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.

On Historical Accuracy (And Whether It Matters)

These days, the quickest way to start an internet pie fight is to bring up the subject of historical accuracy in fiction. The discussion almost inevitably breaks down into arguments about personal preference that masquerade as objective tenets of literary faith.

Certainly, I don’t have the hubris to believe I can solve the matter with a single blog post, but I feel compelled to weigh in. However, this is less of a coherent essay or presentation of an argument than it is an exercise in clarifying my own thoughts through a dialog with fellow lovers of historical fiction.

To that end, it’s helpful to identify the parties to the argument.

First, we have the readers and writers who believe historical fiction should not veer from the historical record for any purpose. I won’t call them purists, because that carries with it a value judgment, so I’ll call them chroniclers. They value fiction that won’t lead them to believe false things about history or force them to look things up to make sure it’s true. In a sense, they want their historical fiction to be a personalized and more intimate form of the biography. (More on that later.)

Another party to the dispute are a group that I’ll call the fantasists. They are the writers who use or abuse history to any purpose, and the readers who love them for it. You might have alternate history, like Harry Turtledove’s which imagines an entirely different world outcome if some key event changed. You have historical figures changed into vampires, like Janet Mullany’s Jane Austen or Maria Davahna Headley’s Cleopatra. You have Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Paxson turning legend into a type of pseudo-history in Mists of Avalon series and then there’s Guy Gavriel Kay, turning actual history into fantasy. Some of these stories hew very closely to history and some of them are so wild and wooly that anything obviously goes. In some sense, novels at this extreme end of the spectrum are immune from criticism because they go so wrong that they’re right.

When stories fail on the grounds of “historical inaccuracy” it’s usually because the work fails to meet either the allegedly “high” standards of the chroniclers, or, conversely, fail to be clever enough to earn a pass. In short, the errors of historical fact seem to be unintentional, unacknowledged, or without purpose, literary or otherwise. Readers will forgive a lot as long as the work isn’t sloppy.

But what to do about all the fiction in the middle of the spectrum that offends one kind of reader or the other?

On the one hand, I value historical fiction that doesn’t gloss over the grim realities of the past in order to avoid accusations of glorifying sexism, racism or discrimination. I’m frustrated by critiques of literature that focus on the surface unpleasantness while failing to examine the subtext below. In my opinion, the best books are those that make a reader feel uncomfortable and cause him or her to examine assumptions. That’s one of the reasons I read and write historical fiction, which has a great capacity to educate, to illuminate, and to inspire. So, when chroniclers cry, “Your criticism is invalid because it’s historically accurate” they are defending the inherent value in holding up a mirror either to the past, or to the present. They don’t think it should matter that the reader’s sensibilities have been bruised, because they see an overwhelming social value in the pummeling. I sympathize with that sentiment.

On the other hand, I’m of the firm belief that historical fiction isn’t fiber; it doesn’t have to be good for you. I don’t believe in berating readers for enjoying insufficiently pure works of art, such as Braveheart or The Other Boleyn Girl. I’m frustrated with critiques of literature that overlook superlative storytelling, myth-shaping, or even fun-romps because the work is deemed to be insufficiently weighty. (As if all historical fiction must be anchored with tedious historical detail and cannot be shaken from the moorings of fact–even to keep the reader from being bored silly.) Nevermind that the real lives of historical figures seldom fall into a neat narrative arc and that large portions of a person’s life are spent waiting, frustrated, mired down with meaningless coincidences, and so on. Truly, half the challenge of a good historical fiction writer is to wrestle the biography into a structure that at least vaguely approximates the hero’s journey. And there are a number of Hollywood blockbusters that may well have been saved by historical inaccuracy.

It seems to me that historical fiction writers are not to be confused with biographers or historians. In fact, I worry that strict chroniclers may conflate the art of historical fiction with what should be a more neutral and academic science of biography. (I’ve never been entirely sure why strict chroniclers prefer historical fiction over biography–into which biases may still creep, but which is generally a more neutral and academic approach.) Recently, several excellent historians have turned themselves into historical fiction authors and I have not enjoyed the results–probably that is because of my own literary preferences, which are informed by a steadfast belief that history is written by the victors and inherently unreliable. I’m made uncomfortable by historical fiction masquerading as the truth and nothing but; it’s always an exercise in perspective.

At any rate, though I know more useless trivia than anyone should about Cleopatra, her children, and the Julio-Claudians, my degrees are in Government and Law, not in history. My methodology is not academic but artistic, with an eye to sociology. I wouldn’t presume to hold myself out as anything other than I am. I am a storyteller.

I make choices.

For example, I choose to explore the topic of Ptolemaic incest in my books because I think it’s important for readers to know about this practice and understand its political value in the ancient world. I also explore it because I think it’s a kind of dysfunction that flows naturally from the torments and tragedies that were experienced by my heroine, Cleopatra Selene. (I’ll write more about this choice in another post, for those who are interested, but there are people who aren’t going to like my choices and that’s okay.)

While I weave my story through known historical events and carefully document any departures I make in the narrative, my books are likely to turn off chroniclers. My stories include goddesses, elemental magic, liberated heroines, and hieroglyphics that scroll down the arms in blood. My books are written in the language of allegory.

Even so, they are also works of historical fiction. I know there are genre expectations and I both honor those expectations and strive to meet them. I have drawn lines around my fiction that I won’t cross. I won’t change known outcomes in history. If someone won a battle in the past, they will win it in my books, too. If someone couldn’t possibly have been alive at a certain time, they aren’t alive in my books. (Although, even Gore Vidal has broken that rule.) If it’s a detail I can get right by applying myself to research, I will apply myself. (Though, perhaps my idea to ferment shellfish in my backyard so as to reproduce the process of creating ancient purple dye…is overkill.) In short, I’m not going to change anything about history without a very intentional, and acknowledged purpose. And if I make mistakes–and I will–I promise to admit them.

These are my rules when it comes to historical accuracy, and they matter to me.

But I don’t expect them to matter to anyone else.