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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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(Deleted comment)
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:32 pm (UTC)
If the variant elements are well stitched together and make sense in the context of that story, then that's fine with me. There are some excellent books out there that do just this.
(no subject) - green_knight - Jul. 23rd, 2011 10:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 23rd, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC)
Great post, Kari! I've never been able to get into Willis' fiction, and I feel less and less inclined to persevere.

This issue is something I've been conscious of (in reverse) when world-building for my alternate history series. I wanted to create a world in which the Europeans haven't made much headway in conquering the Americas, but I also wanted to do so without treading on the toes of the Native America cultures of that era. I don't feel I have the right to go making wholesale changes to those cultures - it would be another form of literary cultural imperialism.

The solution I came up with was a fictional sentient species native to the Americas that is independent of either native or European culture - they live alongside the Native Americans and have had some influence on their cultures (e.g. by facilitating trade between otherwise isolated civilisations), but I've tried to make it additional to what already existed, rather than taking away or changing things beyond recognition.

I dare say I'll still manage to offend someone - I've already had a white American complain that my scenario wipes out her family history *sigh*
Jul. 24th, 2011 06:11 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you're enjoying the post and the discussion.
Any alternate history raises difficult ethical questions: the best we canb do, I think, is to be careful and mindful of what we are drawing upon and what we do with it.
Jul. 23rd, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC)
Part of the furniture

As coincidence would have it, I discussed this topic as part of my Readercon talk.

You should try to read literature across genres based on Hellenic myths and history. As Neil Gaiman so (in)famously put it, "There's nothing specifically Greek about the Odyssey" -- people feel perfectly free to trample that domain at will and turn it into fake/safe exoticism, starting with Mary Renault. Plus, of course, it also falls into the "tired Eurocentric" trope, even if the real thing has barely shown its face in SF/F. There are honorable exceptions; among them, Yourcenar, Preuss, Mason, Beaton, Mazower... I wrote about the topic here:

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

Athena Andreadis, aka Helivoy
Aug. 1st, 2011 11:10 am (UTC)
Re: Part of the furniture
That's a fine blog entry: thank you! I wish I could have heard your talk.
Re: Part of the furniture - helivoy - Aug. 1st, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Part of the furniture - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 1st, 2011 05:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 23rd, 2011 08:05 pm (UTC)
I am European (French). My father was in London throughout the Blitz. He lived in Earl's Court and worked in Whitehall, the Aldwych and Fleet Street. Yes, he never minimised the horrors, but he also had wonderful memories of it. I was completely un-offended by Connie Willis's book, and great chunks of it felt familiar.
Jul. 24th, 2011 06:14 pm (UTC)
We all have different reactions: I don't think she's a bad person or that she's written a bad book at all. But it goes to show how many different ways there are at looking at the past and how many different interpretations.
It wasn't the book that startled me: everyone makes factual slips. It was the comment about the blitz. And that was a very different experience for everyone who lived through, I think -- good and bad.
Jul. 24th, 2011 12:47 am (UTC)
A passionately argued and cogent essay. Thank you for this post; it is relevant to what I'm pursuing at present in so many ways. I have added you to my list; it is not required to reciprocate.

I am surprised that over the scope of the novel, she did not, at some stage, care deeply enough for her characters to be affected by their suffering through war, but then again I don't read that genre and I never heard of her till reading this so can't come to any conclusions about her one way or the other.

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'm from Ireland and I do feel that some of our myths and culture get "used" sometimes in similar fashion, so agreeing with this so hard here.
Jul. 24th, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
She's a good writer: I've liked a lot of her other stuff, and it's certainly not her doing that this book didn't work for me. We all read differently.
And yes, on the Irish myths and culture. (I'm mostly Welsh. I know the feling.)
Jul. 24th, 2011 11:33 am (UTC)
I'm in two minds -I felt that there were a lot of things which didn't work for me -the too stupid academics, the colleges endowed by Ms Sayers without a credit, the Americanisms , etc.

However, I still enjoyed Doomsday book, largely because Willis's empathy with her characters.

Willis is writing fiction not history and it's up to her how much research she does. I understand that she's done quite a lot of research but someone growing up in an American suburb is not going to have even the basic knowledge of the blitz that a British person would get just from growing up , so from a British point she's starting twenty miles behind the start line.

Jul. 24th, 2011 06:17 pm (UTC)
It's a very difficult thing to do, and it's clear that for most readers, it works fine. My reactions are my responsibility, not hers, most definitely.
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 1st, 2011 11:09 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Film is a difficult one, because as a format it requires quicker pace and fewer characters. But it seems to me that while some simplification is necessary, outright misrepresentation is irresponsible at best and immoral at worst (I'm thinking of Braveheart). We didn't mind Kingdom of Heaven too much, because at least it tried to be balanced, but the 'historical' output of Mr Gibson makes me spit nails.
(Deleted comment)
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 2nd, 2011 09:51 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - anna_wing - Aug. 2nd, 2011 05:20 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 2nd, 2011 09:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - endlessrarities - Aug. 13th, 2011 01:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 25th, 2011 08:57 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing this. I'm late to the party (that's what I get for having guests!), but I'm very glad to hear your point of view.
Aug. 1st, 2011 11:11 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Aug. 13th, 2011 01:06 pm (UTC)
Another fascinating post!

It's a strange thing... I'm an archaeologist, and I write historical fiction. I try and recreate histories for real people, most of the time, getting it as historically accurate as possible. But... I sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable about what I'm doing. Then I remember that it's a practice that's probably been going way back to the Illiad.

I find that author's quote a little creepy - it's too recent to be having that kind of attitude. I was doing a survey in a former 1930s munitions factory on the anniversary of the Clydebank Blitz, and when I heard a prop plane fly over, I felt a little shiver, remembering that 70 years before, someone in that factory had been hearing the Luftwaffe fly over as they were working on manufacturing explosives. Were they scared? Were they eager for revenge? Were they just plain weary of it? Did they think there would ever be an end to it?

It was a fascinating, but very sobering thought...
Aug. 13th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
Making stories about the past is one of the ways we make sense of our own lives and societies and how they are now. But it's sensitive work. as you note.
I used to live opposite a bomb-site in Coventry (this was years ago, when I was about 5). I didn't know much about the war at that time, but I knew that place was sad and scary and mattered to the older people around me. When I saw it again years later I had the same thought as you, about the people who worked there.
(no subject) - endlessrarities - Aug. 13th, 2011 07:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 13th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - endlessrarities - Aug. 13th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 5th, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
The more I read in this thread, the tougher a job it seems to say something adequate. Perhaps I'm thinking too much like the graduate student I used to be, thinking I have to get it right *all at once*. ;-) In any case, I got here via the link to this post in Jim Hines' blog today, and you invited me (there) to have a go (here) at the Willis issues as well. This will take a couple of comments!

I come at Willis' recent work from the perspective of a longtime fan who found "Blackout" and "All Clear" profoundly disappointing. I've been trying to account for my deep reservations about the books for quite a while now.

I hear a lot of smart people discussing the problems with historical accuracy regarding the Blitz and WWII. I am certain that's important. I also see you (somewhere in here) mentioning that "Doomsday Book" was equally lacking. However, that's a book that worked quite well for me.

Not being a trained historian, being at best a thoughtful reader who doesn't always sweat the details in the ways I know many of my fellow science fiction and fantasy fans DO sweat them, I can't speak to whether Willis got the details any better or worse amongst the three books. But I *can* say that in "Doomsday Book," it *felt* to me as if she believed in her characters and the stories she set out for them in some qualitatively different way than in the later books. Frankly, the "Firewatch" story which kicked off her whole "time-traveling historians" felt much more believable too. It may not have been any more accurate, but it somehow had more at stake, and felt truer.

I dislike having to be vague about what the difference might be. Certainly "Blackout" and "All Clear" go to great lengths to try to convince readers that both the time-stream and the characters are in mortal peril. It just didn't add up for me ... perhaps because the constant reiteration of "peril! any moment now!" felt like a giant case of telling, rather than showing, from an author I'd have believed was in better control of her craft than that.

(more ... next comment)
Jul. 5th, 2012 03:37 pm (UTC)
Willis has always felt to me like a writer long on charm and long on melodrama, with a risk of bathos as a result. But at her best, she made that work for me. I'm all for a good melodrama if I'm seduced to care adequately. Something in these most recent books didn't achieve that. For me, that absence is what allows all the other flaws to begin rankling more than they might have in her earlier works.

Maybe I can make that difference clear by coming at it sideways: there were comments earlier in the many threads here about the necessity of referring to people who actually lived through recent events. That point is actually a tricky one for me: one of my best friends is an historian of the second half of the 20th century, especially in the US. He was also born in 1970, which means he was only around for the last QUARTER of that century.

It's astonishing the conversations I've seen him have with people who assured him that he knew nothing about, say, the 1960s, but they did, because they "lived through them". Well, sure: they lived through THEIR 1960s. But they didn't live through everyone else's, and he has certainly researched quite deeply in the period.

As a gay man, for instance, he has talked with other gay men who were alive in that period whose histories have not yet been adequately brought forth ... and thus it isn't always useful for people who have not done that work to say "well, but I was there, you weren't."

History is sufficiently various that we can all have a strong personal take on which details were important, without all being 'right' ... but maybe also not 'wrong'.

HOWEVER, that said: the toughest thing for ME about "The Doomsday Book" was watching Willis write about two epidemics, one in 1348, one in 2050 or whenever, while I as a queer man was living through the AIDS epidemic, and she only mentioned all THAT in passing once or twice .... which made me scratch my head a few times at how she could just omit it all, as if her book were divorced from the world it was being written in ...

... and yet somehow she got me to care about what HER characters were going through, and somehow got a great deal of the emotional experience of that kind of crisis 'right', with tremendous empathy. So that even though "my" epidemic was being curiously omitted from her narrative, she got me to believe that she cared.

Precisely the kind of caring that doesn't come through in the quote you began with from her, or really in the later books. "Theme-park history" indeed.

I don't know what happened. Clearly the attention to historical accuracy is important. But something more than that went wrong, as well.
Jul. 5th, 2012 05:22 pm (UTC)
I think one of the things that frustrates me about her books is how good she can be. She writes great characters, she has a wonderful gift for pace and tension, and when she's good, she's very, very good. And I could see the bones of that in Doomsday Book. I think that was part of why I was so frustrated by it: it could have been so very good, yet I kept getting pulled out of it. Some of it was silly nit-pick things -- and that is just me, and *not* a serious flaw (because, after all, I'm a pretty narrow sub-group. Most readers aren't mediaevalists). But if she'd got the feel of the colleges even 20% more real... She was so nearly at that level of engagement that writers like (for me) Wyndham and G R R Martin and Kate Elliott reach.
And yes, there was the absence of any reference to the AIDS epidemic. I have close friends in Edinburgh, which was very badly hit. I did not believe her future, where this was not referenced, where this was not a deep, current, real pain. (And inevitably I compared the book to the last Neveryon book, which came out around the same time.) It seemed like she had failed to look beyond the surface of the things with which she was engaged. I found that with the WW2 books too (which I confess I could not finish).
I wonder if it is to do with unevenness? She can be so good, so sharp, and she can let the readers down so hard. And for me, at least, it's harder to forgive such things in good writers, in strong thoughtful writers and books than in weaker ones. The feeling is always that this writer could have done it if they had just tried a little harder, worked a little longer, dug a little deeper. Or something.
Thank you for your comments, which are insightful and thoughtful. How people read and react to books fascinates me and I am always delighted to meet new people who think about such things.
Lovely to meet you, too. May I friend you? I'm fairly harmless, I think (I have British moments, but that's my worst habit.)
(no subject) - quirkstreet - Jul. 5th, 2012 05:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Jul. 5th, 2012 07:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 5th, 2012 11:44 pm (UTC)
This is a brilliant post, and one of the most nuanced discussion threads I've ever seen on Livejournal. I'm very glad you opened it. (And slightly embarrassed that I've only just noticed it's a year old. I'm here via Jim Hines/Alma Alexander.)

Thank you all.
Jul. 6th, 2012 07:31 am (UTC)
Thank *you8. I'm glad it's of interest.
Aug. 17th, 2012 07:42 am (UTC)
An aside from New Zealand. My Grandma lived through the blitz and 70 odd years later she still refuses to throw food out.It's like a ghost reminder of hunger and history ; tiny scraps of food ferreted away in her refrigerator. Reading your post made me think of this and also The Siege by Helen Dunmore.
Aug. 17th, 2012 09:22 am (UTC)
Yes: that's something I've seen my relatives do this, too. Hunger is not that far away in their memories.
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