History, Values, and Writing

There is an interesting historical argument that has surfaced in the current US Gun Control debate. Now, I’m Canadian and I don’t really want to talk about American gun control. In fact, I want to write a little piece about history and writing. Keeping that in mind, a segment on the Daily show reminded me of this little tidbit, which I will address and then relate to writing.

The talking point in question is that had the Jewish people had access to guns, they would have been able to resist the Holocaust. This is an ahistorical argument, since many Jews did gain access to weapons and along with others bravely resisted the Germans. Their people were still massacred. The casualty ratio in the Warsaw uprising was not even close to favourable. Nor, as Jon Stewart and others wisely point out, did armed populations with fully capable military arms actually have that much success resisting Hitler. The French had guns and the craziest border fence, er fortress, you’ve seen since the great wall. Still got Blitzed. The Russians had more guns than you could imagine, at least once Stalin realized that the only thing that would keep Hitler from ending communism was arming everyone he could for defence of the motherland, Russia still got invaded. In fact, it took six years of world war to oust Hitler and end the Holocaust. And while armed resistance from militias and partisans did play a key role in some places, and their bravery is exemplary to all, Armies, bombing campaigns, and “general” Winter did far more to end the Nazis.

I also watched, jaw hanging, as a man made a similar argument about slavery and guns.

Now, these are bad arguments. They actually hurt the case for gun advocates by making them look bad. I’m not going to talk about how I feel about US Gun Control here. I just want to point out that those are terrible arguments because of their poor use of history. You can find similar arguments on almost any contentious issue, on almost any side.

This is an example of what happens when we, as analysts, pundits, and writers, go back and place our value judgments on historical events in a sloppy manner. The argument is initially quite compelling. I mean we all hate the Holocaust and Slavery and would support just about any measure that would prevent them, right? The problem is that the talking points blithely ignore the actual history of the problems in question; they just throw down a modern value judgement, in this case that armed population can resist Tyranny, without giving fair consideration to what actually happened in the period or how a particular historical condition actually developed.

Pundits are incorrigible  and will continue this type of blather until we, as a society, outgrow them or hell freezes over. However writers often place modern value judgments on historical situations, often purposefully. When done correctly this can create a masterful criticism of a historical injustice that helps enlighten modern discourse. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of this. Django Unchained comes very close, in my mind. I can think of many other examples where an author uses history in a sensitive manner. I can think of legions more where they do not, and it ruins their good work, or exposes their own flaws. Here are some of the bad uses of history that I frequently encounter as a reader. (As always, I’m not referring to anyone specific here…)

1) Historical characters with modern prejudices. So the High King of your medieval nation believes in, and frequently espouses the trickle down theory? Your noble tribesman believes in a version of communism that comes straight from Marx? Don’t even try to dress up modern political, economic, or religious theories in inappropriate historical clothing. If you want to write fiction espousing a particular belief, or better yet demonstrating the rich clash of ideas that is appropriate to real discourse make sure you do that in an era where that makes sense. Both the Trickle Down theory and communism require a certain set of notions, such as industry and a Bourgeoisie  to exist. Thus if you include those philosophies in pre-industrial societies, you will have a lot of explaining to do and will likely look rather foolish to some readers. I can think of at least one famous author who espouses Objectivist, Ayn Rand, style beliefs in a medieval fantasy setting. This makes no sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that in a medieval setting law and trade are not nearly enlightened enough to support the kinds of agreement that are required to make objectivism function, even in theory.

2) Misrepresenting Historical actual personages. Some people will disagree with me on this, but I really hate it when a writer plunders history for characters with name recognition without due diligence. Does every single character in your steampunk novel really need to be a fantasy version of a famous Victorian? If they do, then make sure you do some research, because historical figures often have quite a bit of baggage attached to them. Taking a controversial or beloved historical figure, like Charles Darwin, and turning them into an odd villain in your alternate history rarely rings true and invites all kinds of trouble from readers who have strong opinions about said characters. Historians have enough trouble avoiding colossal arguments over the actual lives of controversial figures without someone coming along and muddying the waters by writing a popular book about that character which portrays them in a way that is consistently counter to their historical personality.

3) A failure to understand historical systems. This is a tough one. Often a writer uses a default setting for their genre, and does not take into account how the fantastic elements that they’ve introduced will change they systems they portray. An example is the feudal system. Among other things, the Feudal system is based on the ownership of land. If their is no land ownership in your fantasy society, then you need to modify your feudal model to take that into account. This is the meat of speculative fiction and can lead to brilliant, original novels if done well or confusing hodgepodges if done without consideration. Another example, that I find extremely common in modern fantasy is magic and the aristocracy. The nobles of a feudal society all began, in theory, as warriors and many of the basic bonds of feudalism were based around war. (GRRM gets this right!) As such a noble in a feudal society is defined by his or capacity to make war. Castles are fortresses for a reason, right? So if magic is common in your world, more powerful than physical combat, and hereditary than I am driven to question why it isn’t the basis of your feudal society. Wouldn’t the mages supplant the warrior aristocracy?

As writers, even writers of fiction, we should try to show history the respect it deserves. Those who do, like GRRM or Guy Gavriel Kay, are often rewarded with enthusiastic readers who enjoy the feel of the worlds that they create.


3 comments on “History, Values, and Writing

  1. judaidan says:

    I agree heartily. To add to your first point about historical characters with “modern day prejudices” – what also irritates me is when such characters also have modern day values. GRRM once gave the example of how overused is the trope of the farm boy who woos and wins a lady of noble birth. In truth, unless we’re in the realm of fairy tales, the hero would not only be repulsed but she might even have him whipped for his presumption. GRRM can be such a cynic but in essentials I would have to agree. Likewise if a hero/heroine of a historical tale seems too modern in their thinking – that is, doesn’t hold any strange belief systems or prejudices, I just don’t fully accept the character or the world. Right now I’m reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a novel which is made up of a series of vignettes and dips into some historical settings. Mitchell has impressed me with how he’s quite willing to sacrifice the like-ability of a character for history reality. And so, he’ll have a character on a slaver ship who shows no ambivalence about slavery at all, yet the reader is never lead to believe that he is a bad person (although the character is forced into a ideological transformation) or that slavery is ok. As obhorrent it is to even imagine what horrors might have occurred on such ships, it does no service to the historical cred of the novel to pretend that a good portion of the world not only accepted it buy also profitted from such enterprises. Just as an aristocratic Englishman in the novel whinges incessantly about the disgusting lower classes. We live in a (somewhat) meritocratic society and are told we have value and worth no matter how low our birth, so it’s difficult to read at times. Or as in Django Unchained with the “southern aristocratic slave owning” Calvin Candie who affirms his position through the pseudo-scientific claims of phrenology, ideas accepted by many at the time, by literally sawing through a skull (in some perverse reversion of Hamlet’s “Alas poor Yoric” monologue). History is full of horrible characters such as him – peppered with a minority of progressive thinkers IMO.

  2. grimkrieg says:

    Interesting thoughts. I’ve heard that kind of aristocratic whinging in modern day often enough, as management and the workers grouse about each other. Dirty teeth came up at one point, I felt like shouting get us a dental plan then… but no.

    I also feel that it can go the other way with modern authors going out of their way to show how horrible, barbaric, and ignorant people in history were.

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