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Real Time

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I wonder if  one of the requirements of finding pleasure in an historical novel is that the reader know little or nothing about the historical period being portrayed.  I bring that up because I know quite a lot about the middle ages, and virtually the only mystery set in that era that I can read without nitpicking endlessly is The Name of the Rose. 

I understand why so many people love the Brother Cadfael books.  They’re well written, well plotted and the characters ring true.  What they are definitely not is true to the reality of life in the Middle Ages, no matter how many of the details they get right.  The tone is wrong–again, in the direction of sanitizing the reality.  It’s hard not to sanitize the reality if you want to sell books, because the reality of everyday life before, say, the eighteenth century (and maybe even atter, in some places) would make us very uncomfortable.

Let’s take, for isntance, the smell.  It was common wisdom in that era that washing in the cold could make you take sick and die, so for most of the months of winter–and it was a long winter; Europe was experiencing a Little Ice Age–nobody bathed.   They washed their hands and their faces, but not their bodies, and there was no such thing as deodorant.  The best they could do was perfume, and only well-off people could afford that.

Then there’s the matter of the arrangements most people (well off people, city people) made about dealing with the need to urinate and defecate in the night.  Country people had outhouses.  City people had chamber pots, which they used and then placed (full of shit, literally) under their beds, where they slept above it until morning, when it was taken out and emptied through the window onto the street.  That had a fairly interesting smell, too.

Of course, the writers of the era themselves don’t make a point of talking about any of this, because they didn’t find it remarkable or unusual enogh to discuss.  It is, however, part of the reality, and a book that doesn’t make you aware of it all the time is going to be essentially false to the period.

I’m not saying that I think people should read or write historical novels, only that I don’t understand the impetus.  I’ve read quite a few historical novels in my time, and had a good time with many of them.  But I’ve never sat down at the typewriter and been driven to do one myself, and I tend to avoid them when I pick something to read. 

I am interested in people living the same kind of life I do i n similar circumstances, with or without bodies.  Understanding people, or at least trying to, is the reason  I both read and write fiction, and I find the people of my own time completely mystifying in more ways than one.

And, interestingly enough, I rarely see the kind of person who mystifies me the most portrayed in fition, contemporary or otherwise.  

I don’t think human nature ever changes, not in any fundamental way.  I do think that there are new  wrinkles in it, new manisfestations of old motivations and desires.  The whole therapeutic ethos, for instance, would have been incomprehensible in the Middle Ages, or even in the eighteenth century.  It now seems to have taken over the world.

And part of it is definitely my feeling that there are big, pressing difficulties in our relationships to each other that did not exist before in quite the way they do know, and that that way–I’m back to One Nation  Under Therapy, as the title of the book went–desperately needs to be disected and explained.

Sometimes I think that part of what goes on in the reading and writing of historical fiction–again, broadly defined, so as to include movies and television and graphic novels–is an attempt to get back a sense of ourselves that we think we have lost, and that we definitely do not have in the here and now.

I think whoever said it is right.  300 was probably nothing at all like the real battle at Thermopylae, or like life in ancient  Sparta.  But what it was was a depiction of men and women taking themselves seriously, taking life and freedom and honor seriously, made for a world where all those things are explained away as symptoms, or maybe as “disorders.”

A lot of the historical fiction I see keeps the therapeutic ethos of the past half century and dresses it up for a costume party, but it seems to me that the most successful (commercially and artistically) takes us out of that and into a world where we no longer feel required to think of ourselves as “just another animal.”

I think that’s a characteristic of a lot of successful fantasy, too, and it’s certainly what is largely behind the veneration felt by so many people for Tolkein.   It doesn’t matter so much that a lot of the people who attempt to imitate him seem to think that “taking ourselves seriously” means doing a lot of silly things kneeling and swords.

As to the vampire porn, I don’t have a clue.

Written by janeh

May 28th, 2009 at 7:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Real Time'

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  1. Would the people of the time be aware of the stinks and the filth? Oh, I’m sure they could detect them, and certainly medieval housewives tried to reduce and control them, but did they really notice them as they walked to the market thinking about what they could buy? We don’t tend to notice the traffic or the noise or the stink of car exhaust as we go to our markets, not unless they are really exceptionally bad. Someone completely unused to them would be overwhelmed at first, just as we would the medieval stink. There was a science fiction/historical novel that dealt with the romantic views a character had of (I think) 17th century Europe. Then he got to use some kind of time travel device based on metal being forged in one era and then melted again hundreds of years later, and found out just how noisy and filthy those cities were.

    I don’t think I understand people of my time and culture perfectly, but I understand them well enough to function, and I spend enough time puzzling over any bits I don’t quite get in my day-to-day life. I don’t need to do it again in fiction, and as a result I almost never read non-genre fiction set in the present day.

    I can easily suspend disbelief over lots of historical inaccuracies. If I suspect there are some I haven’t spotted, I might read a book on the subject. I used to amuse myself by critiquing Viking’s costumes in movies and on book covers (those horned helmets!). Some things can and do spoil my suspension of disbelief. Any heroine from, say, 1900 and earlier who has a name that was extremely popular in the present or last century, like Brittany or Jennifer or Crystal, is probably the heroine in a very bad book. And please don’t have well-known historic figures marry and murder people they neither married nor murdered (Henry’s sister in The Tudors).

    I haven’t read ‘One Nation Under Therapy’, and although I do think that sometimes things tend to be over-medicalized – and this isn’t limited to psycho-therapy – I don’t see that this process means that I am required to think of myself as “just another animal”. I have read and heard people claim that humans are just another animal of course, many times, but I tend to put it down as just another idea some people have. It doesn’t seem to mean much when push comes to shove, because these people tend to want themselves and their families treated a lot better than animals are, even if they claim that they think that there is no essential difference between them and animals. Some of them seem to think animals should be treated like humans, but that’s another issue.

    I’m not sure how much most people in the past took life and freedom and honour seriously. I suspect a lot of them just kept their heads down and tried to survive, while most of the powerful fought and allied with and betrayed each other as most of them always have. There would have been those who tried to preach and enforce ideas of honourable and moral behaviour, but there are those now as well – for different views on what is honourable and moral, too.

    I do think it unlikely that most people in pre-modern times thought humans were just another animal, though. Aside from religions making the distinction, I think that when you live really close to your food sources, you are quite clear on what is ‘just an animal’ and can be eaten – or killed with impunity if it threatens animals you want to eat – and what isn’t.


    28 May 09 at 7:28 am

  2. I would not expect an author of an historical to make me “continually aware of” the details of the sanitation arrangements of the period any more than I would expect a contemporary author to do so. I am familiar with how they worked (and I must say I’m glad I have indoor plumbing!), and as long as the author does not write anything which contradicts what I know, I would only expect maybe brief comments (say a description of how someone washed upon rising, or avoided a public outhouse) unless it has something to do with the plot of the book, or shows something about a character in the book.

    I think we must see much less of the therapeutic ethos here in the Midwest than you apparently do where you live, judging from your comments. Nobody is attempting to explain any of the current political mess, for example, on anything but arrogance & corruption. Around here, for the most part, a jerk is a jerk, and no one attempts to explain it away. I don’t have kids, but from what I hear from those who do, nobody in the schools is trying to diagnose anything other than dyslexia or something similar. And then only so they can teach more effectively. Of course, this is in the public schools–we only have public or religious (mostly Catholic) schools anywhere in this area. Maybe things are different up on the North Shore, where they have more money.

    Lee B

    28 May 09 at 11:27 am

  3. I would pay good money NOT to read a novel describing the trials and tribulations of a white collar worker in the DC suburbs–more if the novel was accurate. But then I have no time for the sort of mentality which sticks a camera in a room and calls whatever happens in front of it “art.” Art involves selection, and choosing an interesting setting is part of that. Contemporary middle-class America is not an interesting setting to me, and a writer using it had best be VERY good at something else.

    As for sanitary conditions in the Middle Ages, I will guarantee you that given a few more generations of peace and prosperity, some condition of our daily lives will be intolerable to our great-grandchildren. {Advertising? Physical contact during sex? Sanitation using WATER?] But our fiction is not deficient for not harping on it. As far as I’m concerned, the conditions of an era are as I know them to be unless the author says otherwise. The author should be concerned with what is noticed by his viewpoint characters, not what would be notable to time travelers from the 21st Century.
    But it is a matter of what you know of the period. I enjoyed the 300 graphic novel, and purchased the movie, but I keep putting off seeing it, because friends who have tell me the producers had no clue how a band of hoplites fought. (Miller DOES know, by the way. I don’t know what went wrong.) Of course, I wince a little every time I watch PATTON, seeing those M-48’s passed off as Shermans and Panzer IV’s. To me, it’s like watching an Edsel cruise through THE UNTOUCHABLES. When it comes to entertainment, you really can be too knowledgeable for your own good.

    As for the theraputic ethos, it’s really no stranger than astrology, phrenology and palmistry–though it is strange how many people take it seriously, and how much government backing it’s aquired. What I find intriguing is the–often implicit–notion that all or almost all conflicts stem from a lack of communications and understanding. This, I believe, is nearly the opposite of the truth. I keep seeing an old cartoon in which two diplomats inform the press: “Our talks have been unusually candid and forthright. We are at war.”


    28 May 09 at 4:12 pm

  4. Jane, why do some people prefer chocolate cake to apple pie? Its a matter of taste. For myself, I see all to much of contemporary life in the newspapers and TV. I’d rather read sci fi or an historical novel even if not particularly accurate.

    Lee B, I’ve been told that people who live on the East Coast (Jane is in Connecticut) or California refer to the midwest as “Fly over country”. That attitude might have something to do with red states vs blue states or the therapeutic ethos.


    28 May 09 at 4:30 pm

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