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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

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.
mizkit
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
*laughs* Yeah, well, if you have anybody handy who was born in the 20s that I could talk to who would actually clearly *remember* the 40s... :) I mean, I could ask my Dad, who was five and remembers people being very excited the day the war ended, but since the book is set two months later, a child's memories of people's jubilation isn't all that helpful. *grins*
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 21st, 2011 05:46 pm (UTC)
I can ask my mother, if you like -- she was 8 when the war started -- but she was in a small village in South Wales, so her experiences might not be what you need.
(no subject) - mizkit - Jul. 21st, 2011 05:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - mizkit - Jul. 21st, 2011 08:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aberwyn - Jul. 23rd, 2011 04:28 am (UTC) - Expand
birdsedge
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:21 pm (UTC)
My mum was born in 1925. If you have any specific questions. She went through the war in the NAAFI, lost her fiance (navigator in bombers, shot down over Germany).
(no subject) - mizkit - Jul. 21st, 2011 08:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - birdsedge - Jul. 22nd, 2011 02:00 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mizkit - Jul. 22nd, 2011 07:27 am (UTC) - Expand
aberwyn
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:56 pm (UTC)
The 50s I remember all too well.

My father was killed in WWII, he was in the 7th Cavalry (tanks, not horses).

One memory I do have from very early in my life but after The War ended: helping my grandmother wrap boxes of sugar, chocolate, and fruitcake in yards of tinfoil, because she was sending them by ship mail to relatives in the UK. Rationing lasted there until the 50s (in case someone reading here doesn't know.)

Another memory: WWII was always "The War" in my family, as if there hadn't been another.
(no subject) - saare_snowqueen - Jul. 21st, 2011 08:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - shui_long - Jul. 21st, 2011 09:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gummitch - Jul. 22nd, 2011 08:10 am (UTC) - Expand
birdsedge
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC)
Ditto 1950s
sollersuk
Jul. 21st, 2011 07:14 pm (UTC)
Hah, that's the precise reason why on my 60th birthday I started admitting to my real age online - nowadays I'm a historical source.
saare_snowqueen
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:05 pm (UTC)
Interesting concept. I'll be 68 next month. I survived the McCarthy era in the late 40's and 50's and went on to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60's. Does that make me an historical resource too?
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(no subject) - saare_snowqueen - Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - aberwyn - Jul. 21st, 2011 11:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - sollersuk - Jul. 22nd, 2011 07:11 am (UTC) - Expand
dancinghorse
Jul. 21st, 2011 11:04 pm (UTC)
The key I think is self-awareness. Understanding of what you're doing, and whom you're doing it to. And if you push an envelope or mess with a trope, you know you're doing it.

What I see in too much of especially bestselling historical fiction (mainstream and fantasy) is ignorance of anything but the author's own culture and assumptions. The author sees the past through the mirror of her own self, and judges it accordingly--without understanding or perhaps even knowing that she's doing this. She just assumes that she's the default.

We're all guilty of this to some degree. The tough part is realizing it, and then working to see the world in a different way. I don't think we can ever truly let go our base assumptions, and there are compromises we may be forced by editors and publishers to make, but we can at least try.
mizkit
Jul. 22nd, 2011 07:28 am (UTC)
Of course, I said wryly, the fact that it's bestselling does suggest that's what readers want too...
la_marquise_de_
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:29 am (UTC)
Yes!
darcyjavanne
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
Well, my mom grew up in a suburb of Chicago. She was 8 In 1940. I can ask her if she'd like to answer questions. She does email, but isn't a fast typist.
mizkit
Jul. 22nd, 2011 07:26 am (UTC)
That would be amazing! And fast doesn't matter--the books are a long way from selling yet, so this is kind of a longish-term research project. I'd be honored if she'd be willing to answer a few questions!

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