Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Why I hate Historical Fiction

hey, I figured something out on my own! baby steps maybe, but any progress is a personal victory, in my opinion. okay, I'd like to do a rant on several things, but I can only do one at a time, and I need to sleep so I'll pick the shortest one.
Art. the definition of art involves something about it's being a reflection of life. fine. when it comes to the art of writing, this definition leads to a well-known rule: WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW. as in, things you yourself have seen, done, experienced, places/situations you've been to/in, stuff you yourself have gone through or witnessed firsthand. it makes the best writing. when I was involved in a summer creative writing program, the thing our group leaders kept telling us was "write what is hardest for you to write. go to the places that make you uncomfortable. it'll be your strongest writing." this message was mutated into "write abt sex, drugs, and violence, bc we are against censorship, and this would get you censored, and so we are being rebellious and cool." it was interpereted by my fellow writers to mean "write the stuff that makes you squeamish and giggly; it'll be good because that's what sells." Now, their theory, in theory, was sound. it works because it works in tandem with that golden rule of writing, to write what you know. the stuff that is hardest for you to write is the stuff that is the most personal, the most guarded, the most cherished. and that will be your best writing bc that is WHAT YOU KNOW best. now, I have a lot more to my general rant abt art, and how all people who consider themselves artists in any sort of capacity should familiarize themselves with as many different "artistic forms of expression" as possible -eg, writers should also spend some time studying paintings, dancing, and listening to music (a lot of music, and all kinds), and dancers and painters and musicians should all do the same thing; being aware of various ways of expressing and reflecting life broadens artistic ability, understanding, expression, etc. okay, all that for another time.
what I'm particularly ticked off at is how the genre of historical fiction ignores all of these rules. the same sort of thing tends to annoy me in various fantasy settings. here's a time, and sometimes place, completely different from the one you know. yes you've seen movies, and read books, and done research. (ever done research on something you knew abt from personal experience and been amazed at the innacuracy with which it was portrayed?) it never fails in these settings that the characters end up using expressions from modern-day jargon; that characters are imbued with sensibilities that people weren't even vaguely concious of at the time that this story is supposed to take place; that the political situations are unavoidably modeled on pesent-day tensions and situations. the result is something not only non-believable, non-realistic, and inauthentic, but often times, ridiculously boring and poorly written. if you like a theme, adress it in a modern-day situation like one you have experienced, and do not romanticize it by sticking it in a long skirt and a bonnet. this especially bugs me when people write about a culture they are not from. different cultures are different cultures because they value different things, or structure them differently. therefore, your values were proobably never as important to them as they are to you.
It's after two in the morning, and I've lost the ability to continue this with anything resembling clarity. I would, for example, cite books I've read that do this that bother me (Wicked, A Great and Terrible Beauty, some horrible thing I just saw in a bookstore which is a continuation of Pride and Prejudice); or, anticipate comments such as"Well, Mark Twain (and other authors of classic literature) did the same thing," which is true, and I think it was bad of him to do it as well, but at least he got stuff right with his other books and was mostly speaking in parable anyway (I'm thinking of Prince and the Pauper here); and other such things, but I have neither time nor patience. so, any comments welcome here.


Blogger No am not John Keats said...

quite true that wen ppl write abt stuff they dont kno abt,lik george bush's views on the present technology scenario translates to complete crap.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

yes, that too...

12:50 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

yes, but...
There's also the element of "let's make this accessible to the readers." If the characters don't have similar values, then we just won't care, and then the book fails to sell, which means that the author, editor, and publisher have all wasted rather a lot of time.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Pragmatician said...

Well I think people who blog want to project a certain image of themselves that is not always perfectly accurate, so they try to write about all sorts of subjects but it's true that astute readers can sense which ones are truly the person and which one the blogger's.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

First of all- congratulations! You really have a blog! Welcome to our ranks.

Second of all- while I agree that it is pathetic when people have failed attempts at historical fiction, I don't think the same thing applies when one specifically picks that historical period for the issues that it raises. Of course, the example I cite most easily is Killer Angels, which you still have not read- it is meant to be in a certain time period and addresses the issues of that period. Or, on a lower level, Johnny Tremain. When authors can successfully expand an era in which they didn't live, then it's quite effectively.

I think that the main function of art is to tell us about being human, and different humans and emotions and so forth. Different historical time periods can help expand or bring out emotions that the average person may not experience in their boring life, but nonetheless are part of the human experience.

Of course, I may just be justifying my own pathetic attempts in this regard, and I agree that anachronisms are painful.

Btw- four readers already? Quite impressive.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

okay, first of all, Richard:accessibility to the readers is great. but that's not a reason to transpose current themes onto a setting where those themes did not exist. that's just silly. themes that are relevant to today's crowd should be put in a setting accessible to today's crowd; so stick a young girl's issues with identity in a modern public high school, as opposed to some baron's manor in 16th century England. why should an exotic location increase accessibility of current issues? why do we insist on saying "people who lived a hundred years ago were really just like us, except they wore funny clothing?" pragmatician: I'/m sure you're right. I haven't actually read enough blogs to be able to tell though. I was mostly referring to books. Tobie: writing in a specific setting in order to adress the issues of the period is one thing - and may very possibly have been done well, there's an awful lot of stuff I haven't yet read, unfortunately. and I agree that of course the function of art is to tell us abt being human etc. my main point was, you are human, so why are you trying to tell us abt some human you aren't? let those ppl speak for themselves, and you speak for yourself. more truth, and better quality writing, would be the result- thus a furthering of this function of art. if you're trrying to tell me how an Indian princess in 1329 felt abt something, but you've never been an Indian princess in 1329, the result is less likely to be a greater knowledge and understanding of another human being, and more likely to be further misimpressions and innaccuracies.

10:38 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Well, the people who lived then are mostly dead, and were mostly illiterate, and little of what they may or may not have written has survived. Not everyone has the talent or ability to tell their own story. Add to that the fact that my personal story is really quite boring. The point of historical fiction, should I choose to write it, would be for me to write about people being interesting humans, instead of my more boring being human-ness. Which is the point of any fiction at all.

8:58 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

what you say is true. however if you haven't the talent to tell your own story, the likelihood of the matter is you don't have the talent to tell other ppl's either. esp if it's not evena real story of someone you know, but rather a pretend story of someone you made up, set in a time you know nothing abt. this is what the golden rule of writing, to "write what you know," is essentially saying. it's silly to make stuff up bc it won't come off as real. not that you won't necessarily make a lot of money on it. but it won't be good quality writing. your own story may be boring, but there are those of us that'd prefer to read a real piece of boringness thana fake piece of ridiculous mleodrama. anyway, if life is boring, and art reflects life, than your art should be boring. again, it might not sell, but at least it'd be true.

9:35 AM  

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