintings of ancient times with the principals in the latest fashion of the painter's day, and medieval attitudes toward the Other as enemy and inferior. That's still the way of things.

It's no excuse for a writer, no, especially a winner of multiple major awards, whose work is seen as a "Best Of." This kind of micron-thick research (which may be very broad in physical scope, with enormous bibliographies), in which the author picks up a lot of facts and dates and settings and such, and then imposes her own biases without question or examination, is quite common.

And it sells. It puts the work into the reader's comfort zone, and affirms the reader's own biases. It's James T. Kirk blundering through the universe in blissful ignorance of the damage he's done to every culture and creature he meets. Because after all, he's Default! He's Superior! It's For Their Own Good!

That's not solely an American attitude. Britain is guilty of it on a massive scale, and so are other countries, cultures, religious beliefs. The ability to put oneself in the other's place, to perceive the world as that person perceives it, and to convey that perception clearly and accessibly, is rare--and unlikely ever to be widely popular. It's too uncomfortable.
shweta_narayan
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:42 pm (UTC)
And it sells. It puts the work into the reader's comfort zone, and affirms the reader's own biases. It's James T. Kirk blundering through the universe in blissful ignorance of the damage he's done to every culture and creature he meets. Because after all, he's Default! He's Superior! It's For Their Own Good!

That's not solely an American attitude. Britain is guilty of it on a massive scale, and so are other countries, cultures, religious beliefs. The ability to put oneself in the other's place, to perceive the world as that person perceives it, and to convey that perception clearly and accessibly, is rare--and unlikely ever to be widely popular. It's too uncomfortable.


This, so much.
*sighs*
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shweta_narayan
Jul. 21st, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC)
Wonderful post. Am I misreading or is it unlocked now? I'd like to link to it, if you're not locking it.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
The doorbell rang, and I posted and forgot to friends' lock it. Too late now.
Am now riddled with guilt that I will have hurt Connie Willis' feelings, though, because she isn't a bad person, she just said something that was rather unthinking. We all do it.
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saare_snowqueen
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC)
I guess what I'm saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people's t

That's it in a nutshell.

It's not about Americanisms or British culture, it's, as a writer or a visitor, respecting the realities of the place you are visiting. Like you, Kari, when I set out to write a story, I do copious amounts of research, because I value, in fact insist on verisimilitude both in what I write and what I read. It doesn't matter if the genre is fantasy, science fiction, crime or historical fiction or some combination of the above, if it reads like the author has only a superficial knowledge of the world they are writing about, then I feel cheated, f---ked over to put it bluntly.

I'm finding myself less and less inclined to spend money or time on any of these three Connie Willis books we have been discussing.
aberwyn
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:21 pm (UTC)
Re: I guess what I'm saying is, at bottom, very simple. Be careful, when you talk about other people
Consider the title of THE DOOMSDAY BOOK, an utterly off-base reference to a phrase that meant "possible taxes" not "doom, gloom, and destruction." Her attitude toward history is revealed right there. I realize that some people in America hate paying taxes with an obsessive loathing, but still . . .
mizkit
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
This--the basic premise, that writers should, you know, do research before setting a book in anything but their own home town (and probably that too) is exactly why I'm not blazing forth through the proposals I've got lined up. I'm perfectly okay with writing theme park fantasy as long as I know how I'm deviating. I have this pre-Napoleonic era thing I'm trying to write and I just flat out don't know enough about the era to even start doing something *else* with it. And very similarly with the 1940s American urban fantasy--I know a bit *more* there, but not enough to feel as grounded as I want to before I lark off adding vampires and other things that go bump in the night!
aberwyn
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC)
I was born in the 1940s. And now it's the subject for research. Some days I really do feel ancient.
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sartorias
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:31 pm (UTC)
*swoon*
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:33 pm (UTC)
Are you okay? Frets...
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birdsedge
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Kari, brilliant stuff. I probably need to talk to you (at Milford maybe) about the magic pirate novel which started out as a fantasy in some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey period and is now set in a period much more closely akin to a real time and place (with the addition of magic and a big island in the middle of the Atlantic). It's not your specialist period - being 1800, England with a flashback to 1588 - but I would like to talk to you in general terms about depth of research. In particular I don't want to get slavery issues wrong.

So give us some ballpark advice. When you're not an academic historian, how do you know the best resources for 'getting it right' without putting your foot in it accidentally. I'm up to my ears in books and websites.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC)
I can try, but that's really not my field at all. But I can do some hunting and see who I can find to refer you to.
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deborahjross
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC)
I first saw this, went away for what seemed like a few minutes to think about it, and came back to find FORTY-SEVEN comments, many of them far more thoughtful than what I can come up with. So I'll add my own, poor ones though they may be.

The first is a sort of, "What do you mean we, white man?" I keep thinking of Jewish history as taking place in this invisible, parallel universe. The Middle Ages weren't dark and brutish, they were a glorious time of scholarship, philosophy, science, and relative peace in Diaspora (especially in Moorish Iberia). So I wonder how many other parallel histories there are, that get ignored or invalidated.

The second, more important, is a reflection of how power corrupts. Egyptians, Romans, British, Americans, Germans, Israelis, you name it, if you put people in charge and give them spears or guns or whatever, they start acting like arrogant, willfully destructive baboons, with apologies to the baboons.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:08 pm (UTC)
I get so horribly stuck in my own head sometimes. I suppose the 'we' in there this time was 'writers' or some such, in a vague and woolly sense, and you're right to call me on it.
And yes, on power.
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la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:11 pm (UTC)
Yes, that is very much my feeling too. I like those books, but the sexual politics don't work right for the rest of that kind of background. To be fair, the tv series is far worse in how it depicts this: he takes care to present the female perspective and how it damages them.
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laransb
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:11 pm (UTC)
My thoughts exactly. Thanks.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:24 am (UTC)
Thank you!
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