OK, so I don’t know how much backstory is needed, nor can I figure out how to weave it in skillfully, so I’ll plop it right here in three paragraphs or less.
Someone was wrong on the Internet. Sylvia Woodham tweeted a critique at Adrianna Herrera’s announcement of an Afro-Latinx book set in 1880s Paris. She said she wasn’t aware of travel from Latin America to Europe in the 19th century, therefore, the book should be historical fantasy, not fiction. She accused Herrera of historical inaccuracy.
Herrera explained the historical premise to her book. People piled on Woodham. Piper J. Drake wrote a good thread on why some people got so mean about an “little” mistake on Woodham’s part. (Scare quotes – little in some people’s eyes, part of a huge pattern of erasure and historical inaccuracy and simple ignorance in others.)
This led to a big discussion on truth in historical fiction. And as you know, on the internet a discussion
tends to spread out in all directions with tentacles and tangents. Emma Barry tweeted, “I wrote an unmarried, super hot astronaut in 1962. No one has ever called me out for that even though it’s not historically accurate. That’s a form of white privilege.” August 21, 2020. She’s talking about Star Dust, the first book in her Fly Me to the Moon series. It was set in Houston, 1962, and published on October 14, 2015.
And that, my friends, is what sparked my blog for today. But I see we’re almost out of time, so . . . .
Nah, just kidding. True facts are not believed. Untrue facts are. What is this weird phenomenon?
You see, there’s no historical basis for unmarried 60s astronauts, Barry says. But the trope was well-accepted. Look at I Dream of Jeannie.
When I was a kid, my afternoons were homework with Gilligan’s Island, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie in syndicated re-runs. Extremely problematic now, but as a kid, I consumed media for the potential of imagination, not for truth and the human condition, per se. I loved dreaming I could change the world with a blink of the eyes or a twitch of the nose. Being such a powerful woman had so much potential!
However, Sidney Sheldon wrote IDoJ, and these poor women were hobbled by love. Jeannie loved Tony – a hot, unmarried astronaut in the 1960s. I grew up thinking astronauts had a dangerous job, and probably shouldn’t be married, to save heartache – closer to the real truth, NASA wanted married men because they thought matrimony was another yardstick for maturity and respectability.
Later in life, of course, I absorbed the fact that most of the early astronauts were married, but I didn’t really absorb it into my head canon of reality. For me, astronauts were dashing young heroes of decent income and high intelligence – and available for marriage if I was true and beautiful. (Yeah, problematic as all-get-out. I’m still working on my early cultural programming trying to get rid of some of that garbage.)
So, “truthy” stuff can be accepted by media consumers as true. And being “truthy” is extremely important for things like fantasy and science fiction, because we’re obviously stretching the truth in so many ways. We can do that by making sure our magic systems are well-thought out or at least consistent with the magic we’ve already written – magic needs limits and rules to feel “truthy”. The same with science fiction – we can imagine some really wild and out-there situations, but it helps immensely if the science is there as a base, and other elements (such as human relationships) feel as “truthy” as possible.
In our writing class, I think some people were surprised when I talked about Georgette Heyer’s romances being placed in a “universe”. “Universe” is a helpful term when talking about SFF; “world” is a synonym sometimes, where we are talking about a reality that not the same as the one we experience on earth. We talk about world-building, and the rules of a certain universe. Heyer’s work feels very, very “truthy” because she’s done her research and added lots of mundane details that remind us we’re no longer in 1952 (or 2020, or whenever we’re reading the book), but in Regency England, where strong-willed heroines abound, and good common sense is more likely to bring about a happy ending than a duke on horseback. (Or a fulfilling career in international banking, like Lady Jersey – maybe? I haven’t Googled her in a while, so this may be from my head canon, LOL.)
Romance, especially historical romance, must have “truthiness” and real historical facts are a great way to re-inforce that. In Herrera’s case, I think there are two questions involved here.
One, how can an author make real history that butts heads with pop culture’s idea of history feel “truthy”? A preface feels too formal. An afterword is too late for the skeptical reader. A short history in the back cover copy and all marketing? Footnotes? I love footnotes, but a lot of people seem to hate them with a passion.
The last time I got really angry at a “historical inaccuracy” was when a white author had her 1800s heroine smoking doobies in a Brazilian jungle. A quick google did not reveal if this was an actual thing, for people to slip away from balls to enjoy a quick smoke and a grope in the rainforest. (My first thought: snakes! Probably inaccurate.) She could have made it easier for me to swallow – I am very gullible and it’s easy to suspend my disbelief (I’ve had loads of practice). Maybe have the heroine dabbling in henbane back home. Or slip in obviously high people into other scenes of the story (although, I am very innocent about those things, and it’d probably go over my head). Maybe if she had more challenges to my preconceptions; everything else seemed plausible to my mind; at least in a fictional setting. I was FINE about the trip from Europe to Brazil. I could totally see that.
This leads into the second point: how much do we, as authors, cater to ignorance? I only retain really weird trivia about drug stuff; I don’t know much about it, and I think you really have to hit me over the head before I think they are smoking pot instead of just rolling their own cigarettes like my granddaddy did. Do we educate? Do we expect people to Google? Or do we give up on trying to make the reader do anything?
In which case, our options are, do we write to the market? (Ick. Not fun, not me ((usually)), and also bound to be late to the party so it needs to be better than everyone else.) Or, do we write to our own little niche and hope that the marketing we do gets it to the readers who would like our stuff?
I’m afraid I have more questions than answers, but it is useful to think about these things. It may or may not change how I write – my Girls in the Basement have their own ideas. But it might change things.
Summary of links to the tweets mentioned above:
https://twitter.com/LaQuetteWrites/status/1296433597465976837 Screenshots of original
https://twitter.com/ladrianaherrera/status/1296443618765545473 Herrera’s reply
https://twitter.com/PiperJDrake/status/1296470899114356743 Why Woodham’s comment was so offensive
https://twitter.com/AuthorEmmaBarry/status/1296536488100978688 Emma Barry points out the other side of the coin
Finally, thanks to Stephen Colbert’s character who brought “truthiness” a new modern meaning. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness Fiction is a safe place for truthiness.