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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.


(Deleted comment)
Jul. 21st, 2011 06:11 pm (UTC)
Yes, that is very much my feeling too. I like those books, but the sexual politics don't work right for the rest of that kind of background. To be fair, the tv series is far worse in how it depicts this: he takes care to present the female perspective and how it damages them.
Jul. 21st, 2011 08:12 pm (UTC)
I've only read the first book so far. I much preferred it to the TV series for this very reason.
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:45 pm (UTC)

I'm only about halfway through the first book so far, so I'm trying to withhold judgment for at least a little while longer, but my partner's been going on and on about how much better the gender politics appear to be in the TV show than in the books. That the women's power is more explicit and explicated and such and such. Then again, according to him a lot of it is expressed through their Expressions and Reactions and so on, and he is a professional theatre type so I guess he is more attuned to that sort of thing than I am.
Jul. 22nd, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
Bear in mind that many of the main female characters are very young: in context, their behaviour in the books in very much in line with the mores of the kind of mediaeval culture he's writing about. The tv version has a lot of -- to me -- very modern body-language alongside the usual tv yawns of skimpy clothes, model-girl types etc.
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:47 pm (UTC)
(...)but my partner's been going on and on about how much better the gender politics appear to be in the TV show than in the books. That the women's power is more explicit and explicated and such and such.
Here is a dissenting opinion on that topic - what the linked writer sees in the series, is "pervasive narrative disempowerment of the female characters, which goes well beyond adding breasts to any scenes where they can be featured".

Edit: I followed aberwyn over here.

Edited at 2011-07-22 09:50 pm (UTC)
Jul. 22nd, 2011 10:05 pm (UTC)
I followed [info]aberwyn over here.
You are very welcome!
Jul. 22nd, 2011 01:08 am (UTC)
I've enjoyed the Martin novels, but I don't believe in his world-- it seems to me that there needs to be a lot more people doing useful work without having it destroyed to keep a civilization going. I've been told that the war of the Roses really was that bad, and I'm not qualified to have an opinion about that.

It's possible that my instincts are wrong about how bad a semi-functional civilization can get.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:51 am (UTC)
One of the things I find missing in that series is the economic underpinning -- the people who work the land, transport the food and so on, without which nothing else can be. It's something that's essential but all too often invisible because those stories don't look shiny. One of the many reasons I love kateelliott's books so much is that she never forgets this and she goes into detail about how war affects the civilian and non-aristocratic populations.
Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:12 pm (UTC)
Oh! Question. Was it you who posted a review of one of kateelliott's books or series? Because I know there was one on my flist that made me go I MUST READ THIS, but then the nospoons hit and now I can't remember which book, and I'd hate to end up judging a different one of her books as "not that one I wanted to read first".
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(no subject) - shweta_narayan - Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - shweta_narayan - Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - la_marquise_de_ - Aug. 1st, 2011 11:15 am (UTC) - Expand
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Jul. 22nd, 2011 09:50 pm (UTC)
Well, I do say how good her books are quite often, but I haven't posted a review as such. I would recommend her, but I suspect it was someone else's post you're thinking of.
(no subject) - aberwyn - Jul. 23rd, 2011 04:36 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 22nd, 2011 12:59 pm (UTC)
I made the same criticism when I started reading them, but my partner points out that there was a good long period of peace before the civil wars that happened after the killing of the last Targaryan king, which took place a bit over a decade before the events in A Game of Thrones -- which does seem like a reasonable amount of time to spend recovering from a Seriously Damaging Civil War before starting the next one. These are his justifications in reply to my complaints, though, and I'd prefer to wait until I've finished the series to make a final judgment for myself (I'm only about halfway through the first book at the moment, though I've "seen" it aleady in the TV series). It occurs to me, also, that a society used to dealing with what seem to be frequent mini-ice ages (or volcanic winters? I'm interested to see more of Martin's geology) would have some pretty well-developed resource storage systems which allow them to prepare for several years of minimal or no food production -- on the other hand, so far I haven't seen any evidence of that, either, and as such the "winters" themselves seem a bit implausible.

Just to relate this (somewhat) back to the OP, though, what's bothering me a lot more than the as-yet-unfilled holes in his world-building is the apparent biology of his world, and an awful lot of other fantasy worlds. I mean, I get that most fantasy novels are meant to take place in Alternate Universes that are Not This World, but I find it quite jarring to see worlds that seem to be built on quasi- (or theme-park) "European" tropes, and yet are populated by a willy-nilly mixture of New World and Old World species. Wild boars and horses and whatnot in Martin's, for instance, seeming to indicate a quasi-European setting -- but then Littlefinger's emblem is a mockingbird. A mockingbird.
Jul. 22nd, 2011 06:06 pm (UTC)
It's possible that they're going through an unusually stupid and destructive period, and normally they'd be filling their storehouses.

I want to reach into the books and shake them and say, "Don't you know winter is coming?".

I've assumed there was an astronomical reason for the supercycle of seasons.

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