Author and all-around Edwardian expert Evangeline Holland has put together a week long celebration of historical romance that promises to be a thoughtful examination of the state of and issues in the genre. Today, I’m arguing that historical romance doesn’t teach us about history — and that’s awesome. Please join me!
6 thoughts on “This is Not History”
By coincidence, a couple of days ago I wrote about the problem of getting the “worldviews” right in historical fiction/historical romance. Since I’m not speaking from personal experience, though, my post‘s not as interesting as yours.
Your post is fascinating! I’m particularly interested by the idea that we’re likely to write about people who are unusual in some way, thus contextualizing the anachronism in our writing.
I remember in a course on classical history my professor showing us a mosaic of a woman from Pompeii holding a stylus. “Is she pictured holding the pen because that was commonplace or because it was unusual?” he asked. I’m still not sure. ; )
(Oops, I edited this because I got his question totally wrong. Sorry!)
Funnily enough, in the next post at Evangeline’s blog, Rebeccca Paula mentions the “people who are unusual in some way”:
Nowadays it’s not considered radical to support votes for women or to be opposed to slavery, so giving a character those views is a safe choice for an author. However, people committed to the Counter-Reformation caused ripples, so did the extreme Puritans who supported Cromwell, so did the eugenics movement, and the temperance movement and Marx and Engels. But somehow I can’t see them being terribly popular with most contemporary US readers. Quaker women were often deemed very poorly behaved when they preached in public, but again, I don’t see them being made into romance heroines unless (as in Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm) they compromise on a lot of their values.
Judging by what’s published in the mainstream of popular romance, historicals generally steer clear of religion (leaving that to Inspirational Romance, which is evangelical Christian in orientation), and are relatively conservative politically (albeit generally sex-positive).
1) As I’ve written about before, readers don’t like books that are too political or that draw attention to their politics. This is my old “some politics get noticed and others don’t” schtick, but it’s correct: many readers don’t notice that small-town contemporaries are all about a simulacrum, Mayberry-version of life with tiny, localized government, no diversity or a perfect melting pot, no crime, and people (read: men) making tons of money in family businesses that aren’t threatened by unionization or globalization. This is politics–it’s expressing an opinion about social relationships involving power–it just masquerades as something non-threatening and neutral.
1b) Politics are allowed in historicals in tiny amounts if they conform to contemporary mores, but people will complain that it’s ahistorical. Because the entire enterprise wasn’t ahistorical to begin.
2) There are, however, exceptions. I use this example a lot, but the popularity of The Bronze Horseman blows my mind. The characters are Soviet Russians (though their Marxism is downplay or only leads to sorrow, as in the hero’s parents) and there’s widespread suffering/death and cheating. And it was widely read and loved in spite of all that. So I think that readers will challenge themselves if something about the writing or the love story (in the case of romance) is compelling enough. (I’m sorry that’s so vague, I’ve been trying to write something about what that means for weeks and coming up empty.)
3) In the last analysis, I think the only solution to change reading habits (as Jane writes about at Dear Author today) is for writers to write different kinds of things, for publishers to publish them, and for readers to seek them out. My next book is about junior political staffers in DC and plays out against a budget negotiation in the US Congress. I have ideas rolling around in my head for a series set in North Texas during the Depression and an interracial romance between SNCC volunteers during the Civil Rights struggle. I have no idea if any of these will be good books or will appeal to readers, but I do think we have the power to try, you know?
I agree with you on both points but I think the tendency for the politics to “masquerade as something non-threatening and neutral” is particularly common in romance. As I wrote in a post partly inspired by yours, “I have the impression that other popular genres, such as science fiction/speculative fiction and fantasy, quite often address these issues directly.” I have a feeling, for example, that The Bronze Horseman wasn’t published as genre romance. I don’t think Steven Brust and Emma Bull’s Freedom & Necessity was either, though as far as I can recall it has lots of politics alongside a strong romance.
I don’t see any intrinsic reason why politics shouldn’t play an important role in books marketed as romance, other than tradition/ideas about what will make a book most commercially viable.
And re commercial constraints, is there any likelihood your books will be available in paper? I don’t have an ebook reader.
As successful as romance is in a solely commercial sense, there is absolutely editorial conservatism, which I think is related to conservatism in the content. I would have assumed the fact that they’re selling tons of books would lead publishers to be more, not less, experimental but the opposite seems to be true.
When I was offered the contract with Carina, I told Angela James that I didn’t think I would ever sell the book because of the politics. She said that politics don’t bother them, so maybe the rise of e-publishers will change the conservatism/feigned apoliticism/etc.? I hope!
The Civil War book will be out in POD by the end of the year (though POD is fairly pricey); Carina Press books do go into paperback on occasion if they sell really well, so fingers crossed! ; )