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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.


( 395 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 21st, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC)
"Theme park fantasies" - wonderful expression. I've suffered a lot from critiquing writers who are guilty of exactly this. They want individual bedrooms and daily baths, and lofty stonebuilt castles at a time of stockaded wooden halls - sometimes they realise that the past is another country, but not that it's a whole series of other countries. Incidentally, have you read Neil Gaiman's wicked "Sandman" take on medieval "fayres"?

And research... in the years since I started writing my novel I've read books in four academic libraries and bought four shelves full. And then read something that makes it painfully aware that I know more about their chosen period, often one that I'm not particularly knowledgeable about or even terribly interested in, than they do.

Very interesting and thought provoking. May I friend you?
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC)
Certainly you may: lovely to meet you.
The thing that gets me about the indoor plumbing and so forth is that if you do the world-building right, you can have this and the mediaeval feel in fantasy -- sartorias does this in her Inda series and it works because she has thought through all the ramifications of the magic that allows this, and how it would affect the society in other ways. I always want every book to be the best book it can be.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 06:26 pm (UTC)
This is (one of several reasons) why I knew I would need to take a break from the Onyx Court before considering any hypothetical Blitz-era book. I've tried to be respectful of all the periods I've written, insofar as the high-speed schedule of my research will permit me -- but when it comes to WWII, there are people still alive who remember it. Because of that, I feel my obligation to Get It Right all the more acutely. Six months of research is not going to cut it, in that case. I need time to read, and then time to assimilate what I've read, and time to get other people to read over what I write and correct me where I've gotten it wrong.

It kind of made me despair when I heard that Willis had spent eight years or whatever researching, and people were still taking her to pieces over getting it wrong -- but it isn't all about the time, I suppose.

As someone said above, I think I see what she meant by her comment: "what's not to love" in the sense of "from a narrative stand-point, this has so many elements that lend themselves to great storytelling." But it comes off way too flippantly, and is (clearly) hurtful as a result.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:44 pm (UTC)
Within living memory is hugely, hugely hard.
For the record, you come closer than anyone I know who writes alternate history to getting the historical feel absolutely spot on. I think I've said this before, but my best friend, who's an Elizabethan-ist, adores MIdnight Never Come. (So do I. Not a word wrong.)
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Jul. 21st, 2011 06:26 pm (UTC)
Your point about treating the Blitz as a theme park reminded me of something which bothered me about Blackout/All Clear which I haven't seen crop up elsewhere: I am really not a fan of how those books portray the "important" bits of World War 2 as about Hitler and the Nazis, and not at all about Japan and China and the Pacific Theater.

It's an outgrowth of a larger cultural blindness about WW II and when it "started" and so on, but China and the Pacific don't seem to exist or matter at all in the books except as references to destinations no one ever makes it to. Because the timestream only cares about the fate of the western hemisphere, you see. The Japanese occupation of Korea? The Marco Polo Bridge Incident? Nanjing? Trivial and unimportant. Also, no one would recognize them because... well. Remember: Trivial and unimportant!

This isn't the only reason I feel those books are flawed, but it goes near the top of my personal list.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:00 pm (UTC)
Living in California as I do, I heartily agree with you.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 06:40 pm (UTC)
The It's so fascinating! reflex is one I catch myself with all the time, just in reading about history. It's an awkward balancing act, remembering that while something looks fascinating and shiny and interesting from a distance, up close and personal it can be tragedy and suffering and a history (or set of histories) that shapes peoples' lives today - in a way that very much doesn't actually belong to you, a way that means that if you want to come to the conversation even in a small way you have to be prepared to respect the material: to do a lot of listening and thinking and keeping your foot out of your mouth.

The theme park history thing, alongside soi-disant 'Eurocentric' fantasy, annoys the hell out of me. 'Eurocentric' fantasy seems to come from a shallow reading of historical tropes, skimming off the top and ignoring the deep structure of culture and society that always ferments underneath. As for theme park history - well, I hardly dare mention the Celts, as one egregious example.

(The way in which 'Celtic' myth has come to be appropriated in urban fantasy, as well, has the potential to really annoy.)
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:49 pm (UTC)
It's hard, being a historian. I know exactly what you mean: we must take care because this stuff is real.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
Just a line to say thank you for the post and to all the commenters. Learning loads reading this.
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:50 pm (UTC)
An excellent post. It made me think of a young man of my acquaintance who is a military history enthusiast and who participates in reenactments. I was perfectly sanguine about his live-action roleplaying when it was Civil War and Napoleonic Wars and whatnot, but then he enthusiastically regaled us with the tale of his taking the role of a Dutch refugee (gosh it was so great he learned enough Dutch to fake it, more than any of the other refugees!) in a WWII reenactment. The role of the refugees was to move their luggage (many of them went all out to make period luggage and find period contents for their period luggage) from one side of the field to the other, through the lines of German soldiers (gosh, it was nifty that one of the Germans was played by a real live Austrian who could speak German and everything!). They were confronted early on by the soldiers, who looked at their pot of (period) food and confiscated it, thereby removing all their food for the weekend, which disturbed them greatly, but gosh, how authentic!

When I told some friends about this, one of them said, "And you didn't say, 'So you roleplayed Anne Frank?'" Which just about summed up most of my horror at the whole thing.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's really disturbing.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 07:01 pm (UTC)
Something to take the iffy taste out of your mouth, maybe?
Since I don't see her commenting here, can I just drop in a good word for Elizabeth E. Wein's upcoming Code Name Verity?

I checked on the German for her (being German) and read it in manuscript form and from all I understood (I am a teacher of history as well, although WWII is not my particular era of interest) it was very well researched - and heartbreaking but then her protagonists always go through the wringer in some way.

It is not set to deal with the Blitz, but with woman auxiliary pilots and occupied France and freedom fights and also the friendship of two girls/women from very different background who sustain each other through the worst of it.

But then while Elizabeth E. Wein is American she has been living in Scotland for years with her family ^^.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Something to take the iffy taste out of your mouth, maybe?
I've met her, I think -- she wrote some really good, different novels inspired by the Arthur myth, which I've heard good reports of. Her new one sounds like a very interesting book, too. Thank you.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you, thnak you, thank you, thank you.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:25 pm (UTC)
I come from a part of the world where we have a long tail of history indeed - and I have always known how to respect it. Saying "what's not to like" about a war that OTHER people have (barely)survived or died in... is... just... well, if I was British it would have made my hackles rise. Fast.

I haven't read the books in question. I am less and less inclined to even touch them, the more I learn about them, particularly from people like you. The lack of research that went into them is one thing, but now I am seeing something else entirely - a lack of *empathy*, a complete lack of the ability to treat an era of history WHICH IS STILL IN LIVING MEMORY with the respect that it deserves. That is far, far less forgivable.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
Dealing with the recent past may be the hardest, I think.
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:26 pm (UTC)
Great discussion, everyone!
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:29 pm (UTC)
Brilliant provocative essay. Wonderful posts. Thank you. This has been a deeply engaging way to finish off a difficult day.
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Jul. 21st, 2011 08:40 pm (UTC)
Thank you for all your insightful comments.
Jul. 21st, 2011 10:05 pm (UTC)
yep. Although I can see that this might have been shorthand for something else. Lemme 'splain.

There is something close to a single narrative of WWII in US popular culture. It runs something like this (but not quite, because I don't watch the Hitler-y channel enough to have it all straight):

Hitler was this very clever man who was able to con an entire country because it was in this really bad depression where people had to cart money around in wheelbarrows and then the wheelbarrows got stolen because they were worth more than the money. The depression was a result of just punishment for causing and losing WWI. But anyway, it wasn't all that hard for Hitler, because Germans were desperate and he seemed like he could solve all their problems -- just too bad for the Jews he blamed it all on them, but you know, Germans have been anti-Semitic for a long time anyway. And they like strong leaders.

The rest of Europe stood by with their thumbs up their asses while Hitler's power grew, and some guy in England thought it would be ok to cut a deal with Hitler, like, appease him? And next thing, Hitler invades Poland, makes friends with Italy and the Commies (oops! Well, we all knew Stalin was a treacherous bastard), and the Japs (because they're all a bunch of fascists). The US rightly stayed out of the war, because it was in a depression, and also, it had already bailed the Allies out once, and it wasn't their war.

Except the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor, so then we had to join the war and fight IN TWO THEATRES, PEOPLE! to rescue the Free World from Communo-Fascist (yeah, but Stalin's not really on our side) domination. So Patton went in and rescued Mongomery's forces in Africa, and then he and his guys went in and won the Battle of the Bulge, and Anzio, and also basically rolled right through till Hitler freaked and killed himself. Meanwhile, they also rescued all these people in death camps -- Who Knew? It was a shocker!

Once that was done, Truman was all, like, "I'm over this" and bombed Hiroshima. And Nagasaki, just to make sure everybody knew we were totally badass. Then we created the UN, and bailed out all of Europe, especially the losers, and all was right with the world.

Then there was the counter-narrative, which seems to have resulted from people actually saying that, well, other countries were involved... And that's the one that is all about Enriching Stories of Human Spirit Triumphing. So there are Plucky English Heroics, and Brave Jews Fighting Back. The French are always the losers.

But anyway, I think that a generous interpretation of Willis' remarks is that they are rooted in the England-as-symbol-of-remarkable-courage-by-ordinary-people part of the narrative. And ironically, that's a narrative that seems to have come out as an antidote to the "Allies can't fight their own wars so the US rescues them" narrative.

Both are offensive, and your post is marvelous and right, and the more marvelous for saying what you say so clearly and kindly. Obviously, I'm never going to disagree with you on this stuff -- it hits home very strongly on all sorts of levels. And there's no way that Willis' understanding of history comes out well here. But I can see how her comments tie to that Brave England narrative that is so often juxtaposed with the Germany/Holocaust narrative.

If that makes sense at all.
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Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:00 am (UTC)
Oh my. I empathise. What an unthinking assumption. I can absolutely see how that is a hot button.
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John Burridge
Jul. 21st, 2011 10:51 pm (UTC)
Tolkien and First-Order Cultural World-Building
Thank you for this post and this reminder about fetishizing particular times and places.

I think part of the origin of "Euro-Fantasy" comes from Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." It set the genre for fantasy. As someone who critiques short story fantasy stories, I will see what I want to call "first-order cultural world building."

In my mind, such world building goes something like this: A writer reads Tolkien (or something Tolkien-esque) and decides to use a similar setting. But (as you say in your post) they don't do careful research. And (at least here in the US) folks are raised on Disney versions of the past. So the writer throws in castles, knights, and maybe a dragon, then gives the characters accents out of "Brigadoon" and calls their story a fantasy.

Never mind the peasantry.

On a slightly different track, you might enjoy Ronald Hutton's "The Rise and Fall of Merrie England: The Ritual Year, 1400-1700" which I think addresses the rose-tinted version of History.
John Burridge
Jul. 21st, 2011 10:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Tolkien and First-Order Cultural World-Building
Arg. That should be "First-Order Approximation Cultural World-Building"
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