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.

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Favorites February: Emma Volume 3

Synopsis

Emma and Frank Churchill plan an outing for the Highbury group to scenic Box Hill for a picnic. Tensions between Emma, Frank, Jane Fairfax, and the Eltons come to a head as a result of this party, and Emma is finally forced to confront the shortcomings of her character. And Harriet’s new love interest helps Emma to recognize her own feelings…

Why I Love This Book: Volume 3

  • Ah, the love story. I was so invested this time through, so able to catch on to the little details, I was practically swooning.
  • Jane Fairfax is a very interesting character, and I love seeing her fleshed out in this volume.
  • Seeing everyone, even Mr. Knightly, thoroughly abuse Mrs. Elton is so satisfying.
  • In some ways Volume 3 in soooo cringy, because all of Emma’s flaws come to their climax. But seeing her learn and grow is one of literature’s great character arcs.
  • I just adore how Mr. Knightly loves Emma so much that he’s willing to move to Hartfield, something unheard of in that day and age. ALL THE FEELS!
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Favorites February: Emma, Volume 2

Back again with another Favorites February! This week I’m taking a look at the second volume of Jane Austen’s classic novel, Emma. Emma is considered by some book critics and historians as the “perfect novel”, and a lot of the things that make the novel so great come into play during volume 2. I hope you enjoy, and as always, play along in the comments!

Synopsis

Frank Churchill finally comes to Highbury, meeting all of Emma’s expectations for an amiable young man. Could she be falling in love after all? The only way to find out: a ball! Mr. Elton also returns with his new bride, both ready to spite Emma at any chance.

Why I Love This Book: Volume 2

  • The real actual problems with Emma’s character are more deeply explored and less superficial.
  • Mr. Knightly starts to really come in to his own as character with a personality.
  • The satire is sooooo biting.
  • Especially on the re-read, catching the sub-text about Jane Fairfax.
  • Maybe this makes me a snob, but I feel like a lot of the finer points of this volume hinge on a working knowledge of society of that era, and I feel like such a smarty-pants for catching it all!
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Torn Between Re-Reading and Finding New Favorites

I have always been an avid re-reader. Prior to starting this book blog my book-choosing process involved making sure I alternated between new books and re-reads.

Why? Re-reading a book is a completely different experience. You already know and love it, and rediscovering all the little things is magical. Already knowing the world allows you to fall in and immerse yourself even deeper. You gain a greater depth of understanding of the characters, the themes. When I re-read a book I almost always love it even more. 

But since starting this blog, I have hardly re-read anything. It’s not hard to pin-point why. Before my tbr had twenty books in it. Now it’s a battle to keep that under 100. Every time I read a book, there’s always a new one to take it’s place.

To clarify, my tbr is pretty selective. I only add books that I actively want to read, and I regularly go through to clean out the books I have lost interest in. So when I say there are 100 books on my to-be-read list, know that there are 100 books that I am actively excited about reading.

That pressure makes it hard to squeeze in re-reads.

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Discussion: Waiting to Read a Series

So it has come to my attention over the course of the past year that there are people who actively avoid reading unfinished series.

This is something that would never have even occurred to me. Possibly in part because I got hooked on the Animorphs series in the 4th grade, and the author didn’t finish it until I was in sixth, so I guess I’m just used to waiting. I also grew up waiting on Harry Potter, so there’s that too.

But mostly I don’t even bother to find out if a book is even a part of a series before I start reading. I pretty much assume anything is either a stand-alone or a part of a never-ending-mega-series-that-I-will-never-finish until told otherwise. Finding out how many books are in a series is so far removed from how I pick books that I would never have even considered that.

So I was a little shocked the first time I heard this. Not because I was appalled or anything, just because I’d never thought of it and it’s kind of weird to me. But over the last year I’ve just come to accept that there are people out there who won’t read a book unless they know the whole series is available to them.

And as I sit here, twiddling my thumbs and waiting for the conclusion of The Kingkiller Chronicles which may never come, I have to say, It kind of makes sense. But, at the same time, it kind of makes me feel icky all over. So, like I do, I thought I’d make a pros and cons list. Continue reading

How to Keep Your TBR Under 100

The book blogger’s number one problem? Keeping that TBR down! I am here to offer you 10 tips and tricks for keeping your TBR under 100 books.

What qualifies me to write this post? you might be asking. Great question! I have been book blogging for about a year and a half now and my TBR STILL has only 95 books in it. Which makes me the resident expert on keeping your TBR from exploding.

So here we go!

1. Read books that are actually on your TBR.

I know, I know! It sounds impossible! But if I can do it, you can do it. Continue reading

Books: Art or Entertainment?

In my opinion, fiction authors have one of two intentions when they write a book.

  1. To entertain
  2. To create art for art’s sake

Now, obviously, most authors include a little of both. To me it’s kind of like a continuum with super artsy books like The Color Purple or The Goldfinch on one side, books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or The Princess Diaries on the other side, and the vast majority of books falling somewhere in the middle.

book continuum

Interestingly, I think this same idea applies to most forms of art, especially movies and music. Continue reading