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Does Historical Fiction Glorify Racism, Sexism & Discrimination?

A place to debate issues or to rant about what's on your mind. In addition to discussions about historical fiction, books, the publishing industry, and history, discussions about current political, social, and religious issues and other topics are allowed, so those who are easily offended by certain topics may want to avoid such threads. Members are expected to keep the discussions friendly and polite and to avoid personal attacks on other members. The moderators reserve the right to shut down a thread without warning if they believe it necessary.
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Does Historical Fiction Glorify Racism, Sexism & Discrimination?

Post by Stephanie Dray » Wed October 5th, 2011, 5:32 pm

I recently started this discussion on another blog, but I think the debate really belongs here. So, here I go.

I write books set in the early Roman empire, a time during which a lot of horrible things were accepted as commonplace. Slavery was a normal part of life. Social class was enshrined into law. Women were sexual chattel, often without a say in their own lives and without representation in government. Human beings were forced to battle to the death in an arena for the entertainment of others.

In short, life wasn’t pretty.

In spite of this, people in the early Roman empire weren’t all that different than we are. Their aims for their lives have remarkable resonance with our own. They wanted to honor their forefathers. They wanted greater security and prosperity for their children. They were patriots. They believed in some forms of social mobility. They built beautiful things that are still a wonder to our eyes. They created governmental and public programs that worked more smoothly in some cases than our own. In short, they tried to instill a sense of order into the chaos of the world around them. They survived and thrived and bequeathed to us a wealth of knowledge without which we would be much poorer as a civilization.

So how to handle their portrayal in a fictional novel? Does one make the Romans out to be fascist monsters? (Certainly, that’s how my heroine sees them at first.) Does one take a stance of moral relativism and present them without censure and perhaps with a glow of rosy admiration? (Colleen McCoullough seems to take this approach.) Does one use humor to deflect readers’ discomfort in reading about such a ruthless way of life? (John Maddox Roberts seems to have gone this route.)

Or does one simply trust the reader to know that a portrayal of history is not an endorsement of it?

Until recently, I’d have thought it was understood that just because an author writes about something horrible doesn’t mean he or she is encouraging it. We do all understand that horror and thriller writers aren’t advocating murdering people, don't we? But it seems as if historical fiction and fantasy writers aren’t always given the same benefit of the doubt.

I’ve seen a bizarre slew of criticism lately, ranging from one author being accused of bigotry for writing from the viewpoint of a character with a documented distaste for Jews to another author being panned for her ancient heroine being insufficiently appalled by the institution of slavery.

Now, I’m all about reading the subtext and thinking critically about what a book’s true message is. I understand that an author can inadvertently write a body of work, the underlying theme of which makes you question the author’s values. (The combination of Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300 comes to mind.)

That said, some genuine effort at giving a fair reading to the author’s motives ought to be made before personally attacking the author and announcing, say, that George R. R. Martin is creepy. (I know. Martin isn’t a historical fiction novelist, but his fantasy is loosely based on the historical War of the Roses, so the reaction to his work is still relevant here.)

So why do historical fiction writers choose to revisit the past when it was a nearly unrelenting march of injustice, sexism, racism, and just about every other bad -ism you can think of?

My own primary motivation in writing historical fiction is to use it as a mirror to hold up against contemporary society. I want my readers to look at the ancient world and compare it to the world in which we live today. I want my readers to realize how far we have come. I also want my readers to realize that the progress of women’s liberation is not a straight line. There have been setbacks in the ancient past and there will likely be setbacks in the future against which we ought to be wary. I want my readers to compare the political propaganda we hear in the news today to the kind that was spewed by Augustus.

This is my intent. And yet, I realize that sometimes my intent is not conveyed. This may be because I’m not talented enough. It may also be because every reader’s experience of my novel is going to be unique to them. They are going to tend to see in it things that conform to their own world view.

But if their world view is that writers never write about the depravity of history unless it’s out of a creepy sense of wish-fulfillment, then their world view is spectacularly ill-informed.

Oh, I’m sure there are Civil War writers who secretly wish that slavery had never been abolished. (Newt Gingrich, perhaps?) I’m sure there are horror writers who use the therapy of putting pen to paper to keep them from sacrificing babies to Satan. I’m sure of it because given a large enough population of people, you will always find some percentage of sociopaths and freaks. However, since it’s very clear that those people are a deviation from the norm, why don’t we just assume that writers of fiction have some other more benevolent reason for writing about evil?

(Also, isn’t it worse to air-brush over the horrors of the past as if the world was so much better back then?)

Some authors write historical fiction for the same reason I do. Others write it because they have an obsession with documenting little known facts. Still others wish to put a human face onto an obscure time period. So they write about all the awful things people did back then. They don’t generally write about it because they want their audience members to pine longingly for the day when kings ruled absolutely and could behead their wives.

I’ve heard it argued that some readers do romanticize that past and wish to return to the glory days when women, peasants and brown people knew their place. This is horrifying, but the fact that lunatics and losers might read the wrong thing into a fictional novel has never been, to my mind, any real criticism against that novel.

Your thoughts?
~Stephanie Dray
Author of Historical Fiction & Fantasy
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LILY OF THE NILE -- Berkley Books, January 2011SONG OF THE NILE -- Berkley Books, Oct 2011
DAUGHTERS OF THE NILE -- Berkley Books, Dec 2013

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Post by lauragill » Wed October 5th, 2011, 5:51 pm

Steven Saylor tackles that very problem in his Gordianus the Finder mystery series. Gordianus himself is an upright, sympathetic character without being anachronistic; it's the people he encounters that engage in the objectionable practices you mentioned. You might want to check out his early novels--Roman Blood, Arms of Nemesis, and Catilina's Riddle, as well as his short stories--to see how he handles the matter.

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Post by donroc » Wed October 5th, 2011, 8:12 pm

I prefer to believe that serious writers of Historical Fiction perform their due diligence research of the times, as I try to do, and show the reader the way it was through narrative and dialogue. If the past offends certain readers, too bad, so sad for them.
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Wed October 5th, 2011, 9:23 pm

History helps people see reality. Without it, we have a tendency to make decisions based on wishful thinking instead of fact.

To the degree that historical fiction helps, that is a good thing. As for presenting this or that current idea, I have several books written in times past that belabored the ethics of that era over story, and those parts are a dead bore.

What modern readers usually forget is that the horrors of Rome, or the sixteenth century, are still with us. Slavery has not gone away. All of the cruelties man is capable of once, he/she is capable of still. Every person still has a choice to help or to hinder human dignity.

By the way, what kind of chocolate do you buy? (Chocolate is the #2 product --after sexual services-- that employs forced child labor. I'm hoping nobody reading this forum is guilty of the second offense.)

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Post by SarahWoodbury » Wed October 5th, 2011, 10:13 pm

"All of the cruelties man is capable of once, he/she is capable of still. Every person still has a choice to help or to hinder human dignity."

I think that is it right there. I write about the past because I find it interesting. I'm an anthropologist and history is really just the anthropology of previous eras. Why did people do what they did? What motivated them? How is that the same for us and how is it different?

Good characters are good characters, no matter when they lived. Choices, good and evil, dignity, honor, death, the role of women--all are explorable in any era.

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Post by LoveHistory » Wed October 5th, 2011, 10:53 pm

So why do historical fiction writers choose to revisit the past when it was a nearly unrelenting march of injustice, sexism, racism, and just about every other bad -ism you can think of?
Why do contemporary fiction writers choose to write about the present times which are a nearly unrelenting march of injustice, sexism, racism, and just about every other bad -ism you can think of?

Certain facts about life and history are unpleasant and people don't like to be reminded about them, but if no one ever reminds the world, those atrocities are far more likely to occur again. Pretending that nothing bad ever happened is not only inaccurate, it's a disservice to the readers.

If some people can't wrap their heads around the idea that people in a different time and place felt differently about some things, and thus the writer must be at fault and projecting his/her own beliefs onto the characters...then frankly that is the individual reader's limitation. Some people can see things from another point of view. Others can't.

You simply cannot write for everyone.
Last edited by LoveHistory on Wed October 5th, 2011, 10:56 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Divia » Wed October 5th, 2011, 11:37 pm

[quote=""LoveHistory""]Why do contemporary fiction writers choose to write about the present times which are a nearly unrelenting march of injustice, sexism, racism, and just about every other bad -ism you can think of?

Certain facts about life and history are unpleasant and people don't like to be reminded about them, but if no one ever reminds the world, those atrocities are far more likely to occur again. Pretending that nothing bad ever happened is not only inaccurate, it's a disservice to the readers.

If some people can't wrap their heads around the idea that people in a different time and place felt differently about some things, and thus the writer must be at fault and projecting his/her own beliefs onto the characters...then frankly that is the individual reader's limitation. Some people can see things from another point of view. Others can't.

You simply cannot write for everyone.[/quote]

Quote for truth! :)

I agree 100% with the statement "people can't wrap their heads around the idea that people in a different time and place...." This is so true about Americans. Americans are dumb. Americans are SUPER dumb when it comes to history.

The history channel makes everyone professors and experts in their new field. :rolleyes: And for those too lazy to watch the history channel or pick up a book they fall into the super dumb category.

As I said on facebook, I think history makes people feel uncomfortable and they don't knwo what to do about that. So they lash out because they can't understand it.
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Post by wendy » Thu October 6th, 2011, 12:57 pm

"So why do historical fiction writers choose to revisit the past when it was a nearly unrelenting march of injustice, sexism, racism, and just about every other bad -ism you can think of?"

I agree that writers often wish to "use it as a mirror to hold up to contemporary society"
in the hope that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Myself, I am interested in those gaps in history where the female voice has been silenced. We know so little about the women who were not allowed to speak out, and were unable to write down their own thoughts. And the scant information we do have is often filtered through the male eye and recorded by the male pen.

When we give these characters a voice, is it any shock that they talk of subjugation, abuse, and injustice?

If readers want the warm-and-fuzzy unrealistic account, they should choose a romance novel!
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Post by Ash » Thu October 6th, 2011, 1:17 pm

[quote=""donroc""]I prefer to believe that serious writers of Historical Fiction perform their due diligence research of the times, as I try to do, and show the reader the way it was through narrative and dialogue. If the past offends certain readers, too bad, so sad for them.[/quote]

And they are missing the chance to learn something about the human race, for in reality, despite how much has changed, not much has changed.... :(

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Post by Margaret » Thu October 6th, 2011, 5:17 pm

One of the reasons I like historical fiction is to see how characters cope with and overcome some of the terrible conditions of the past. Vicariously experiencing the lives of characters who deal with issues as bad as anything facing us today can instill a sense of hope in us that we, too, can face similar threats. While we're reading, we don't have to think directly about the many stressful issues of the present day. But after we finish reading, we can look at our own problems with a sense of perspective and the awareness that similarly horrifying problems have been overcome, perhaps not by everyone at every time, but sometimes in some places, and we can learn from that. While no one in the past ever had to deal with the threat of planetary destruction from global warming and massive habitat destruction, some of them did have to deal with the near-total destruction of their homelands.
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