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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

( 395 comments — Leave a comment )
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j_cheney
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:06 am (UTC)
Excellent post!

I posted today about some of the social/sexual mores of my 1200 Rus heroine faced...and was promptly told I couldn't use those factors as backstory because no one would believe them.

But I feel that if I'm going to write about that time, I need to at least try to understand her world!

(Can't type on the mini)

Edited at 2011-07-22 12:07 am (UTC)
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:16 am (UTC)
Oh, good grief!
Those kind of assumptions -- 'I don't believe it, I *know* all people back then wore woad/couldn't write/were in chastity belts' -- deserve to be shaken up hard and need to be challenged. Stick to your guns: it will be a better book for it.
firebirdgrrl
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:30 am (UTC)
This is a very fine post. Thank you.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:17 am (UTC)
Thank you.
birdsedge
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:57 am (UTC)
Thanks, Kari (and everyone else). Some really great stuff here and much food for thought.
akaihyo
Jul. 22nd, 2011 01:21 am (UTC)
My history professor and advisor was of the opinion that history was anything you had not lived through. The idea being, I believe, that you could not be objective about what you experienced directly.

Good and interesting discussion. Trying to see things through the eyes (and mindset) of the past is difficult. But it is a worthwhile challenge to try and do so.
zeborahnz
Jul. 22nd, 2011 07:00 am (UTC)
The idea being, I believe, that you could not be objective about what you experienced directly.

Did they think you can be objective about what you haven't experience directly?

(Living through history is super-weird, and certainly I'm not objective about the part I'm living through, but I wouldn't trust anyone who hadn't lived through it to have a clue what they were talking about. --Obviously this depends on one's opinions of the goals of a historian.)
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anna_wing
Jul. 22nd, 2011 02:57 am (UTC)
I'm late to this discussion and have nothing to add, I think, that hasn't been said already.


A tangential thought: in Charlie Stross' "Laundry" series, the world consists entirely of the UK, the US and Europe (including Russia). The rest of the world will presumably be eaten by the Great Old Ones without protest. Since that series is inspired by Cold War spy fiction I understand that his focus is on those areas, but a line a two acknowledging the existence of the rest of the world would have been nice.

Second tangential thought: A world shows forth the thinking of its creator, in ways that the creator won't necessarily expect or even be aware of.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:20 am (UTC)
"Second tangential thought: A world shows forth the thinking of its creator, in ways that the creator won't necessarily expect or even be aware of. "

Very much so. And very informative it can be, too.
(no subject) - anna_wing - Jul. 22nd, 2011 05:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
mecurtin
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:26 am (UTC)
I'm so glad to see that there's someone else who didn't care for Blackout/All Clear, because I frankly found them *impossible* to get through. The fact that I am not British, though, suggests that the problem is not that she stepped on "other people's toes", because I have no particular toes in the game.

The problem is, IMHO, that the books are basically *not very good*. Or at least, they contain Not Very Good parts, and those parts are *everything about the human beings in the story*.

I bogged down and couldn't finish because I wasted so much time trying to figure out why these people were calling themselves "historians", and what they were *really* trying to do, and why -- and why, once they were back in the past, most of their efforts seemed to focus on using transportation. I was just baffled by everything about the central characters, because nothing they did made any sense.

Now, when Willis said "What's not to like", I assumed she meant, "as a story-telling place" -- as when Tolkien says, in LOTR, that pleasant experiences don't make very good stories, but you can get great stories out of things that are extremely unpleasant to live through. So when she says "What's not to like?" she's being ironic about the fact that what a writer likes is not, generally speaking, what anyone wants to live through -- the Black Death, for instance.

In many ways, I think she had more respect for the "real people" in the Blitz than she did for her own characters and the SFnal setup that was putting them there -- or at least, that's what my husband said when I asked how he could read the books and why he seemed to like them. He said he kind of glided past the OCs and the set-up, not looking at it too hard, and so could enjoy the parts about the War.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:21 am (UTC)
Yes, I'm sure you're right that she meant that the period was full of interest and of stories and experiences that deserved telling.
Lots of people loved the books: we all read differently, I guess.
queenoftheskies
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:26 am (UTC)
This is a powerful entry. Thank you.

I think a lot of people have pre-conceived notions of other people, other countries, and history because of impressions (TV, movies, books, people around them) since birth. I wonder if those impressions color their research. If they struggle to shape that research into something familiar to them, something they expect instead of something real.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:23 am (UTC)
Yes, absolutely. The British pop group Blur came out with a song about a decade ago called Magic America which hit the UK assumptions about the US bang on -- shiny, cowboys, shiny, hi-tech, shiny. And a deeply narrow, stupid set of assumptions, as the song underlines.
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anna_wing
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:35 am (UTC)
I propose that Wesley is a family name, and just one of his given names (rather in the Marquis' manner). Given his canonically working-class social origins, Rupert Giles' name had to be a pseudonym too.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:21 am (UTC)
It's the only reasonable explanation, isn't it?
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chilperic
Jul. 22nd, 2011 11:13 am (UTC)
The dreadful errors in Domesday Book meant that I am unlikely to read Connie Willis's Second World War books (sorry, American readers, but we do not call it World War II over here). Though I would make the point that however awful it was, the Blitz was fun for some: i.e. ten-year-olds. See (as I am sure you have) the wonderful John Boorman movie "Hope and Glory", which rings very true to me.

As for Connie Willis, why didn't she (apparently) actually talk to any historians?

la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 11:22 am (UTC)
I don't know how she structured her research.
One of the many reasons I love Sharon Penman's novels is that she does talk to historians, in detail and with great thought. And the result is excellent books.
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(Deleted comment)
zornhau
Jul. 22nd, 2011 01:50 pm (UTC)
Yes!
More could be said about History is Real, but instead I'll just friend you.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC)
Re: Yes!
Welcome!
Re: Yes! - zornhau - Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes! - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes! - zornhau - Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes! - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes! - zornhau - Jul. 22nd, 2011 10:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes! - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 22nd, 2011 10:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
marina_bonomi
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC)
Here via Kate Elliott's link. I just wanted to thank you for writing this, and for keeping it unlocked.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:22 pm (UTC)
You're very welcome.
(Anonymous)
Jul. 22nd, 2011 05:56 pm (UTC)
I just wanted to say that it's so nice to see another Britain on the Internet waving the flag and saying, 'just because we speak English we're not Amercian!'. I was beginning to get lonely :)
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:27 pm (UTC)
Certainly, I think it can seem that way sometimes, if only down to the relative numbers.
nancylebov
Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:17 pm (UTC)
Any opinions about CS Lewis' _Till We Have Faces_? When I read it, it made all the other historical fiction I'd read (I'm talking about the 70s or thereabouts) seem patronizing. Lewis' characters just seemed to be living in their time and noticing what they would have noticed. They weren't made to look exotic, nor were they transplanted moderns.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:28 pm (UTC)
It's a book I like a lot. Lewis was so steeped in his learning and research that I think he had a real sensitivity to his material.
history_monk
Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC)
You're wonderful when you rant. And it's a wonderful thread, even if there is too much to read every post. It bites on me, because I've been sort-of researching WWII in the UK for the last couple of years, for role-playing purposes. This is really making me re-examine it, for which thanks. One thing I have learned that I feel confident about: it's vital to read the contemporary documentation. For WWII, this is very easy, compared to almost any other period. But you also have to be aware of its biases, and its incompleteness, and ...

History is really hard. But it also tells us what everything actually means.

Edited at 2011-07-22 06:42 pm (UTC)
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:28 pm (UTC)
Original sources are the key, absolutely.
pwilkinson
Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:46 pm (UTC)
I should admit that I have a rather guilty liking for a lot of theme park fantasy (brilliant term, by the way) - when I realise I'm reading it, I just start looking for the bloopers. It probably helps that I'm not a historian by training or practice - I'm just someone who has read a lot, on many periods of history, by people who are.

So I actually very much enjoyed Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, despite Willis's unending stream of minor (and major) errors in both books. (The absolute mess that Willis made of placing her medieval village in or close to western Oxfordshire, both geographically and historically, almost did so - in the end, I just decided to stop worrying). I get the impression, however, that the problems with Blackout/All Clear probably go beyond the errors - so I think that I'm going to have to read them for myself sometime but, as I'm not a Hugo voter this year, am waiting for the mass-market editions (I can quite believe I won't enjoy them - the first Willis I ever attempted reading was Passage, and I bounced horribly).

One of the problems with Willis, though, seems to be that she can be brilliant at authenticity in the sense of convincing the relatively unknowledgeable reader that they are seeing the story as it happened, but seems totally oblivious to the difference between that and authenticity in terms of actually getting things right. I find the climax of Doomsday Book emotionally brilliant, but one particular detail is both statistically impossible and apparently there specifically to build up the emotional force of the climax. It doesn't help that one can actually explain in-universe why the statistically impossible should have happened - but the explanation is nasty enough that I suspect it didn't occur to Willis, and would be somewhat horrified if I ever discovered that it did.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:31 pm (UTC)
She's a very gifted writer, and I have liked several of her other books a lot. I am not a fair reader for historical novels, and particularly historicals set in the British Middle Ages, however. I try to make sure I take account of that. And she was doing some interesting things with her material. It comes down to unfortunate phrasing and my interpretation, in the end. And that's on me.
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