I don't know what to call this entry, nor am I even sure how to address this or what I think in regards to it. Except...it bothered me and it's clearly been bothering me since I started reading reviews and interacting with folks online as far back as 2002. So it's not by any means a new issue.
I read two reviews over at Smartbitches that were deliberately posted back to back in order to show how an incident or issue in a book can completely ruin a book for the reader. Now that in of itself doesn't niggle at me, there are things that just throw people out of books. OR bug them. But in this instance, both reviewers got up on their soap-boxes, did a bit of a rant, and gave the book a D or F, regardless of how well written or entertaining it was. They even went so far as to get upset at the writers for not commenting on or examining in more depth this horrible thing in their story, not being social activists with their storytelling or at the very least being aware enough not to do it, and just mentioning the thing in an off-the-cuff, blase fashion.
The reviews can be found:
1. Wedded Bliss by Celeste Bradley, Review done by Carrie
Wedded Bliss is an incredibly enjoyable story with one horrible problem that ruined the whole book for me. I’m going to start off by describing the plot and why I liked it, and then I’m going to get into the problem. There will be a history lesson and ranting. Prepare yourself.
Unfortunately this book has one terrible problem for me, and as I said, it ruined everything.
Katarina is repeatedly stated to be rich because her mother owns a sugar plantation in Barbados.
[The writer goes on to provide a history on the horrible slave conditions on sugar plantations on Barbados.]
2. Perils of Pleasure by Julie Anne Long
Confession: I spent a long time thinking about how to grade this book. Here are the three grades I swung back and forth on. Let’s call them Without Incident, With Incident, and But is the Incident Equivalent to an Entire Book. (I’ll address the Incident later.)
Without Incident: B minus
Lengthy depiction of the plot.
With Incident: F minus
This was the Incident:
“You know nothing of farming,” Colin said. It sounded like a warning. She wanted to say, How do you know? But he was right, so she simply waved a disdainful hand. “I learn quickly. I can certainly fire a musket, and I daresay I should hold my own against an Indian or a bear. And I thank you for your concern.”
…he smiled a little, no doubt picturing her in battle with an Indian or a bear.
The first time I read that, I definitely smelled a musk in the air. When I read it again, in disbelief, it felt a bit like falling on a knife.
I actually stopped reading the book after that for a few days. I thought about that line quite a bit. It followed me around like a big toxic miasma, probably more noxious than bad gunpowder. My main question was, “why?” Why drop that in there? What was it for, what does it achieve? Why couldn’t Madeleine just “hold her own”, full stop? Plus – the conversation was about farming. Why would Madeleine be needing to shoot Indians and bears in the course of farming? Was her farm on their reservation? Does she mention Indians in the same breath as bear because both are supposed to be equally savage animals?
Okay from my perspective these are relatively accurate historical items, those characters would say and think that way back then. The historical novels take place in the early 1800s. In the early 1800s, Native Americans were called Indians (blame Columbus and the Europeans Explorers for that misnomer) and people were afraid of them - it may not be nice, but it is history, they were the equivalent of today's view of Syrians. And yes, upper crust, classy ladies obtained money from nasty plantations they never visited. And lived off the profits of horrible things. That's still happening today. There are actually other things in both books that reviewers mention that would have bugged me more to be honest.
And I do understand having issues with something...politically incorrect? I'm not sure politically incorrect is the right word? That just turns you off, and throws you out of a book. Or makes you angry. I've had that happen to me. (notably with the contemporary best-selling novel Me About You).
Anyhow, despite how it may appear this post is not about issues people have with romance novels or historical accuracy...but well, in the second review...the reviewer goes on to state the following:
Perhaps it is historically accurate for someone like Madeleine to speak of shooting Indians as par for the course. But I somehow feel that writers of historicals are uniquely placed to help retell histories from the perspectives of those whose voices have been suppressed or stories misrepresented. Every time a person of colour appears in historical with his/her own agency, motivations and fully-fleshed individualism, it is a push-back against the dominant narratives that we’ve lived with for centuries. I shall not say more, as this topic has been covered at length by far more eloquent and insightful commenters, which I am grateful to encounter regularly in this community.
I've seen the comment in bold mentioned in various venues and in regards to various television series etc and it brings up a series of questions that I've been pondering for a long time and don't really have any answers to.
1. What responsibility does a fictional writer truly have in regards to the reader? Outside of telling their story the best way they know how?
2. Are stories supposed to have an altruistic or socially just purpose? Are they meant to morality plays? Can they just entertain? Is there a responsibility in ensuring the story doesn't reinforce stereotypes or unjust tropes?
3. Are stories in essence merely reflections of our society, our culture? Do they hold up a mirror of sorts to us? Showing both the nasty with the good? And what responsibility does the reader or viewer have to the story they are watching, reading or listening too? Are we meant to passive onlookers? OR are we meant to interact and question what is being told?
4. What would happen if we avoided all the stories that made us uncomfortable? Or uneasy? Or censored them? What if we cut out or edited out the offensive bits? Would that make what the story is in essence commenting on go away?
On the other hand, does white-washing or telling the story in a way that reinforces certain stereotypes and views...do excessive damage? Does the writer have a responsibility to use the proverbial soap box they've been provided for better ends? To promote better understanding?
Does the reader have a responsibility to avoid books that...may not do that?
I don't know. I know in the US right now there's a bit of a push-back against the edict of telling more socially aware stories, and not reinforcing negative stereotypes. That's actually, at least in part, what the battle over the Hugos and now Dragon Awards was about. In genre, you see it more than in literary fiction. Because literary fiction tends to address and contemplate these issues more.
I also have seen this push-back in Britain in regards to the whole Doctor Who casting, along with other things.
And on the Buffy fandom, there was some push-back in the other direction, in regards to how the writers handled the death of a lesbian character, along with that relationship, which previously had been handled well. Not to mention considerable rage and push-back regarding a sexual assault, and how it been handled. In Buffy, I thought the push-back made sense, but at the same time...from the writer's perspective they were challenging their audience, and perhpas showing a reflection of the culture that we were in at the time. The writers didn't want the viewers to be comfortable.
Also, years ago, there was a massive kerfuffle on live journal in the sci-fi fandom in regards to how a female white science-fiction writer was writing POC and homosexual characters in her novels. Many critics felt that she was not handling the characters with care and reinforcing negative stereotypes.
Of course at that time, someone, can't remember who, posed the argument that maybe it was up to the reader to question this, not the writer. The reader to see something that didn't work, see a reflection of that also in their own life, and deal with it. Which...I'm sort of on the fence about.
I keep wondering as readers and viewers what are our responsibilities to the content that we interact with daily? How critically do we interact with? Are just passive viewers who...let it fly by. Or do we question it? And to what degree should we? Also, should we be critical of creators of content that are merely reflecting the world and our culture back to us? Should we not be critical of the world and culture it is reflective of? I mean, wouldn't it be more pro-active and for more useful, to try
to change a discriminatory ban against immigration than rail about a book that depicts immigrants in a negative light? On the other hand, does the book make things worse? And if it does...is the best response to write and publish a book or series that counter-acts its message? That actually appears to be what Amazon is doing in response to HBO's Confederacy, creating their own AU series that questions HBO's.
I don't know the answers. Just that it's not quite as clear cut as I'd like it to be. When it comes to human beings, few things are.