Discussion: Problematic Content in Historical Fiction

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and they started talking about Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, a book which remains the only Steampunk novel I’ve actually enjoyed. I admit I was a little taken aback when the hosts mentioned that they had a problem with the way Priest talked about Chinese-Americans in the novel. Many of her characters are outright racist, but then what else would you expect from the Civil War era? I hadn’t batted an eye-lid at it when reading.

But as I started thinking about it, this is something I have noticed people critiquing other historical fiction for as well. Specifically the two things I most often see historical fiction critiqued for is racism or inclusion of asylums.

As I am right in the middle of reading a historical fiction novel with some extremely offensive language right at this moment, I thought I would take a second to weigh in.

First of all, let me start by saying that we can not go back and change the past. Like or not, people in the past made mistakes. They were racist, they were anti-gay, they didn’t know how to handle mental health problems, they killed people who were inconvenient to them. The past SUCKED. I don’t know why it is that we are so drawn to it, but there it is.

So the way I see it, any author writing a historical fiction novel has three choices for how to deal with history’s problems:

  1. Ignore the problem all-together. Make everyone white, straight, and healthy.
  2. Put the diversity in there, but make your characters okay with it, even if that means losing some authenticity.
  3. Write your novel authentically, even if that means leaving in some problematic content.

The first option, I hope we can all agree, is not acceptable. By pretending the past was all hunky-dory we loose all opportunity to learn from our mistakes, and we risk continuing to marginalize those who were treated poorly by continuing to ignore their voices. Even Regency Romances aren’t doing this anymore.

The second option, including diversity but making your characters okay with it, is I think the direction a lot of readers would like to see historical fiction go. But here’s the thing. (And keep in mind, this is my opinion.) By writing characters who are universally accepting we continue to white-wash history.

If ignoring the marginalized populations ignores their voices, so does pretending that the dominate culture wasn’t marginalizing them. If ignoring the problems of the past keeps us from learning from them, keeping your protagonist out of the problem does the same thing.

And, most important to me, books are often supposed to make you feel uncomfortable.

It’s been my experience that when authors include “problematic” or offensive content in their historical fiction novels, they do so on purpose. They want you to see that the characters were racist (or what have you) so that YOU can see it is a problem. The characters might never see it as a problem, but the reader should.

So the book I’m reading right now is Whiskey When We’re Dry, a 21-st century Western by John Larison. It includes a lot of the same offensive anti-Chinese-American language that Boneshaker does, and the character is equally ambivalent about it. I mean, people call her horrible Mexican slurs all the time, why should she be fussed that they do the same thing to the “chinamen”? It also includes a LO-O-OT of anti-gay slurs. In particular, the men in the novel are very concerned with being “a fish”. Larison does this explicitly and on purpose. It should make you uncomfortable because it is AWFUL. It makes the main character, Jess, uncomfortable, because as she knows literally nothing about sex she’s not sure what it means or why it is wrong. As she eventually starts to figure it out, it makes her even more uncomfortable as she selfishly realizes that the gay-ness of one of her friends could seriously screw up her own situation.

But Larison does this to set up the exploration of Jess’s own sexuality. As Jess begins to realize that she is not attracted to men, the stigma surrounding “fish” is at the forefront of her mind. Surely the same stigma would be applied to her. It affects what she does, as well as how and why she does it.

Had Larison ignored the stigma surrounding queer people in the wild west, the novel would not only have lost authenticity, but it would have lost a lot of the power behind the love story. It’s uncomfortable for the reader, but not near as uncomfortable as it would have been for the dude whose gentiles were cut off because he was discovered having sex with another man. We can NEVER forget that these kinds of atrocities happened, and writing a character exploring LGBTQ feelings in that era has a special kind of power to it.

So as far as I’m concerned, bring on the racist historical fiction. But I would love to hear YOUR thoughts, because I know this is a multi-faceted issue.

34 thoughts on “Discussion: Problematic Content in Historical Fiction

  1. I totally agree with you. The past wasn’t all roses and people being nice to each other, and historical fiction has to include that if it’s to retain any sense of authenticity at all. I think we lose an opportunity to learn and examine our own times if we start whitewashing it out. And, to be honest, doing that I think opens the writer up to a whole other set of allegations…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Agree with you. A bigoted character (or narrator) doesn’t mean a bigoted author – depicting something is not the same as advocating it! I can understand concern if the depiction isn’t challenged somehow, but outright pretending everyone in 1845 Alabama was woke clearly doesn’t sit right.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And it occurs to me now that when I wrote this post I was assuming a certain level of good writing so that it is clear and obvious the writer is doing things on purpose. But I think while all AUTHORS are aware that a bigoted character doesn’t necessarily mean a bigoted author, not all READERS always recognize that, especially if the writing is less than perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree. I actually enjoy when historical fiction gets a little bit gritty, because that’s how I know it’s a true and honest depiction. When of the most important things about studying history is truly understanding its mistakes and moving on to improve them, and we can’t do that if you don’t see and understand those mistakes. Awesome post!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! As I’ve been thinking about this more, I think in the case of “Boneshaker” the person complaining about it wouldn’t have an issue with “gritty”, but was thrown by the off-hand and light-hearted racist comments. Which, again, I think was probably pretty authentic to the time, but I guess I can see how that might bug you.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I 100% agree with everything you said. I would rather have a historical fiction story to be historically accurate and authentic than something that it isn’t. I would much rather have the problematic material so that it can be discussed as to why it’s problematic. I think it’s okay for books to have this type of content, especially historical fiction and even some classic books that reflect the time period in which they are written. Take Little House on the Prairie, for example, it’s such a racist book, but at the same time, it reflects the time period in which it was written.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There’s a whole thing about Little House on the Prairie. Like, the took Laura Ingles Wilder’s name off some award because of racist content in Little House. Which, okay, I get it, you want to be sensitive. But at the same time, I feel like maybe we need to be sensitive to the fact that Wilder didn’t know it was a problem at the time and likely would not have said it if she had been writing the book now! It’s definitely a sensitive problem, and I don’t know that there’s a “right” answer. Personally I’ll still be handing my kids those books, but also likely taking the time to show them something that more accurately reflects the heritage of American Indians.

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      1. Exactly, Wilder had no idea that it was a problem back then. I think it’s great that you’re gonna give your kids Little House and others like it and then supplementing with more accurate representation. Books are tools for teaching. I think it’s important to read these types of books and being able to acknowledge the problems.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree. We can’t expect characters in historical fiction novels to be as sensitive to social issues as we are today. We can, however, expect the writing to be aware. Like you say, the author should use their writing to make an example of our historical intolerances/mistakes. IF an author needlessly employs slurs, THEN call it out. But don’t censure history.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oooo, I love the distinction you made there! I think when I wrote this I was assuming some amount of competence from the author. I think a lot of times when authors get called out they are trying to do what we’re discussing, but maybe just aren’t the best writers of all time. Which is why sensitivity readers are becoming increasingly popular, I suppose.

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  6. I mean judging by the comments thus far, it seems we are all mostly on the same page when it comes to this topic. That language, that setting, they need a certain degree of authenticity, regardless of how ugly it is, otherwise why bother with a historical label at all? Just create your own world and pretend everything was a-okay there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I’m surprised everyone is on the same page. I was expecting people to be kind of mad at me, if we’re being honest. Because, like, not naming names or calling anyone out, but an author had to STOP THEIR BOOK BEING PUBLISHED last month because the more historical-inspired elements of the fantasy were deemed problematic by the twitter and goodreads community, and they went after her…

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  7. Great article! I feel like you can’t win anymore because if you were to whitewash and make everything perfect in those regards you’re likely going to upset the people who want authenticity. Geez there are a lot of minefields to publishing these days!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yeah I’ve definitely seen people criticising books for being authentic and I don’t agree with that criticism. I don’t think it does us any favours to pretend the past was better than it was- like you said, it tends to white wash history- and how is that better? Pretending like there were never any problems does more harm than good in my opinion. how are we supposed to learn from it if it was all hunky dory? So yeah, I don’t think it’s fair to criticise a book for being historically accurate, even if it makes us uncomfortable (I personally feel it *should* make us uncomfortable). That said, I don’t always object to alternate history or books that do fictionalise elements of the past- I think that there can be a problem with not enough people emphasising that this is not historically accurate when they talk about books in this vein. Anyway, such an important discussion to have!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I LOVE ALTERNATE HISTORIES!!!! That being said, I think there’s a huge different between alternate history and just changing things in an otherwise historically accurate book for the sake of “representation.” Like, right now I’m reading Enchantee, and there’s an openly gay couple, and everyone is just okay with it. I’m not an expert on Revolutionary-era France, and I know they were fine with a lot, but I don’t *think* they would have been fine with that. I would prefer for the aurthor to include the characters and have it be a huge scandal.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. “By writing characters who are universally accepting we continue to white-wash history.

    If ignoring the marginalized populations ignores their voices, so does pretending that the dominate culture wasn’t marginalizing them. If ignoring the problems of the past keeps us from learning from them, keeping your protagonist out of the problem does the same thing.”

    I think this is the most succinct counterpoint to people who don’t want accurate historical fiction. It’s certainly one thing when considering history-based fantasy settings, but when drawing from and writing in an actual historical setting, it does no one a service pretending like everyone was nice. It often leads to people falsely thinking ‘it wasn’t that bad back then’ and therefore goes on to disregard today’s issues caused by historical prejudice and discrimination. Good discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I will neither read nor write historical fiction that dresses up its its subject like the early-21st Century automatons of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

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  11. Good post. If we ignore the authenticity that comes with writing historically accurate, racist, homophobic characters and the like, it is like denying that such prejudices even exist.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I just discovered your blog. I enjoyed this post and all the comments because I’m writing my first historical novel. It’s beneficial to hear what so many historical fiction readers want/expect in a novel.

    Liked by 2 people

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