Loooonggg Blooooooooggg, Day 154: Pillars of Sloth

March 2nd, 2011

I have a new literary loathing.

It’s actually a movie loathing, too. I don’t know when the trend began, but nowadays the modus operandi for creating a male or female protagonist when setting a story in the distant past is simply to write the villains and the extras more or less as people actually were in that era, but make the protagonists magically modern – to give them “evolved,” and virtually impossible, 21st-century sensibilities.

You can spot the hero in Ken Follett’s sprawling (and, to me appalling) 12th-century novel The Pillars of the Earth the moment you meet him.  In a community of guys who drink and roister and crack heads and rape every woman in sight, he’s the one who could be on NPR.  He’s sensitive to the plight of women; he seethes with a keen and apparently instinctual awareness of the fundamental unfairness of monarchs and nobles oppressing the serfs; he believes in the relatively enervated, genteel Christ of the past couple of centuries, not the martial spiritual leader of the Christian Soldiers, the Christ of the Church Militant, who towed the Crusaders into the land of the Infidels.

In the movies, he’s the guy who makes friends with the Moor, demonstrating that he’s also color-blind.  Having a Moor for a friend is an immediate tip-off: hero onscreen.

Compared to the men around him, he’s a wuss.  And yet men in these books prize him highly and compete for his regard.  In a real 12th-century village, after rescuing eight or ten wenches from his fellows, he’d have been castrated and sent to the woods to starve or, if he was musical, to the church as a castrato.

And the female protagonist burns with indignation at the plight of women, bringing to bear on her world a perspective regarding female equality that even most American women didn’t really develop until the 1950s.  Furthermore, she kicks ass.   To read the vast majority of modern books set in medieval times or to see the movies, Ye Merrie Greene Forest was a perpetual traffic jam of strapping wenches toting broadswords and longbows and wearing jerkins and tights.

This kind of behavior, in historical fact, was sufficiently rare that it was one of the pretexts for burning Joan of Arc at the stake.  To read these books and see these films, there was hardly a female of the age who couldn’t have knocked Little John off that bridge.

(I’m not denying that there were probably rare individuals who felt this way.  What I’m saying is that this anachronistic approach is disgracefully lazy,historically inaccurate, and demonstrates contempt for the reader.)

What brings all this to mind was reading The Ugly Duchess, a 1923 novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, set in the Tyrol of the 14th century.  Feuchtwanger had a couple of advantages: as a German Jew from a family of great culture and learning, he actually understood the European past, rather than conceiving it as a time when people just like you and me wore jerkins and tossed bones to the dogs.  Second, he lived before political correctness blighted even our views of people long dead and gone.  (Negro Jim in Huck Finn, anyone?)

What that means is that Feuchtwanger created his art the hard way: he remained true to the ideas and sentiments of the fourteenth century and still found ways to make us understand and even identify with the characters.  He took us into a different mindset; he didn’t whore himself out by making all the sympathetic characters displaced 21st-century sensitives, sparkling against their 14th century companions like rubies in a dungpile.

He trusted his readers, in other words, to tell good people from bad people even if the good people were (by our standards) superstitious, bigoted, bloodthirsty, vengeful, anti-semitic, sexist, and at the same time religiously pious in a way we (or at least I) can barely imagine.

Any modern writer who won’t extend the same faith to his readers is a hack, as far as I’m concerned.  Or he/she isn’t writing “historical fiction,” but historical fantasy, and it should be labeled as such.

11 Responses to “Loooonggg Blooooooooggg, Day 154: Pillars of Sloth”

  1. Dana King Says:

    Excellent point. I think publishers are afraid of too much authenticity in historical heroes, fearing modern readers won’t root for him. It has the same effect on me as it does on you. “Oh, here’s the good guy. Suspend all disbelief, ye who read past this point.”

  2. EverettK Says:

    I agree… sort of. Honestly, ALL historical fiction is “historical fantasy,” some is just more so than others. You can’t even find two people who agree 100% on the ‘truth’ of current events, let alone events (and behaviors, etc) hundreds or thousands of years ago, no matter the amount of research and effort that goes into it. When you come right down to it, EVERYTHING is fiction, whether it’s something written by Timothy Hallinan, the latest U.S. Census, the weight of a hydrogen atom, or the distance between two points. It’s only a question of relative acceptance as ‘truth.’

    That said, modern attitudes in historical stories is one of the fastest ways I know of to drop me out of a story. Sometimes I can accept it and “just go with it,” when I know that the whole premise is a fantasy. But when the creators are obviously trying to ‘serious’ about their subject matter, and then insert modern attitudes where they never existed, that’s just as anachronistic as having William Shakespeare driving a Toyota Prius through the streets of 16th century London.

  3. Laren Bright Says:

    Yes, but Feuchtwanger is a word made up of two body parts: foot and wanger. So, as a writer, Lion had to be very careful so he didn’t end up putting his foot in his wanger. Follett was not hampered by such concerns so was able to make stuff up to his heart’s content.

    You should know these things, Tim, with all the reading you do.

  4. Crenna Aesegas Says:

    First, I have the same snarky reaction to stylishly reimagining folk of yore with Contemporary Sensibilities. And it goes lots of directions…did the good folk of Deadwood really say “F*<K" that much? Or was it just to let us feel the gritttttt of the times? And is this reimagining a function of the creation of a form of entertainment versus any real interest in the events and dynamics of another time? In which case, I suspect they think accuracy be damned, bring in the box office receipts! Or is it condescension (a lot a lot alotalot methinks), assuming the unwashed don't know one era from another. Or is it simply a variant of history is written by the victors, and the victors get to shape it any which way they choose, including Haute Commercial? Hmmmmm? This is so much more compelling than the task list sitting to my right. Thanks!

  5. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I agree, and yet, remember that many writers don’t write the truth, as such, but what people want to read. I no longer read cozies with as much suspense of belief since I’ve been reading some blogs that are quite out spoken on incorporating reality into their books. Actually, I no longer read as many cozies unless the subject is of interest to me. I’m tired of plucky heroines, and the strong, slightly dangerous hero. But these books sell. And sell. I know I sound condescending, but there are a ton of people out there who want escape, and bluebirds, and plucky heroines, and righteous men is how they get it. BTW, my library system actually has a copy of “The Ugly Duchess,” so I’ll get to look at it. The picture you chose at the top is beautiful, even if you didn’t like the book.

  6. Robert DeVere Says:

    Tim,
    I wrote a fascinating comment here. I tried to submit and got ‘captha’ed’ and the comment disappeared. Maybe your gurus can find it.
    Bob

    Here it is, Bob:

    Tim, et. al.,
    I’ve been following the blog and your conversations for a while now (lurking?) and thought I would offer the observation that this is a potentially fascinating topic for would-be writers.
    What is the “proper” way to convey the feel and atmosphere, as we understand it, of a very foreign environment. I’m thinking, for example, of the dialogue between the characters in the latest version of True Grit. Incredibly stilted, yet ? apppropriate? It’s not that real people of that day really spoke that way (did they?) but that by forcing that language upon us the film creates an alternative universe for us. Would we have understood or appreciated it better had it been rife with “F” bombs?
    Y’all keep up the lively conversation and I’ll keep lurking out here. Good work. Thanks, Tim.
    Geezer Bob

  7. Gary Says:

    I like all the science fiction stories/TV shows where all the aliens conveniently speak English.

    It’s the universal Galactic language apparently.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Glad to know I’m not the only one in the room who’s noticed this.

    Exactly right, Dana — the audience won’t root for anyone who’s not exactly like them. I think this is contemptuous of the audience and demeaning to history. People were obviously not “exactly like us” and the challenge of historical fiction, I think if making us care for people who are different. Most readers are capable of that.

    Everett, I believe that many writers make a commitment to writing fiction that mirrors life and consciously reject ideas that violate character and narrative logic — even writers of fantasy. If you’re going to choose to set a book in 1152, then the characters should think and act, as much as is possible, like people who were alive then. I’m not talking about any absolute ideals of fiction vs. nonfiction, but rather writing that respects its audience and writing that doesn’t.

    Laren, what I know and what I share are two different things. Anyone who has made even a perfunctory study of 20th century German literature knows about that foot and that wanger. Geez. But thanks for bringing it up. Really.

    Hi, Crenna — interesting that you reference DEADWOOD and Bob references TRUE GRIT. If I were to make a guess, I’d say that TRUE GRIT was probably more accurate — one of the thing that strikes you when you read letters written during the Civil Was is how formal the English was. I think it was a brilliant call on the Coens’ part (this addresses Bob’s point) to remove virtually all contractions from the script. I actually loved that movie. I think DEADWOOD was a Martin Scorcese vision of the old west. If this kind of profanity-laced dialogue sounds realistic in modern New York and Boston, think how gritty it’ll be when cowboys use it.

    Hi, Lil, and thanks for stepping up to critique the plucky heroine. I think it’s possible to be plucky without being anachronistic — Scarlett O’Hara leaps to mind — but that’s not enough (or it’s too much work) for some writers to bother with. THE UGLY DUCHESS is fascinating for most of it’s length, although it’s not a masterpiece by any stretch. For a 20th-century historic masterpiece, I’d go for Sigrid Undset’s endless (and worth it) KRISTIN LAVRANSDOTTIR.

    Bob, your comment was with the spam because Captcha rejected it, but thanks to you I now know I can get these back. As a tip, block the text and mark it for COPY before you key in the Captcha, and if it doesn’t accept the code, you can just paste it in and try again. I like your comments on TRUE GRIT quite a bit — I thought the script was brilliant, as I already said — and I was flabbergasted it didn’t win for cinematography. Ohm well.

    Gary, you’re right. On the other hand, look at all the earthling wireheads who have learned to speak Klingon. The universe is full of things too strange to imagine.

  9. Bonnie Says:

    One of the reasons it bugs me to read Anne Perry: She makes no attempt whatsoever to capture the way Victorians spoke. It doesn’t stop me reading the books, because I enjoy the plots, but it’s a constant, low-grade irritation, like having the landscaping people leafblowing outside the window.

    I once read a romance recommended for a book chat by Smartbitchestrashybooks, and the book was a fun read. However, it was supposedly set in late 19th century Greece, and the characters spoke like contemporary people, so the effect was almost like reading science fiction rather than historical romance.

  10. Dana King Says:

    I read an interview with David Milch, where he was, of course, asked about the language in DEADWOOD. I don’t remember the exact quote, but the gist of it was he thought “authentic” Western speech (closer to TRUE GRIT) would sound archaic to the point of cuteness in the context he was trying to create of a place without law, building itself from scratch. He may have said something like, “They’s dound like Yosemite Sam.” He had his own world to create, outside of any convention, and used the language to convey that.

    On a related note, the Beloved Spouse found an old newspaper article on the Internet that spoke of efforts to clean up baseball of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The examples of the language used on the field and in the dugoust would look right at home in Milch’s DEADWOOD.

  11. Martha Clark Says:

    The Pillars of the Earth is a great novel, one of my favorites. I read it 4 times 🙂 I fell in love with the main character. I agree with what you said about historical fiction. Good post!

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