Does Historical Fiction Glorify Sexism, Racism and Class Discrimination?

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, right? 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 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 carries their own baggage. 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 really wish that slavery had never been abolished. (Newt Gingrich comes to mind.) 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.

Comments (15)

  • Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir

    A great blog Stephanie, I really enjoyed reading this. A good chastisement to all those who criticise historical fiction in the terms you outline. Will post the link to this article for my students :)

  • This reminds me a lot of the folks who think Mark Twain was a racist because HUCKLEBERRY FINN is full of the N-word. In fact, Twain gives Huck entirely appropriate ideas for his time and then has him come to realize, through being Jim’s friend, that his heart cannot agree with what his head is telling him.

    Another excellent but less well-known book for illustrating how perspective is shaped by world-view is ISLAND OF GHOSTS, by Gillian Bradford. I like to say the story is narrated in first person, barbarian. The hero is a Samarian (the Klingons of their day, also Roman Empire but later than your stuff). Anyone who values honor more than life is going to come across differently than your average 21st century reader.

    Making characters true to their time but still sympathetic is a fine art. Twain, Bradford, and Dray do it well, which is why their fiction is such an excellent read!

  • I really think that readers need to be aware that things change. Our societal beliefs as a whole change with the times. I think it would be unrealistic for history and historical fiction authors to gloss over what was really going on. There are going to be differing opinions on whether or not what was going on was a good or a bad thing but that\’s what makes this world so interesting!!!

  • Nice. Thank you. In my own writing about the Roman Empire, I let my protagonist deal with it in the same way I have to deal with today’s world: simultaneously cynical, loving, and questioning.

  • Very thought-provoking post, Stephanie. I’ve been seeing discussions on this topic more and more recently. As with many things in fiction, there’s a tricky balance to achieve. Looking at the past through rose-colored glasses or ignoring uncomfortable history do a disservice to readers, especially when it comes to historical fiction (I’m sure I’m not the only one who reads to learn as well as to escape). At the same time, though, I’m personally weary of novels that focus on uncomfortable history to such a degree that I feel the goal is to preach rather than to tell a story. Goodness knows I’m not going to stop reading well-written novels about tyranny or oppression, but I like characters who are strong in their own right rather than only strong as a reaction to their place in the world.

    • Oh yes, that can be a problem too. Given that my own novels draw attention to the misogyny in the world that Cleopatra Selene would have had to deal with as the daughter of the world’s most notorious woman, I may not always find that proper balance. But I’m always seeking it!

      • All of these tricky balances that we have to worry about when writing historical fiction, but they give us a wonderful variety of viewpoints in the genre. Many books focusing on the same event or period of time, and each can be different in the slant it takes.

  • Entirely agree. One of the challenges of historical fiction is to portray people acting as they would have back then (especially women, who were so much more controlled). You are also absolutely right in saying they were very much like us. My hist fic is about a true incident, where a psychopath was responsible for the deaths of around 100 people who had survived a shipwreck. (The wreck of the Batavia in 1629) More than one person has commented that people just like him are among us now. Hitler, Pol Pot, Sadam Hussein, Idi Amin.

  • I think most of the recent criticisms you mention (sexism, racism, etc.) are pretty silly. Most of these books are written about adults (or at least mature young adults), for adult readers. An adult reader should be aware that people didn’t used to think and act the way we do now, and if they’re “offended” by that, perhaps they shouldn’t be reading books written for grown-ups. If you want something happy and fuzzy that doesn’t challenge you, read a picture book.

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