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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

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*
mizkit
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:20 pm (UTC)
Ah, the Middle Ages, when everyone was nasty, brutish, and short.

*laughs out loud*
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:27 pm (UTC)
Yes, absolutely. I would never claim that it was unique to the US: I know far too many Britons, for a start. There are British writers whose books make me cringe with their entitlement. (Kipling is a particular problem, in fact, because I know so many people who love him, and I find him just hugely colonialist and misery-inducing.)
shui_long
Jul. 21st, 2011 09:27 pm (UTC)
Of course Kipling is a problem; but he was a man of his time, one who expressed the views of a certain class of Englishman of that time - and by expressing them in a memorable and effective way, focussed and reinforced those views. (Though he was a much more complex man, with a broader understanding and sympathy, than the simple Jingoistic mouthpiece of Empire.) You just have to read him in historical context, and accept that just because he is now Politically Incorrect doesn't mean that he was evil... any more than, say, Julius Caesar, who also expressed in an enduringly literary way a view of the Gauls and the Britons as lesser breeds without the law.
mswyrr
Jul. 22nd, 2011 04:27 am (UTC)
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.

It really, really does, doesn't it. I've heard from people who study Anthropology that have a similar experience rooting out ethnocentrism as we do rooting out present mindedness. With similar consequences after re: being at odds with people on a level so internalized for both parties it can be difficult to maneuver around.
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 10:13 am (UTC)
Very much so. And you have to do it every day, too.
Hmmm. Now I see the appeal of working with abstract numbers...
mswyrr
Jul. 22nd, 2011 10:24 am (UTC)
Yeah. As much as I love and want to continue pursuing research in History, sometimes I wish I'd had the early science education necessary to do Astronomy. I have a layperson's interest in the subject and I guess I idealize how pleasant it would be to deal with matters of the vast and glorious universe rather than, you know, an endless litany of people hurting each other over and over.
(Anonymous)
Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:14 am (UTC)
Fantasy playground
Speaking of theme park fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones wrote a book (or two, or three) playing with that idea. The first is the "factual" Tough Guide to Fantasyland, which points out a lot of the shallowly-thought out tropes that get thrown in to get plot moving, or details moved past. And then she wrote Dark Lord of Derkholm, which is about a fantasy world that has been hijacked to operate as a theme park... (I'd say it's worth reading. It has a sequel, too.)

Yes. I think the worst outbreaks of this [base]culture-centric worldview happen in books featuring time travel, or historical fiction (because every detail is crucial there). Usually I can tell when some character feels transplanted, and I don't like the feeling at all, even if they're acting sensibly for once. (After reading enough "I can't believe I'm really 'X'" passages... Grow up already!)

The worldview and character shallowness is a major reason why I've avoided these genres, but not the only one. When I read historical fantasy, I'm aware that I am usually getting in the middle of a very messy past, and bad things are going to happen. I try not to subject myself to the traumas of whatever era it is -- war, famine, bloody riots -- especially when characters' running into them is inevitable (reading about Marie Antoinette, for example), and everything turns to focus on survival... (This is not an excuse for not doing research, or presenting cultures/times as accurately as one knows how. For people who enjoy such things, it is important, and it is important to me on the rare occasions when I do pick up a book of these genres.)
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 10:15 am (UTC)
Re: Fantasy playground
I love those DWJ books. She was a genius.
I tend to avoid alternate histories, too, for very similar reasons.
shveta_thakrar
Aug. 3rd, 2011 08:31 pm (UTC)
I realize I'm a bit late to the party (Where did everyone go? And why do I only see empty bottles and bowls?), but have you seen this essay by Ekaterina Sedia?

http://worldsf.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/guest-post-seeing-through-foreign-eyes-by-ekaterina-sedia-author-week-1/

I thought it was excellent. I do try hard to think about cultural biases and how they've shaped my society's thought (I'm American) and my own (I'm of South Asian descent), and I wonder how much slips through, anyway. Because yes, America in particular very much does fancy itself an island in some ways. Or perhaps not an island so much as the popular girl or boy everyone else should emulate.
la_marquise_de_
Aug. 4th, 2011 01:11 pm (UTC)
I had seen that one, yes: it's a great post and I share a lot of her concerns. (And she is spot on about Slumdog Millionaire: that film really troubles me. The source book is far more nuanced and complex and, well, better, yet it gets no attention. And, when it won an Oscar and Danny Boyle talked about his cast of 'unknowns', I was torn between outrage and laughter at the expression on Anil Kapoor's face. Anil is about as far from unknown as it gets.) Thank you for reminding me of what Ekaterina Sedia wrote and for giving the link.
English *is* my first language, but the way I use it can differ from US usages and that can be problematic. Then again, my country has its own set of cultural assumptions, history of colonialism and oppression, of international bullying, and that has to be remembered, too. Yet I still have a hot button about some things that are said about my country, which I have to watch, as really it's seldom appropriate.
I think your approach is admirable. And your definition about the popular kid is wonderful. That is almost exactly how it feels to me as a non-American.
Lovely to meet you!

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