Fiction Marches On

I read a lot of historical fiction. I’m sure that’s no surprise to most of the people on this blog. I also read older fiction, because a lot of the stuff published in the last few decades doesn’t grab me, especially stories in modern settings.

A trip through my library leads to a lot of weird trains of thought that jump back and forth in time. You see, the meaning of ‘contemporary novel’ changes over time, and what was a modern setting fifty years ago looks incredibly dated to us. How many mysteries have you read where the mystery could have been immediately solved by a quick Bing search or cell phone call?

It took me a surprisingly long time to really grok that Pride and Prejudice was a contemporary novel (I knew the publication date and a bit about the culture of the time, but it didn’t really sink in for a while). The culture of the time was moving toward acceptance of novels as respectable reading material, but fiction could still be a bit racy in and of itself. Possibly a better example is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, that prototypical romance novel. It was viewed along the lines of a Harlequin romance- not the sort of thing that had brown paper covers, but also not quite the thing for a respectable young lady to read in public.

And of course, what’s culturally acceptable changes over time, but not always in one direction. We tend to think that societies gradually grow more free and tolerant of unorthodox behavior, but Georgian England (Jane Austen’s lifetime) was more permissive in some ways than Victorian England (Charlotte Brontë’s lifetime). The flapper era in 1920’s America would have been moderately scandalous to the ideal 1950s housewife. Whether anyone actually met these ideals is another argument, but the point is that people aspired to a certain code of conduct that would have garnered raised eyebrows and titters of amusement to outsiders.

Entertainers, including writers, usually compose material for a contemporary audience. Some things are timeless, but even you, writing in 2018 about ancient Carthage and trying to portray it accurately, are probably not going to treat child sacrifice as normal, unless you’re going for the shock value.

People in medieval Europe took this to a fascinating extreme, as shown in their artwork. Ancient Greeks and Romans were shown wearing the clothing and carrying the weapons of a knight in the 1300s. It usually didn’t occur to the artists that people in the past dressed differently. A medieval troubadour wouldn’t have even considered writing a song set in a world without noble knights and beautiful ladies; institutional democracy would have left him and his audience scratching their heads.

The upshot of all this is that what was completely normal to a past audience looks strange and disgusting to us. A husband physically chastising his wife jumps off the page at us, but a reader in the medieval era wouldn’t have blinked. Similarly, the first audience to see Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet would have immediately understood why Juliet’s reluctance to marry Paris was so scandalous (Paris was part of the ruling family of Verona, and by marrying him, Juliet would have increased her family’s wealth and status. Basically, she was making a bad business decision by choosing Romeo over Paris). We, accustomed to marrying for love, find the Capulets’ attitude distasteful.

In times of rapid cultural change, it can be difficult to know which audience a writer is addressing, and whether they’re using tropes seriously or ironically. There’s a twist at the end of du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, in which a previously gentle but deformed character turns out to be the villain. It came as a huge shock to me but I couldn’t help wondering if a reader in 1936 (when it was first published) would have realized the twist as soon as the character was introduced. In the past, people made a greater connection between a person’s appearance and the person’s character, which is why most fairy tales have a handsome knight as the hero and an ugly ogre for the villain. Nowadays, we know that beautiful people can have ugly souls, and vice versa, but this mindset is very recent. And a bit of research into the era suggests that du Maurier’s readers would have immediately suspected the deformed character.

My completely unsubstantiated explanation for this phenomenon is that in the days before antibiotics and modern medical care, people were terrified of catching any sort of disease, and shunned anyone who was obviously disfigured because they had no way of knowing if the disfigurement was contagious. Being shunned can make a person less than well-adjusted (doesn’t always happen, of course, but if you depend on the community for survival and they cast you out because you look funny, you’d be forgiven for having a dim view of the human race). Likewise, people tend to pay more attention to beautiful children, which can make them more bonded to their caregivers and likely to treat them well. Or they become unmercifully spoiled, but that’s another issue.

But Jamaica Inn was set during a time when people hadn’t quite moved away from the older mindset. And it shouldn’t be condemned for that. People do the best they can with the tools- mental and physical- that they have at the time. No doubt people of the future are going to look back at our books and say, “What on Earth were those idiots thinking? How could they have been so ignorant back then?”

You, as a writer, will be judged and found wanting at some point by some person. It’s impossible to please everyone. That does not mean you should stop writing, or write inoffensively for a ridiculously narrow audience. It means you should stop paying attention to what the self-appointed critics say. The glitterati are an audience, yes, but they’re a very small audience, and not likely to buy enough books to support your career.

Write what sells. More specifically, write what sells NOW. There’s no way to predict what will be popular a hundred years down the road, but you have a much greater chance of writing a book that will become popular in your lifetime, because you’re writing from a similar cultural perspective as your reader (and even if you aren’t, it’s closer than trying to write according to a culture that doesn’t exist yet). We’re still bound together by the remnants of Western civilization and have access to research materials that enable us to write about other contemporary and past mindsets. The future is more speculative, and all the awards from the self-appointed ‘in crowd’ won’t feed you when you’re starving in the gutter.

27 thoughts on “Fiction Marches On

  1. Interesting that you posted this today. I was going back through the manuscript of a fantasy set in mid-Song Dynasty China – ish, and the protagonist is considered to have near god-like patience and kindness because he doesn’t beat his wife or even yell at her. Because of cultural differences, the wife is of her time and place, and he’s a little different. Still not a modern man and still repugnant in some ways, but not “as bad” as we would consider the average well-meaning Song nobleman. It makes for an odd book.

    1. Somewhat relates to Sarah’s point earlier today about how your audience wants someone to relate to and they aren’t going to be sympathizing with the guy who beats his wife, no matter culturally appropriate it might be for his time and his world. Making the hero a man of “near God-like patience and kindness” is probably a better solution to that problem than most.

      1. There was a “strange one” however in one book I read.

        It was said to be a diary (left in his tomb) of a High Ranking Ancient Egyptian and in the book he stops to “defend” the institution of slavery in his time.

        His defense stopped my reading of the book (temporarily) because it seemed to be so out-of-place for when the story was “said to be written”.

        In that time-and-place nobody would think twice about slavery so who is he writing this defense to?

        The most somebody of that time would think is “I don’t want to be enslaved but slavery is OK for other people” or “slaves should be treated fairly”. 😦

        1. Me, I’d write an author’s note mentioning that people in different eras had different views. I might also quote S M Stirling on people who mistake the author for their characters.

  2. Yes, the pace of technology is tough on the manuscripts in the drawer. A few months ago, I pulled one out and boggled a bit . . . when was the last time you rushed to the One Hour Fotomat, because you needed the prints today?

    I use genetic engineering in a lot of stories . . . and I both project advances and trying skate past detail explanations, because the details are probably outdated by the time I read about them.

    And social standards? While I predicted over-the-top feminism, today’s fragile snowflakes and screaming Alphabet Soups are a rather hideous surprise.

  3. Given that this post is (kind of) about historical novels, I will recommend both the Van Gulik Judge Dee detective novels and Fraser’s Flashman comic swashbucklers for anyone who wants to see how well historical setting can be done. The Dee books in particular for the way they handle normal for Imperial China things like polygamy, routinely brutal executions (for equally brutal criminals), and selling one’s excess daughters off to a brothel so the family can pay their taxes. Van Gulik was a very good writer; lots of setting and exposition in his stories, but their plots /move/.

    1. Second the recommendation. There are also short stories available, for those who want a nibble to see if they like it.

  4. I have read that that one of the reasons that Sue Grafton kept Kinsey Milhone in the 1980s-90s is that cellphones and the internet would have played merry heck with many of the mysteries.
    OTOH, I have had all kinds of fun writing historicals, and putting in unpolitically-correct language and tastes into the mouths and lives of my characters. Because I can open my eyes wide at critics and say, “But it’s historically-correct!”

    1. I recently reread Ellis Peters’ “Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers!” (Publication Date of 1976).

      It was a fun book and even more “fun” to realize how cell-phones (or smart-phones) would have meant major changes in the plot-line.

      Oh, one thing that also stuck out IMO was that the English setting apparently had homes/businesses that lack land-line phones. 😀

      1. I think that by 1976 we did have a (*a*) phone. But I recall that there was a time when a phone call meant having to go somewhere that had a phone.

  5. Did anyone else predict cell phones, sort of, in science fiction novels except Heinlein? And they certainly weren’t smart phones, and I don’t remember him using them as a plot point in anything, there is just a mention that the main character had put his phone in his pack so his parents could not call him just as he was walking into the academy or somewhere in the beginning of Space Cadet as he observes some other new cadet getting a call and then putting his phone in his pocket. I remember several occasions where there is talk about video phones in different older novels, but they always seemed to be something very bulky or tied to a permanent location type of things.

    I think it has been claimed that one inspiration for cell phones were the communicators in TO Star Trek.

    One thing I do remember is some article somewhere talking about cell phones just before they came to the market, those big bulky first generation versions, and one of the illustrations was of a woman running from a mugger while calling for help with her phone. 🙂

    1. I don’t recall who wrote it or what the story was, but $HOUSEMATE recalls a story from the 1970’s with a bit about a student getting caught watching TV on his phone.

    2. I try to remember that communications and electronics will advance much further and faster than we can currently imagine. I’ll probably still get it wrong, but I’m trying, dang it.

      1. Heh. I am trying to write some stuff which happens over ten thousand years into the future – because I don’t want faster than light before there have been several human colonies established on terraformed worlds. So, near light speed capable terraformers, followed by a bit slower – slow enough that the target worlds would be about done before they get there, although the planets chosen are easy, just plant Earth life on them, no need to change mass or anything ones so basic terraforming does not take more than few centuries – colony ships.

        Problem, solar system. How far could things have advanced here? I can’t imagine.

        Only solution I could think of: a biological weapon wipes out all human life in Sol system and a couple of the older colony worlds. Others go through generations of isolation and regress. End result highly uneven levels of technology, some looks like magic (FTL), other stuff at least on some planets can be way more primitive than what we have now (tempted to have something like Barsoom somewhere so the main characters could visit and do some swashbuckling…).

        Okay, there may be some hostile aliens lurking somewhere. I’m not sure yet.

    3. In an Analog article, the author reread a near-future story he wrote in the 90s. He was amazed at how he didn’t have cell phones as ubiquitous as they actually are. And he could not think of a story from that time that did.

      1. Just read Michael Flynn’s Firestar. His near future is now the recent past. Gets some things right, but still has some trouble keeping up with the advances of information technologies: no blogs, cell phones are just phones, no social media.

  6. Oh, there were nice ugly people in days of old. Take The Three Aunts.

    And psychologists have found that to this day we tend to attribute virtues to the good looking because of their looks.

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