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Introducing the “mistorical,” and The Uses and Limits of History in...

 

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First I want to formally introduce our newest tag at Dear Author: mistorical. Now tags don’t generally get such an officious welcome, but this one, in particular, might be a wee bit controversial, as it means, quite literally, “mistaken historical.” In other words, it’s the tag we’re now going to be using to describe all manner of historically inauthentic and inaccurate books on the blog – a catchall term that can be used for books of any time period or any type of mistaken, misused, mythologized, missing, or otherwise inaccurately portrayed historicism.

Why have such a tag? Because for many readers (myself included), the historical authenticity and accuracy of a book labeled “Historical Romance” is an important element of its construction. This was certainly the case in DA January’s review of Phoenix Sullivan’s Spoil of War, in which the author explicitly defended the historical representations of her book:

As an indie author (or whatever term will eventually come to define us) by choice and a content editor by trade, I absolutely own any copyediting errors in the book. However, the two specifically pointed out are not errors. “Fagging courage” is correct; one of the definitions of the verb fag is to weary or exhaust. And “prob” is more akin to “pushing futiley at” than the word “probe” is. I’m happy to review comma errors that may have been made — with the understanding that commas can be a rather “gray” area when it comes to style and pacing.

I’m also not here to go point by point through the research, but I will mention that “Ryan” is the anglicized version of the many variants of a name that is ancient Gaelic in origin (Rian, Rion, Riain, etc), much like the name Arthur itself is an anglicized version of any of several variants from Roman or Welsh origin.

The question of historicity dogged the comment thread, with Maili responding to Sullivan’s defense of Ryan:

Rían, Ríon and Ríain aren’t variants of one name nor do they have anything in common, except for one thing–this prefix: rí.

‘Rí’ on its own does mean ‘king’ (or in contemporary sense, ruler), but it doesn’t mean it’s just that when used as a prefix. Please, Irish – certainly old Irish – is a lot more complex than that. As a prefix, it implies anything that suggests high position or influence.

As it stands, there is nothing so far that can confirm the meaning of Ryan is ‘little king’. Four reasons: a) the supposed etymology of Ryan/little king doesn’t fit in with the traditional Irish naming system – same with the (Scottish) Gaelic naming system, b) some say that in Irish, it’s grammatically incorrect, c) it doesn’t fit geographically, and d) every intensive search so far had failed to make a solid connection between Ryan and ‘little king’ and/or ‘Rí’. Any decent Irish or Gaelic name etymologist can and will tell you all this.

As Sunita and Dhympna, a medieval historian, have detailed, the historical representations in the book are anything but historically sound, which cuts quite harshly against the author’s own defense of the book on those grounds.

Which raises the question of what the uses and limits of history are in fiction, and especially in the way readers evaluate fictional stories that depend, in their worldbuilding, on recognizable moments from the past.

Anyone who has conversed with me for longer than two minutes knows I’m pretty enthusiastically adamant that “historical Romance” should take history seriously, and that books we describe as wallpaper or historically inspired, or historical fantasy, or the like should have another label. Because as Dhympna’s analysis of Sullivan’s Spoil of War demonstrates, historical accuracy, even in a book set in the 5th century, is hardly impossible. Further, a sense of historical authenticity — that is, the larger atmospheric context that makes the world building believable — is obtainable for an era in which we have a decent amount of historical data and analysis available. And this may be naïve of me, but any time I hear an author say something like “I love history,” or “I love researching history,” or “I think historical research is so fascinating,” that raises my expectation for the historicity of their book. Because, like Sullivan’s defense of her novel, I read that as a kind of credentialing, albeit more casual than the inclusion of an author’s note or footnotes or bibliography or the like.

All that said, I do not think that historicity can save a bad story (and again, see Sunita’s review of Spoil of War for an example of this), or that its lack can ruin a masterful one. An example of the latter can be found in the long discussion pursuant to my review of Julie Anne Long’s What I Did For A Duke. Each reader determines what constitutes a masterful story, however, and readers can, indeed, be fatally distracted by what we perceive to be too many errors, historical or otherwise. By the same token, we can be mistaken about what is and isn’t accurate or authentic in a book, creating frustration for authors and indirectly, perhaps, perpetuating inauthentic but widely accepted elements.

One of the more perplexing issues for me around historical accuracy, though, is exemplified by the nature of the Regency Romance and the extent to which accuracy seems to be partially defined by genre progenitors like Jane Austen or foremothers like Georgette Heyer. In fact, the extent to which books like Heyer’s are now viewed as historical sources themselves demonstrates how muddy the concept of “historical accuracy” can be for a period like the Regency, which has much more significance and endurance in the genre than it does generally. As Maili pointed out on Twitter recently, much of the historical critique of Regency Romance deals with cultural and social faux pas rather than larger political or economic issues. It almost seems as if there’s a specific type of history readers of Regency Romance expect from the subgenre. I often feel confused by discussions about Regency accuracy, because I’m not well-versed in Heyer, and I don’t read Austen as genre Romance. So my question, as someone who does not have expert knowledge of the Regency, is how much of that alleged accuracy is derived from Heyer and Austen, and how much from a thorough knowledge of general historical sources?

One particular difficulty with Heyer seems to be the extent to which the author herself has become an icon and a beacon, which was very much in evidence throughout the Smart Bitches thread on The Grand Sophy, with author Anne Stuart objecting to Sarah’s frustration with the book’s stereotypical slur on “Jewish moneylenders:”

I saw the grade and thought, are you fucking crazy?  In general I glaze over racism etc. in older books (and remember, this book is 61 years old, came out before GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (the first major movie to tackle anti-semitism).

Then again, I adore Heyer so much that I simply ignore the appalling classism (the adopted son in THESE OLD SHADES—horrors!) etc.  Either you adore Heyer or you don’t.

However, I am sorry that it was personally painful.  I do think 1950 was long enough in the past to overlook the casual racism.

Given the contrast in tone between discussion of Phoenix Sullivan’s book and Heyer’s Grand Sophy, the question of historicity is pointed: how much does “real” history count, and does the author’s own history count? One author intercepts discussion of the book to defend her own research credentials against claims of offensive characterization, while in another context readers use “historical accuracy” to defend an offensive characterization. Sullivan goes so far as to suggest that readers who disagree with her portrayals in Spoil of Wardemand anachronistic thinking from characters.” Which seems to be similar to what some readers are saying about those who take issue with the portrayal of Jewish characters in Heyer’s novels.

So what’s the difference? Is there a difference?

I think there’s a crucial difference, but will leave it to others to measure the validity of my distinction: In one instance, readers are being asked to accept the alleged historical accuracy of an author’s portrayal, offensive or not. In the other instance, readers are being asked to dismiss aspects of a portrayal that may or may not be historically accurate (or if accurate, certainly not universal). It’s especially ironic when you consider the fact that Heyer’s portrayal is probably more accurately reflective of both her time and the time of her books.

And yet the sheer depth and breadth of reader investment in Heyer’s books adds another layer to the dilemma of historicism, because in some cases it seems Heyer is not only being invoked as an author, but as a historical authority herself, for her own books and those derived from her body of work. Heyer seems to be both source and author, which shapes not only what is seen as “true” in her books and those influenced by her work, but also what is deemed appropriate in terms of reader response. That is, it seems that Heyer’s influence is influencing not only what we read in Regency Romance, but how we should be reading it, as well. Which for me diverges substantially from the notion and relevance of historical accuracy in the Romance genre as a whole.

So what if we remove the author from the analysis? At this point, is that even possible, especially with Regency Romance? And if it’s possible, will it make it easier or harder to assess the historical validity of a story?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

256 Comments

  1. SAO
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 02:43:07

    We’re never going to get perfect authentic historical fiction. My blatant error is someone else’s nitpick. I’d like to know how the errors impacted the reviewer’s enjoyment and go from there. Adding a new label doesn’t add to information, unless you know to what degree the reviewer knows the history of the period.

    Cliches, sterotypes and implausible behavior deserves a shout out, regardless of where it is found. Of course, in a book with a billionaire Sheik as the title character, there’s already an expectation about the verisimilitude.

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  2. etv13
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 02:45:41

    @lazaraspaste: Wow. Just wow. You just hit it, not just out of the park, but out of the atmosphere.

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  3. Evangeline Holland
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 03:03:20

    Mrs. Giggles’ latest blog post reminded me of two things:

    1) The historical accuracy debate ignores the context in which authors of historical fiction conduct their research. I have countless primary and secondary resources relating to the Edwardian era stored on my computer. If I have a question about costume or food or a war, I can shoot an email to a costumer or food historian or war re-enactor for the answer. I have access to academic journals published ten, twenty, or even fifty years ago through JSTOR. I can type the name of an English castle into the YouTube search bar and find dozens of videos taken by tourists, or even created by the National Trust. I can borrow a book published in 1935 through ILL if my branch does not carry it, or, I can just purchase a used copy online. I am reading a book published in 1984 about a particular social set within upper-class Edwardian society and I can find most of the research the author undertook to write this book in minutes, if not seconds.

    The point of this is that you cannot forget or ignore the resources available to writers. For all we know, Georgette Heyer’s meticulous research was or is not as thorough as it could have been because we have access to information she did not. And for authors who began writing Regencies in the 80s and 90s, why not take Heyer’s Regency world as fact when undertaking research at that time required browsing through card catalogs, lugging home pounds of books, calling around for information, snooping through second-hand book shops for old books, exchanging information with the authors you probably only met at RWA meetings or conferences, or on those old Genie listservs, etc etc?

    2) With that said, whose “historical accuracy” are we arguing for? Pardon my Mad Men references, since I’ve just gotten into the show, but viewers of the show go round and round arguing about the accuracy of the show and often question Weiner’s view of the 1960s through the lens of someone who wasn’t born until 1965. With historical romance, most authors are American, and they are writing for a largely American audience. Even those who try their damnedest to retain a strong sense of authenticity cannot escape that fact. So, what is “accurate” when a) we aren’t British b) we aren’t aristocratic or upper-class, and c) we only experience life in 1820 or 1633 through the lens of 20th and 21st century American culture (mostly via Hollywood and fiction), secondary research, and the separation of hundreds of years? Should historical romance then be a study and/or critique of life in the past a la Mad Men? Or is it just what it is: a romance novel set in the past, where certain plots, conflicts, and characters logically exist?

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  4. etv13
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 04:25:40

    @Susanna Kearsley: Look, I love Georgette Heyer, but I don’t think there’s any question she’s playing in the same league, as an artist, as George Eliot. (And I say that as someone who’ll probably never read Daniel Deronda again, but may well re-read The Grand Sophy.) But I’m having a really hard time understanding what the SBTB debate over antisemitism in The Grand Sophy has to do with the “mistorical” tag. No question Heyer’s portrayal of Goldhanger is both inartful and offensive. I would snap up the deconstruction proposed by whoever it was who came up with “The Goldhanger Inheritance” in that thread. But I just don’t see how Goldhanger’s presence in The Grand Sophy would justify appending a “mistorical” tag to The Grand Sophy. The discussion at SBTB about whether the book deserved an “F” for its inclusion of the Goldhanger Incident (there’s a title for the new series right there), and whether Heyer’s own historical position mitigates her anti-Semitism, involves a completely separate issue from the historical accuracy of The Grand Sophy itself.

    On a related note, I once saw a spread in Architectural Digest, or Traditional Home, or one of those house-porn rags about a Paul Williams house in LA that was what I can only describe as “Deco-Georgian.” It was a beautiful house, and it blended the Georgian and Deco elements in a subtle way. In Severance Hall in Cleveland, there’s a little theatre underneath the main auditorium that has painted vignettes on the wall that are similarly Deco-Georgian. It’s always seemed to me that early Heyer (The Black Moth, These Old Shades) is kind of Deco-Georgian too. The Grand Sophy isn’t deco-Regency, but maybe it’s 50′s regency in the same sense. (“New Look” Regency, maybe?) A historical novel, whether it’s An Infamous Army or Vanity Fair, always and necessarily implicates both the era of its setting and the era of its creation.

    Somebody way up-thread mentioned that the Victorian era isn’t as familiar to us as romance readers as Regency is, and that struck me as odd, since there are way more Victorian novels in print than there are Regency ones. But maybe the reason is that while there’s plenty of Dickens and Collins and Trollope and Gaskell and Eliot, there isn’t any twentieth- or twenty-first-century romance author who’s reinterpreted the era in genre-romance style for us the way Heyer interpreted the Regency. (The closest I can think of are the Gothic writers like Victoria Holt.) Maybe the existence of so many strong writers like Dickens and Collins and Trollope and Gaskell and Eliot and so on make that harder, rather than easier, to do. And maybe it’s time for someone to go back and really reinvent the Regency romance from a twenty-first century perspective from scratch, looking at the contemporary sources as if Heyer never existed. We could have romances that involved a Cit and a barmaid, or a country squire and farmer’s daughter (or a squire’s daughter and a prosperous farmer), or all sorts of people who just didn’t appear on Heyer’s radar-screen as potential heroes/heroines. Those are fundamental issues that the creation of a tag like “mistorical” can’t really get at, and is perhaps a harmful distraction from.

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  5. Maili
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 04:33:47

    @Jessica:

    I can argue the other way from my own armchair, based on my own experiences as a reader and blogger, and we really won’t get any closer to the truth about how most romance readers use the “history” in historical romance.

    Hm, that’s true. For what it’s worth – between 1970s and 1990s, we have had quite a few visiting our area for (for instance):

    - “Summerisle” from the book and the film The Wicker Man (it was filmed 100 miles down, south west, and our Summer Isles have *nothing* to do with “Summerisle” in Robin’s book, but we had up to 200 people per year trying to find it in our region)
    - locations of Dennis Wheatley’s occult novels (probably my favourite because we had some really odd tourists including the ones who dressed up like their apparent idol Aleister Crowley AKA the “Laird of Boleskine”)
    - locations of Mary Stewart and Lucinda Andrews’s contemporary romance novels
    - locations of Hannah Howell’s historical romances
    - locations of Nigel Tranter’s historical novels
    - locations of Highlander (film and TV series)
    - locations of The 39 Steps (film and book)
    - locations of numerous books and films for neo-pagans and wiccans
    - locations of a mysterious film we couldn’t identify, but a LOT of Polish tourists came for those
    - locations of Braveheart (it was filmed in Ireland)
    - locations used in Dorothy Dunnett’s series and Diana Gabaldon’s Cross Stitch/Outlander (including “Outlander Tour”, “Diana Gabaldon’s Scotland”, “Medieval Scotland Tour”, “Dorothy Dunnett’s Scotland”, “Scottish Castles Tour” and the most popular – “Romance of the Glens Tour” (I think) by an American travel company in association with Romantic Times magazine).

    My aunt tells me that quite a few people have rambled around for the locations of The Eagle (2010). At least this time, The Eagle was actually filmed there. Hurray!

    So yes, my experiences tell me that there is quite a few people who take entertainment seriously enough to believe whatever is portrayed on screen or in fiction exists in real life.

    Sorry for bringing down the general IQ a notch or two with this, but there you go.

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  6. Cait London
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 06:46:15

    Interesting. Switching now from regency to the popularity of western romances and then a time when no publisher would buy them.

    I wrote them early on, using Interlibrary loan newspapers for dialogue, clothing, etc., as well as diaries, and whatever I could find. The language is beautiful/elegant. Who wouldn’t love cowboys sitting around a campfire and discussing their newspaper soap opera, the Romanoffs, or starting bar fights over too much Home on the Range.

    But I stopped reading them when the market became inundated w/poor research on settings, misdated words, and the stories weren’t strong enough to overlook those errors. I think I could have overlooked those errors, if the stories held more substance. Publishers glutted the market w/whatever, basically.

    As for stiff character dialogue, mentioned earlier, I enjoy the formality. A regency writer who handles this well, maintaining the story uppermost, is Carla Kelley, an easy read for a non-regency fan.

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  7. DM
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 07:32:56

    @ Linda Hilton

    Apologies. I wasn’t paying close attention to the spelling of your name. That was discourteous. However, I was paying close attention to your facts, which were wrong.

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  8. Las
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 07:48:59

    Damn, this thread just exploded.

    @Evangeline Holland:Thanks for heads up on Mrs. Giggles post…I’ll be looking that up.

    You’re comment reminded me of something about my own preferences. While I don’t care too much about historical accuracy and find a lot of the arguments tedious, I very much do care about depictions of race and class, and thing that I consider inaccuracies in those will often take me right out of a story.

    I love old Susan Johnson books, but one thing that annoyed me about a lot of her stories is that she often portrayed the h/h being best buds with their servants, with those servants being invested in the h/h lives to the point of working behind the scenes to ensure that the h/h got their HEA.. Several years ago at AAR someone started a thread about that, and I mentioned the Susan Johnson books. One memorable response was from a poster pointing out that that wasn’t so unusual, and her proof was some letters from a governess to her friends, showing that she was pretty friendly with her employers. See, a primary source proving that servants totally loving their employers like family wasn’t unheard of!

    And THAT is what I often see in these discussion about historical accuracy…people showing off their researching and wikipedia skills. Give them a book that’s “historically accurate” in the titles and dates department but either glosses over or flat out lie about the harsher truths about the time period and it’s all good. Ask them to read a story that treats those issues honestly and they become uncomfortable and dislike the book because the h/h were “unsympathetic.” Because while everyone loves to feel intellectually superior, no on likes the squirmy discomfort of having to examine their privilege. Remember the movie The Patriot, about a white southern land owner who didn’t own slaves? That’s right–all his servants were black, but they worked as freemen. Because our hero was just THAT awesome. (Most people hated Mel Gibson after he cam out as a racist and abuser, but The Patriot was what did it for me.) I see that kind of thing in romance a lot, and it’s why I’m wary of white authors writing POC characters, and why I have a hard time understanding people’s insistence on historical accuracy, when the reality is that most of history really sucked for the vast majority of people. But ignoring that elephant is perfectly fine.

    It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this plays out with the “mistorical” tag. I’ll be impressed if a historical with all the technical details correct gets that label for being dismissive of the harsh realities of life for indigenous peoples, POCs, and the poor.

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  9. Sunita
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 07:58:15

    @Evangeline Holland: You raise some great points, but I also have a couple of quibbles.

    For all we know, Georgette Heyer’s meticulous research was or is not as thorough as it could have been because we have access to information she did not.

    I’m sure we have now access to information she didn’t have, just because of scholarship and newly discovered materials. But if we believe the biographical stories about her, she was very proud of her research. She also lived much of her life within walking distance of(or at worst, a local bus ride to) the British Library. So of all the writers we talk about, she had the easiest access to a vast repository of primary and secondary sources.

    With historical romance, most authors are American, and they are writing for a largely American audience.

    This has historically (sorry!) been true, but it is less true today, at least as far as audience is concerned. Which is part of the issue. When you write a book set in a colonial country, or unthinkingly reproduce class/race/colonial tropes, there are people reading it who notice, whether they’re academically inclined or not. So it’s not only that the online world offers a forum for these discussions; the audience is heterogeneous in different ways than it used to be.

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  10. Maili
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 07:58:17

    @Las: I have to say, I’m with you on all that–especially class. Heh.

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  11. Sunita
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:11:03

    Laura Vivanco at Teach Me Tonight has written a post that tackles the “do we read historical fiction/romance for edification” issue. As usual, it’s well worth reading:

    http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2011/09/pleasures-and-possibilities-of-history.html

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  12. Jill Sorenson
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:26:16

    There are some great arguments here against the mistorical term, but I think that reviewers should use whatever tags they feel comfortable with. It isn’t my place to tell readers how to label or mentally process my books. I’m not a fan of the TSTL term, which has been applied to my characters. I wouldn’t love it if one of my books was tagged “romantic suckspense” and regarded as too flawed/poorly researched to qualify as real romantic suspense. But I stand by reviewers’ rights to use terms like this when they feel it is appropriate. And I will keep trying to write books that get more favorable reactions/labels.

    I still think we should vote.

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  13. DM
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:30:23

    @Evangeline Holland

    I agree that research is much easier today than it was for authors of the past, but I actually feel that this makes the distinction between painstakingly researched historicals and their less diligent counterparts greater. Sure, it was a lot harder to write with the depth of detail of Dorothy Dunnett or George MacDonald Fraser in the 1960s. Not to mention the genius it takes–scarce at any time–to translate dry detail into vivid storytelling. But it could be done. And I realize that both those authors fall outside the RWA definition of romance, but I think they’re fair game considering their influence on more recent romance writers.

    Should historical romance then be a study and/or critique of life in the past a la Mad Men? Or is it just what it is: a romance novel set in the past, where certain plots, conflicts, and characters logically exist?

    I think some of our best books are both.

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  14. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:33:43

    Thanks for mentioning it, Sunita. As is probably rather obvious, it was sparked off by the discussion here but I felt it was (a) too long for a comment and (b) not directly about the “mistorical” tag so I took it over to TMT.

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  15. Jill Sorenson
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:40:37

    Oh, and I agree with @Jessica about Heyer. I’d never heard of her before I came online. I also believe that most readers think they are reading accurate historical details in HR. I did/do, and it takes a jarring mistake to convince me otherwise.

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  16. Susanna Kearsley
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 08:46:16

    @etv13: That’s OK.

    I wasn’t saying Heyer’s TGS deserved the “mistorical” label. I enjoy Heyer as much as the next person.

    I was only replying directly to Robin’s comment #171, which is actually part of a separate discussion.

    In her original post, Robin raised two different points. We all hopped on the first one–the “mistorical” label–and started debating it. She gamely tried, now and then, to re-introduce the second point, which we kept ignoring.

    That’s the subject she and I were referencing, which may be why it struck you as being out of context.

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  17. dick
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 09:21:17

    Having read every post, thought through every thought, pondered, I’ve come to the conclusion that this entire matter is simply silly. Fiction is NEVER accurate. That’s why it’s called fiction.

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  18. Klio
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 09:32:01

    As a blog tag: Couldn’t care less. Non-issue. As long as I can use tags to find what I’m looking for, and understand the bloggers’ personal use of the tags. I especially enjoy blogs that create additional tongue-in-cheek tags on the fly.

    As a genre-sweeping term: Really? The fast spread of memes on the Internet can make us feel timid and tentative. And if the term spreads, what does it matter if authorial feelings are hurt or readers feel a beloved author is mischaracterised? You’ll just know how the reviewer’s opinion compares to your own and you can weigh the review accordingly. I think of Kirkus reviews when they’re in a bad mood. Owtch. And they have big influence in my industry. Meanies.

    Broader discussion about historical accuracy: Too much to respond to in the time I have right now. But something I think about daily. I look forward to absorbing all the comments and seeing if I have anything to contribute.

    mythorical: J’adore this term. Can’t find the comment that brought it up. May need to abscond with it.

    Entire thread: didn’t finish reading, hope I’m not sounding silly because of that, am planning to read the rest of the comments as soon as I can. It’s fascinating.

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  19. Sunita
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 10:15:58

    @etv13:

    Somebody way up-thread mentioned that the Victorian era isn’t as familiar to us as romance readers as Regency is, and that struck me as odd, since there are way more Victorian novels in print than there are Regency ones.

    Yeah, that comment struck me as well.

    But maybe the reason is that while there’s plenty of Dickens and Collins and Trollope and Gaskell and Eliot, there isn’t any twentieth- or twenty-first-century romance author who’s reinterpreted the era in genre-romance style for us the way Heyer interpreted the Regency.

    There were writers in Fawcett’s romance line who wrote Victorian and Edwardian novels, like Mary Ann Gibbs. And Marion Chesney wrote turn-of-the-century novels as Jennie Tremayne. But they never caught on in the same way. Heyer really cornered part of the romance market to an amazing degree. I do think that the fact that she came out in hardcover and wound up in libraries (in both hardback and paper) meant that her books had a wider reach. And, of course, respected authors like AS Byatt wrote articles about her books, which lent her a legitimacy that many paper-first romance authors didn’t receive.

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  20. anu
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 11:20:11

    @Las:

    I see that kind of thing in romance a lot, and it’s why I’m wary of white authors writing POC characters, and why I have a hard time understanding people’s insistence on historical accuracy, when the reality is that most of history really sucked for the vast majority of people.

    This sentence helps me clarify and work through my own thoughts, and I want to expand on your idea. I think I’m wary of people from one culture – I’m encompassing a lot with that term including socioeconomic, gendered, and historical culture – writing about people from another culture. It’s why I’m hesitant to read Native American romances or romances that factor in non-white settings, h/h or other main characters. But it’s also why I kinda loathe Bollywood movies that depict Western culture or Westerners, including overseas Indians.

    These narratives are only interested in the Other to the extent that they’re vehicles for the main characters – whether to express their fabulosity, move their story, or otherwise comment on their own culture, society, etc. The Other is just a means to work out the main characters’ own stuff.

    This is especially so in genre because the stories come in with a specific agenda – i.e., H/H are awesome enlightened humanists = deserving HEA. So then the Other’s portrayal is irrelevant: They can be one-dimensional at best or outright insulting at worst because their existence is solely in service to the H/H advancement.

    I am not at all saying white authors can’t write POV or Bollywood can’t include Westerners. But I think my nervous twitch about the whole thing would subside if the stories focused on the main characters’ encounters with the Other (and the Others’ encounters with the mains) with an awareness of the disparity between them. That they don’t know each other, that they do come from different cultures, that there is privilege at work in their dynamic.

    But that would mean ambiguity, unpredictable interactions, unresolved character threads – and I’m not sure such complexity in human interactions fits with romance’s (or Bollywood’s) agenda.

    And too – what exactly am I asking the author to do? I don’t know – maybe I’d know it when I see it in a story?, Would I buy that h/h? Or would such awareness from them pull me out of the story because it’s seems too contemporary?

    ****Posters should correct me if I’m wrong about the Other in romance novels or Bollywood movies. I’m not much involved in either anymore, so things could certainly have changed in the last four or five years.****

    It’ll certainly be interesting to see how this plays out with the “mistorical” tag. I’ll be impressed if a historical with all the technical details correct gets that label for being dismissive of the harsh realities of life for indigenous peoples, POCs, and the poor.

    Does glossing over harsh realities = inaccuracy or inauthenticity? I’m thinking of Mad Men here – black characters are marginal to the stories that MM cares about. That’s a choice the show actively makes. Is the show inauthentic because of the choice? I don’t think so.

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  21. Las
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 12:22:37

    @anu:
    But that would mean ambiguity, unpredictable interactions, unresolved character threads – and I’m not sure such complexity in human interactions fits with romance’s (or Bollywood’s) agenda.

    That sums things up really well.

    Does glossing over harsh realities = inaccuracy or inauthenticity? I’m thinking of Mad Men here – black characters are marginal to the stories that MM cares about. That’s a choice the show actively makes. Is the show inauthentic because of the choice? I don’t think so.

    I haven’t watched MM, but from what you describe I probably wouldn’t describe it as inauthentic. It would certainly stand out to me, but since the main characters are white and, I’m assuming, privileged in other ways, it makes sense that the issues at that time surrounding race wouldn’t affect them. I don’t like it, mind you, and unless every other aspect of the show were truly spectacular it would be enough to keep me from watching it, but I wouldn’t call the show inauthentic because of it. And keeping black characters at the margins, I feel, is preferable to doing a lousy job, either by glossing over the issues of the time or hitting us over the head with the story by making the “good” white people being all nice and progressive regarding civil rights and the “bad” white people being openly racist. I hate morality plays. YMMV

    The same applies to romance. If a main character is a POC, the can’t be ignored. And there’s a hell of a lot of to consider when portraying a POC character, like you mentioned, especially in historical settings. If the POC (or poor) are supporting characters then there doesn’t have to be that level of detail, but there has to be some subtext there. Don’t portray a plantation-owning American living in South Carolina as not having slaves (or allowing them to work for their freedom, like one book I read), for example. Among a whole lot of other things, it’s unforgivably lazy writing.

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  22. Robin/Janet
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 12:41:32

    Before I respond to specific comments, I was thinking last night about how detailed, thoughtful, and nuanced these discussions about historical accuracy can get (and have gotten here). And I wanted to ask everyone a question (I haven’t even formulated an answer for myself, so I’ll be interested if anyone wants to answer if for themselves):

    Do you think, as a whole, the Historical Romance subgenre is as thoughtfully nuanced as discussions such as this one? Because if so, then maybe we don’t need to have these discussions anymore?

    But in any case, is it possible to think about historicity on several levels? That is, a) a baseline level of surface details first, b) then a more difficult level of cultural mores and questions of did v. could, and c) then issues of authorial filter and the cultural limitations of looking back in time?

    I know for myself that the mistorical tag is probably going to be applied for books that are notably and noticeably anachronistic and off to me. And the “off” is probably going to be largely on the surface. Because by the time I get to the more subtle questions with a book, I’ve already, to some degree, been pulled in by thoughtful enough worldbuilding in order to engage those questions at all. Someone above mentioned Susan Johnson and her historically inaccurate portrayal of servant-employer relationships. On the flip side, though, IMO she writes some of the most nuanced, non-exoticized Native American characters (especially in Forbidden and Pure Sin) in the genre. AND she doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of racism and bigotry in her depictions.

    Also, there are plenty of books that I’d think of as mistorical that will still suck me in with characterization, emotion, etc. (like the Julie Anne Long book I loved so much despite the errors that have been detailed to me by people who know way more about the Regency than I do), so for me, at least, the mistorical tag isn’t about the quality of the book *as a Romance*, which is often the bottom line for readers.

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  23. Robin/Janet
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 12:53:19

    @DM:
    Evangeline Holland: Should historical romance then be a study and/or critique of life in the past a la Mad Men? Or is it just what it is: a romance novel set in the past, where certain plots, conflicts, and characters logically exist?

    DM: I think some of our best books are both.

    Absolutely. In fact, I was thinking about one of Romance’s literary progenitors, Classical Comedy, in which you have a pair of lovers who represent a new social order pitted against an antagonist who represents the old order (this is why some people refer to Romeo and Juliet as a failed Comedy). The triumph of the couple’s love and their marriage at the end (standard in the genre) demonstrate the health and vitality of the new social order, often connected to independence, happiness, and progress.

    So even in Classical Comedy there was cultural and even political work being done, and I think the core of that work has filtered into Romance. You especially see this in HR, where the hero and heroine seem to represent more progressive attitudes than their elders, and they often have to overcome a barrier that tests their love and makes triumphant their more progressive values.

    This is another reason I diverge from @lazaraspaste’s IMO somewhat artificial distinction between reality as reflected and as created (i.e. realism v. fantasy), although I agree that there is always going to be an element of recreation, reconstruction, and filtered representation in HR. It’s just that I don’t believe those filters make it impossible for us to glimpse another reality, especially when we’re working from a shared set of filters.

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  24. Las
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 12:55:54

    Do you think, as a whole, the Historical Romance subgenre is as thoughtfully nuanced as discussions such as this one? Because if so, then maybe we don’t need to have these discussions anymore?

    I don’t think any subgenre in Romance is particularly nuanced. And, frankly, I doubt many HRs that were truly nuanced and authentic on all levels would be popular. Any unresolved messiness–and if a book that was tackling a complicated subject were truly nuanced, there would be unresolved issues in the end–would interfere with the HEA. And I don’t mean to be snarky with that…people start reading a romance expecting it all to work out in the end, and a romance that doesn’t deliver on that will not go over well.

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  25. Robin/Janet
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 13:03:09

    @Las: Wait, are you saying that there isn’t anything inherently romantic about the past? Or that people didn’t fall in love? How does that differ from Contemporary Romance, then? Why is it different?

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  26. DM
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 13:22:10

    @Robin/Janet

    I’m with you on the Classical Comedy antecedents. I should make a nickel jar for every time I read a romance that owes a nod to Plautus or Terence.

    On the question of the historical romance genre as a whole, and how nuanced it is, I would say that it is just like every other genre and it follows Sturgeon’s law: 99% of everything is crap. But that 1% that is superlative is packed with nuanced books. Admittedly, as Las points out, they are messy, complicated books, and their HEA’s deviate from convention. Sherry Thomas’ Not Quite a Husband is masterful on so many levels, and in the hands of a lesser storyteller, the HEA might have failed to satisfy, but because Thomas crafted individuals living at a specific point in time, caught up in specific events, their idiosyncratic happily ever after (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here) delivers a powerful emotional punch–even though the ending does not reward the characters with all of the traditional romance symbols of happiness.

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  27. Robin/Janet
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 13:36:05

    @DM: Sherry Thomas is a great example. I was thinking about one of my favorite HR novels, too, Judith Ivory’s Black Silk. And I think Courtney Milan does a great job of creating a compelling historical setting while not violating certain expected genre norms.

    I think what frustrates me in these discussions is this ‘all or nothing’ polarization that seems to develop. As if historical reality is this impenetrable veil, and we shouldn’t even try v. every detail has to be pristine and correct or it can’t be called accurate/authentic. Whereas it seems to me that there’s an incredible amount of ground in between.

    And maybe it’s the same with genre norms, too. Intellectually I feel that there is so much structural flexibility in the genre and yet so much narrowness, too, and I can’t figure out what’s driving it. But I remember when I first started reading the genre and how I could barely touch contemps b/c the sexual politics were so overt to me. So it’s still somewhat uncomfortable to me to privilege contemp “reality” as legitimate over historical reality. Although this may be a filter issue, again, since I’ve become an avid contemp reader, as well.

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  28. Las
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 13:38:56

    @Robin/Janet: No, not at all.
    I was still thinking about historical accuracy with regards to issues of class, racism, sexism, etc. when I responded to your comment.I meant that with all the various issues to be tackled in a historical-whether they directly affect the H/H or not–that sets out to be as authentic as possible, there’s going to be at least some ambiguity with how those issues are resolved. The H/H will get their happy ending, sure, but if any tough issues are honestly presented in the story there’s going to be what many would consider downers. I don’t think most readers would be happy with reality interfering with their romance. Like with Duran’s A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal that was previously mentioned. Readers complained about the realistic depiction of poverty, because it’s a downer. They would prefer it if the issue was glossed over, because it sucks to think about just how difficult it was for the poor in that (and any) world.

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  29. Linda Hilton
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 14:51:34

    @Robin/Janet: When you wrote: I think what frustrates me in these discussions is this ‘all or nothing’ polarization that seems to develop. As if historical reality is this impenetrable veil, and we shouldn’t even try v. every detail has to be pristine and correct or it can’t be called accurate/authentic. Whereas it seems to me that there’s an incredible amount of ground in between. . . . my first thought was that this should have gone in the OP.

    What the OP did, imho, was to announce the new tag without really defining it, and announcing that it was going to be controversial, and putting the emphasis on accuracy. So it takes 220+ responses to get to a point where well, gee, maybe there’s got to be some leeway ’cause sometimes HRs are nuanced to balance between absolute accuracy and what the readers want etc., etc., etc.. . . . and that’s kinda like D’UH!

    And that’s okay because it sparked lively debate and so on and we all learned that the term “space opera” is equivalent to “crap” and we should never ever ever refer to anything as a well-written “space opera” even if some people say the term “didn’t always” refer to something good but because it was once used to denigrate some forms of science fiction it can never be used any other way.

    But now we get into this discussion of how much accuracy needs to be in HR, which implies that maybe some inaccuracy is all right, or at least something less than 100% accuracy by means of omitting some of the details. And then we start in on whether or not white middle class American women should be allowed to write about POC characters because white middle class American women have never walked in the shoes of a 17th century Irish indentured servant or a lower caste Hindu woman living under British colonial rule or a mulatto slave on a Mississippi cotton plantation. But how many of us white middle class American women have walked in the shoes of a Regency duchess or a Georgian courtesan or a 12th century Crusader’s wife or a Kansas sodbuster or any of other thousands of characters we’ve created? We white middle class American women write about male characters all the time, in male POV, but I guess we need to stop doing that too.

    And where’s the criticism/discussion of how issues of race and class and gender, sexism, ageism, are handled in contemporary romances, or even in PNRs? I’m assuming there have been discussions of this, but I’m not sure. I read almost no contemps, and those issues are the main reason — I have an almost impossible time dealing with the way they’re dealt with (or more often not dealt with) in contemporary romance. But if the issue of accuracy/authenticity/historicity is so important to HRs that it warrants a special tag, is it not equally important in contemps? Or is the reader simply expected to understand that the sheikh and his virgin bride are imaginary, the billionnaire baby daddy is a fantasy, and there’s no connection whatsoever between the world depicted in a Harlequin and the real world? Because if the readers of contemporary romances are deemed smart enough to make that distinction, why do the readers of historical romances have to be protected against bad info?

    And again, the disclaimer that I have never read very many contemps, most of what I did read was romantic suspense, and probably haven’t read a single one in the past 10-15 years.

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  30. Robin/Janet
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 15:16:15

    @Las: Oh, I see what you’re saying now; thanks for clarifying.

    I have been thinking about some of my favorite Romances, and I hit on Candice Proctor’s Whispers of Heaven. That is DEFINITELY a book that contains a lot of unresolved hardship, including for the hero and heroine. Having read it before I was really involved in the online community, I’m not sure how it was received by readers. But for me, at least, there was something profoundly and poignantly romantic about the fact that not everything was tied up in a neat little bow. Although there are definitely times I like the all tied up stories, too.

    Now, though, I’m wondering whether readers are more or less likely to want ambiguous contemporary Romances, or whether this is an issue specific to HR.

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  31. Linda Hilton
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 15:37:23

    @Robin/Janet: Regarding contemporary romances and tied up ends — I just wrote a long post about that specific issue and the great beast of the internet ate it, but oh, well. I didn’t know if similar issues had been discussed regarding contemporaries, and if not, why not.

    The disclaimer, of course, is that I almost never read contemps. With the exception of a handful of romantic suspense novels published pretty much outside the genre, I probably haven’t read a comtemporary romance in at least 10 years, and never read very many of them. And one of the reasons was that I couldn’t get past the variety of biases and the superficiality and the cloying neatness. The (few) reviews I’ve read in the six months or so since I even came back to the romance community have not encouraged me to dip my toes in that particular ocean. But I do not consider myself a typical romance reader by any means; I’m sure I’d skew the scale on just about any topic.

    But the reviews and discussions I have read suggest to me, as an outsider to that subgenre, that controversial issues like racism, classism (billionnaire baby daddies????), etc., are not examined with any great depth in contemps very often, or if they are it’s from a different perspective than I’m likely to find sympathetic, and for that reason they aren’t likely to interest me so maybe I should just STFU.

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  32. Lazaraspaste
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 17:12:43

    @Robin, just to clarify my earlier comments.

    I was not making a distinction about reality v. fantasy. Rather, I was arguing about how and what narrative can represent? Does all art need to represent the real? Is it even possible to represent the real? I think that it is a distinction between realism versus idealism as means of represention, not a choice between reality and fantasy, which I think are different concepts than the ones I was discussing. Because, of course, realism is not reality. It is a representation of reality.

    Fundamentally, I suppose I believe that reality is always filtered through subjectivity and language and as such we are always at a remove from realily even before we try to represent that reality in something like fiction or art. And because of this, historical accuracy is particularly problematic. Which, granted, may be a totally different issue than the one you were trying to talk about, but it was the problem of representation itself I was attempting to address. Is realism (and I include hist. accuracy or authenticity in realism) necessary for good storytelling?

    That may or may not make things clearer. I certainly wasn’t saying that one cannot attempt to represent reality, only that depicting the ideal is not any less of a valid narrative choice than choosing to depict the real.

    Which, again, may be an entirely different (although I think related) conversation than the one you were trying to have.

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  33. Evangeline Holland
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 17:54:35

    @Sunita:

    I’m sure we have now access to information she didn’t have, just because of scholarship and newly discovered materials. But if we believe the biographical stories about her, she was very proud of her research. She also lived much of her life within walking distance of(or at worst, a local bus ride to) the British Library. So of all the writers we talk about, she had the easiest access to a vast repository of primary and secondary sources.

    True, but I counter that to say Heyer’s version of the Regency is also tempered by the period of her upbringing, the limitations of what could be published or what publishers wanted, and no doubt the influence of the second wave of romanticism of Regency and Jane Austen in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras (the first wave is the popularity of “silver fork novels” in the 1820s and 1830s). Heyer strove for accuracy, but it was still her measure of accuracy.

    This has historically (sorry!) been true, but it is less true today, at least as far as audience is concerned. Which is part of the issue. When you write a book set in a colonial country, or unthinkingly reproduce class/race/colonial tropes, there are people reading it who notice, whether they’re academically inclined or not. So it’s not only that the online world offers a forum for these discussions; the audience is heterogeneous in different ways than it used to be.

    I agree, but American culture dominates the genre, and the choices many authors–and publishers–make largely stem from that reality.

    @Las: RE: Mad Men – I avoided the show like the plague until recently because of Weiner’s stylistic choice to marginalize black people. Even though I have discovered the show to be much more nuanced and thought-provoking, I am still aggravated with this choice since despite evidence to the contrary (Hello, Pete reading an issue of Ebony!)–and many discussions about the issue, many fans have taken his view of black folks in the 1960s as fact.

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  34. Evangeline Holland
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 18:04:07

    @Robin/Janet:

    So even in Classical Comedy there was cultural and even political work being done, and I think the core of that work has filtered into Romance. You especially see this in HR, where the hero and heroine seem to represent more progressive attitudes than their elders, and they often have to overcome a barrier that tests their love and makes triumphant their more progressive values.

    Ah, see, I find this to be the most superficial aspect of historical romance. We rarely see the protagonists grow in this area–they begin fully formed as interested in the welfare of the poor, or fighting against slavery, or championing women’s rights, etc. It rare to see the origin of their beliefs or the social movements which influence them, or to see them suffer the results of being an outlier, or the internal conflict of reconciling their aristocratic upbringing with their socio-political values, or even leaving their normal society to find people who share their values and/or beliefs. In fact, the HEA mostly pulls them back into the mores or social set from whence they came!

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  35. anu
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 18:45:35

    @Evangeline Holland:

    In fact, the HEA mostly pulls them back into the mores or social set from whence they came!

    This is my sense also. But I think it’s really about assuaging *our* mores – the HEA co-opts our modern liberal values and folds them into long-held ideas of happily-ever-after of a rich and aristocratic ride into the sunset.

    That’s especially true of heroes, who often begin as outsiders and become part of society thanks to the love of a good woman -I’m reminded of Derek from Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You. And his heroine Sara makes it go down all smooth and easy for us: She’s rich, goes to balls, lives in a big house, etc. – but it’s all okay because she speechifies about the plight of the poor.

    This is soothing and satisfying for us modern readers. The HEA settles the h/h within society’s ruling class *and* soothes our modern liberal qualms about such a status with a few progressive gestures.

    @Sunita: Thanks for the open bar! I’m a total lightweight with the drinking, though, so feel free to invite the whole site to join in.

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  36. Linda Hilton
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 19:05:30

    @Evangeline Holland:

    And yet on the other hand I think there are many historical romances where concerns for the poor or other “progressive” ideals aren’t even mentioned. A much more conservative status quo is depicted and ultimately preserved. That, too, is a political agenda, isn’t it?

    We can’t all write Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle or The Women’s Room. (Recognizing, of course, that all three were written as “contemporary” fiction, not historical.) Instead we try — some of us, at least — to write maybe about a woman who is terrified of being dependent on relatives for the rest of her life and when given a chance at financial independence, feels she has to exclude all hope of love and companionship. She discovers/learns through the course of the story that independence and love aren’t mutually exclusive, and that with the right man who respects her needs and values her accomplishments, she can have both. (And we hoped we didn’t get an editor who would gut it or give it a sappy title or crappy cover. She only did two of the three.)

    So okay, maybe it’s not all that revolutionary, but there was only one Uncle Tom’s Cabin; there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of romance novels. If each carried just one little kernel of revolution, could change be effected?

    I don’t think the HR equivalent of The Jungle could have been published in the past 40 years. Today, with the advent of digital self-publishing, maybe. Is anyone writing it? Besides me, that is. ;-)

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  37. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 19:20:09

    To get back to the point:

    I prefer my historical romances to have some history in them. I want to be transported to another time and I want to trust the author to get it mostly right, certainly the major plot points and the characters in the story.

    Other people aren’t so bothered. They want an engrossing romance, but don’t really care about the details.

    I would love a way of telling one from the other, so I can stop wasting my money on books I’m not going to enjoy. At the moment there is no way of telling the difference unless there’s something in the blurb. Even some samples can be misleading – they start fine, and then go into la-la territory.

    But I don’t want to make anyone who wants a light read feel discriminated against, inferior or in any way shat on. I just want to know the difference.

    So a label for either or both, or a sub-genre would be dandy. I wanted “fantasy historical,” but if people associate that with a different type of book, fair enough. Maybe “historical romance” and “light historical romance” or something like that.

    But I have to admit to a fondness for “bodicepunk.”

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  38. DM
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 00:01:43

    @Linda Hilton

    And that’s okay because it sparked lively debate and so on and we all learned that the term “space opera” is equivalent to “crap” and we should never ever ever refer to anything as a well-written “space opera” even if some people say the term “didn’t always” refer to something good but because it was once used to denigrate some forms of science fiction it can never be used any other way.

    Just to clarify, the concern was raised that mistorical could be a pejorative term. I pointed out that space opera was originally a pejorative term, but grew into a descriptive term, and the type of criticism that originally coined the pejorative term actually fostered the growth of the genre beyond the confines of a narrow, gendered audience. I never said it can never be used in any other than a pejorative sense. My point was that the use of the term had changed dramatically. Your response actually illustrated this–that someone without detailed knowledge of the genre wasn’t even aware of its pejorative origins.

    The whole comparison was in aid of saying: pejorative terminology won’t weaken the romance genre. It will strengthen it. Science fiction wasn’t crippled by pejorative terminology. Science fiction was strengthened by it. Criticism doesn’t weaken the arts–it fosters growth. There’s a reason why the Iowa workshop model is so widely used by writers both in formal (fine arts programs) and informal (writers groups, critique pairings) settings–it works.

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  39. Linda Hilton
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 09:06:22

    My apologies to all for hashing this out, but I don’t know how to do it privately.

    @DM:

    You wrote –

    Science fiction was once where romance is now. It was published by specialized presses, marketed to one gender, and identified by a distinctive style of cover art that evolved over time. Today, outstanding science fiction is recognized as just plain good literature, it is read widely by both genders, and classic titles are optioned and re-optioned and adapted and remade by Hollywood ad finitum. Science fiction didn’t shrink from making distinctions that some authors no doubt felt were pejorative. Space opera was not always a flattering term. Hard science fiction was felt to be more authentic than soft science fiction. Readers gravitated to the best titles, soft or hard, space opera or earth bound dystopian, that suited their individual tastes. And those books broke out and found their way to the wider reading public.

    I responded with:
    “Space opera” is a classification by type, not by quality. For a reviewer to sneer at an author’s latest offering as “space opera” might suggest the subgenre doesn’t merit a second glance, but it doesn’t in and of itself imply the writing (research, characterization, the actual science) in that particular book is faulty. One could (and can) write a “space opera” masterpiece or just more “space opera” dreck.

    You then assumed I didn’t know the history of the term and that I was unfamiliar with science fiction, and your response was unnecessarily snarky, rude, and discourteous –


    Unfortunately, like some historical romance authors, you failed to check your facts. And you didn’t need to look far. Space opera has its own page on Wikpedia. If you’d bothered to google, you would have discovered that:

    The problem with your response is that I wasn’t citing the history of the term “space opera,” which as you explicitly stated “Was not always a flattering term.” I’m the one who said it is — present tense — a descriptive term for a classification by type of SF, thus implying (but apparently not clearly enough) that the term “space opera” in and of itself, as two recognizeable and reasonably familiar words, does not contain inherent disparagement. When I threw out the phrase in conversation with the SO yesterday afternoon — he had never heard it before and does not read or watch very much SF at all — and asked him what the phrase suggested to him, his instant response was “2001,” but only because that’s the first “space” movie that came to his mind. There was no immediate negative reaction, because the basic meaning of the words isn’t negative. Even someone without a background in SF, like him, could grasp a basic meaning without the quality connotation because he knows what the words mean.

    The word proposed here, on the other hand, is a manufactured word with a distinctly negative first syllable. If I tell one of my reader friends I’m reading a book of that kind, they will have to ask me what that means, and I will have to explain to them that it’s a book with mistakes, errors, wrong information. The inherent meaning of the word is negative, which “space” and “opera” are not.

    Nor did I ever suggest the HR subgenre wouldn’t or couldn’t grow if it receives criticism. I’ve been criticizing its shortcomings for a good many years. But I’ve also defended the genre — if not necessarily individual books — against the pejorative and inaccurately applied labels it’s received from uninformed critics, both those inside the romance community and outside (including the professors who held my degree in their hands). I don’t think this new term does anything to bring respect to the genre; I think in fact it detracts from serious criticism.

    As for your comment regarding publishers of SF and publishers of HR: Historical romance was a staple of mainstream hardcover and paperback publishers for years and years and years before Harlequin/Mills & Boon became a specialized publisher of romance; the books were standard fare for book club reprints. That’s how I acquired my 1940s and 1950s editions of Yerby and Wellman, Westcott and White, Shellabarger and van Wyck Mason and Marshall, Marian Castle, Laverne Gay, et alia. And even Harlequin started out publishing other genres, including westerns, as well.

    Right now sitting on my desk is a 1974 Fawcett Crest edition of Red Adam’s Lady. Fawcett was not a specialized paperback publisher of HR. Woodiwiss sent her original manuscript to editor Nancy Coffey at Avon because Avon was an established paperback house. I have 1940s editions of Pocket Books (Ellery Queen mysteries, among others) that include a note printed on the back cover material “You can send this book to our armed forces overseas for 3 cents.” Dell was around at least in the late ’50s; I own several. Ballantine was a well-established paperback house when they published the authorized edition of LOTR in the mid-1960s — I bought my set when I was in college the first time in 1966 — and then they went on to publish all kinds of stuff besides HR.

    It wasn’t that new publishers sprang up to publish HR — even Leisure and Kensington were publishers of semi-porn before 1972 — so much as they jumped on the profit gravy train of HR after Woodiwiss. Since I don’t see too many HR titles published by DAW or Baen, I’m going to assume those houses at least remain dedicated to SF and fantasy, and perhaps there are others. But I don’t know of any publishers that are dedicated solely to HR. I could be wrong, and I do not claim to be an expert, but only to have some experience to call upon.

    The point being, however, that again “space opera” does not contain an inherent negative, imho, the way the term under current discussion does. The only way to explain the term to the uninformed is to say “it’s a historical romance in which the author got a lot of the history wrong.” I don’t see any way that can ever be made into a non-pejorative descriptor. Yes, it can still be applied to books the reader/reviewer liked even with the mistakes, but the fact that it can’t be defined without reference to negative terms like “mistakes,” “errors,” “wrong,” et c. means that it is less likely imho to become an unfreighted descriptor the way “space opera” has.

    I don’t see how you can accuse me of getting the facts wrong. I stated how the term “space opera” is used today; I did not say it had never been used otherwise, because I knew differently. The same with “horse opera,” and there’s someone in my house who watches those on a regular basis, and I grew up first listening (I had no choice) to “Helen Trent” and “Ma Perkins” and then watching (again, not my choice) “Guiding Light,” “Search for Tomorrow,” “As The World Turns,” “The Edge of Night,” “Days of Our Lives,” etc. because my mother was a devoted (obsessed?) fan. I know what the terms mean and I know where they came from. I think it’s grossly unfair for you to accuse me of getting facts wrong, when I didn’t cite anything inaccurate. I didn’t say “space opera” had never been a pejorative; I knew it had.

    I’m not totally ignorant. My personal library includes enough speculative fiction of a variety of subgenres (Piers Anthony, L. Sprague de Camp, Raymond Feist, “Doc” Savage, Fritz Leiber, Clarke, Niven, Dick, Farmer, Heinlein, etc.) to give me some inkling of its history and nature, and I’m old enough to have seen some of the developments first hand rather than just reading about them.

    (edited to clarify a multiple negative)

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  40. AQ
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 11:32:03

    Where is the criteria link that Dear Author will use to test for historical accuracy? Will a separate document link be provided that shows the reviewer’s results for each review given? Is there a disagree form/button if a reader of your site disagrees with a reviewer’s assessment of ‘historically accurate’ or ‘historically inaccurate?’ How many of the reviewers here at Dear Author are currently qualified to make a ‘historically accurate/inaccurate’ assessment or will they be trained? And if so, then how?

    I certainly understand the desire, but seriously, the amount of criteria needed to make an assessment from a truly ‘historically accurate’ perspective would probably make just about every modern historical romance out there inaccurate to some degree.

    I’ll certainly be watching and interested to see the use of these tags.

    Final thoughts: hubris

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  41. Robin/Janet
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 13:07:52

    @Evangeline Holland: In fact, the HEA mostly pulls them back into the mores or social set from whence they came!

    This is a generalization that I think is unsupportable as an axom in the genre, and the Proctor book I cited in an earlier comment would be my first example. But even if everything you say is true (and for some books it certainly is), the larger point remains, I think, that the genre is doing cultural work. Just like Classical Comedy and fairy tales and all other manner of representational art.

    @Lazaraspaste:
    I was not making a distinction about reality v. fantasy. Rather, I was arguing about how and what narrative can represent? Does all art need to represent the real? Is it even possible to represent the real? I think that it is a distinction between realism versus idealism as means of represention, not a choice between reality and fantasy, which I think are different concepts than the ones I was discussing. Because, of course, realism is not reality. It is a representation of reality.

    I got all that and am sorry if that wasn’t clear in my comments. I am struggling a bit, though, with what I see as a tension in your position (which I’d characterize as Wildean, but that’s partially because of some long-standing views on The Nicomachean Ethics I’d have to revisit with a re-read before I stood firmly behind that characterization) between “art for art’s sake” and the kind of historical criticism Ortega y Gasset, for example, was interested in.

    I like your distinction between what did and what could happen, and I think I can agree with you on that while still having a somewhat different perception of the work of history in HR. But maybe because I’m a bit more of a materialist than you in this regard, for me the cultural work of myth, fairy tale, and literature (all art, actually), makes me unsatisfied with your stopping point re. representation and its uses/meanings/ends/significance. And again, that may be too quick a judgment on my part of an incompletely presented argument of yours, but that’s where I am with it right now. Mostly, and probably most significantly for this discussion, I disagree with your assertion that the mistorical tag privileges history above other aspects of a novel.

    @Linda Hilton: my first thought was that this should have gone in the OP.

    You may be right about that, although that would have made it another OP, one I’ve written before, actually. Which is a fundamental problem with these things, in that I tend to focus on not wanting to repeat myself a million times (which I already feel like I do too much, anyway), and the fact that I forget that people read these posts in a scattershot way. I have to say, though, that in my experience (FWIW), this polarization is always an issue, and I’ve yet to figure out how to head it off or blunt it.

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  42. Linda Hilton
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 13:32:01

    @Robin/Janet: Well, I think polarization is always going to be an issue, yes, but especially if you start out with any expectation that HR do political propagandizing. I mean, if you go over to AAR and read some of the comments on the board and on the blog, there are romance readers who do not want to see the seamy side of the Regency era, who don’t want to read about war and poverty, who have very little nice to say about liberals, etc., etc., etc. (Things have been written along the lines of “I’m tired of rich people always being the bad guys just because they’re rich.” Excuse me?) Their sociopolitical needs are being met by the propaganda offered them in the books they like, with or without accuracy.

    The OP, imho, tried to do two things. First was the “officious” (did you check the definition of that word?) introduction of the new tag term. That alone would have been sufficient grist for the discussion mill.

    But to take it a very long step further into exploring the uses and limits of history — accurate or otherwise — begins a far different conversation, especially when the historical uses of history in HR (the Heyer example) gets pulled in. That invites polarization, especially in a forum where you have little or no control over the audience.

    Just my five cents.

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  43. Robin/Janet
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 13:38:55

    @Linda Hilton:

    (did you check the definition of that word?)

    Oh, I know the definition of officious, Linda. For the most part I try to only use words I know the meaning of without having to check a dictionary, lol. I was trying to be tongue and cheek and a bit self-deprecating there, something that obviously backfired.

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  44. DM
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 15:03:11

    @Linda Hilton

    The problem with your response is that I wasn’t citing the history of the term “space opera,” which as you explicitly stated “Was not always a flattering term.” I’m the one who said it is — present tense — a descriptive term for a classification by type of SF, thus implying (but apparently not clearly enough) that the term “space opera” in and of itself, as two recognizeable and reasonably familiar words, does not contain inherent disparagement. When I threw out the phrase in conversation with the SO yesterday afternoon — he had never heard it before and does not read or watch very much SF at all — and asked him what the phrase suggested to him, his instant response was “2001,” but only because that’s the first “space” movie that came to his mind. There was no immediate negative reaction, because the basic meaning of the words isn’t negative.

    Oh. Wow. That’s interesting. Your original post definitely wasn’t clear. Sorry if you found my response upsetting, but I could only respond to the content in your post–not the clarification you provided later.

    In my experience the term soap opera–the origin of the term space opera–is always negative. I’ve never seen it used as a flattering term, hence the original negative connotation of space opera has always been visible on the surface for me. I’ve never thought about the two words separately. But I get what you are saying–if you see soap opera as a neutral or positive term–or you don’t realize that space opera was coined off soap opera and you see those as two unrelated words–you wouldn’t see the term space opera as having any negative connotation. What you were trying to say is that many people won’t recognize the pejorative origins of the term, but that everyone will recognize the pejorative nature of mistorical. That makes much more sense to me than what you originally posted.

    However, my original thought on the matter remains the same. The term is a good thing–because so many historicals are deficient in historical authenticity, and I’d rather hand my friend a book and say: it’s a bit of a mistorical, but you’ll enjoy it anyway–great story, great dialogue, just ignore the crazy anachronisms and go with it–than hand her a book that she might otherwise have enjoyed–but which she’ll fail to finish when she hits a description of bedsprings squeaking in a Regency. A catchall term that pokes fun at the myriad ways history can be muddled in a historical romance seems incredibly useful to me.

    I’m sorry if you’re finding the discussion upsetting–and if you’re a writer or aspiring writer of historicals, I can see why the idea might be threatening. I’d hate to have everything I write under a microscope for historical authenticity, when I already have to face the microscope of emotional authenticity, but I think that ultimately the term would, like Lynne suggests, make it easier for readers to find the kinds of books that appeal to them, and make books that are less historically vivid more enjoyable by creating more accurate reader expectations.

    ReplyReply

  45. Lynn S.
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 15:13:29

    @Robin/Janet:

    Do you think, as a whole, the Historical Romance subgenre is as thoughtfully nuanced as discussions such as this one? Because if so, then maybe we don’t need to have these discussions anymore?

    Sadly, no. The business of selling fiction of any sort is about making it palatable for a large enough base of consumers for it to be economically feasible and I don’t see that self-publishing will be that much different. Call it all fiction (some good, some bad, some sublime) and be done with it. The onus IS on me to figure it out.

    @Linda Hilton: “My apologies to all for hashing this out, but I don’t know how to do it privately.”

    I’m glad you brought it up and you both have interesting things to say. One question for you, did you mean soap opera instead of horse opera? Like space, neither horse nor soap has a negative connotation and history opera wouldn’t be negative either. After all the more educated opinions for and against whatever it is we are debating, I am back for a last stand.

    What I Did for a Duke expresses my problem with fiction labeling in general. Anyone who reads the book and takes away from it the fact that it is set in early 19th century England (was there ever a specific year given or am I simply reading the Heyer signposts in thinking Regency) has anything to do with the purpose of the book I cannot fathom, nor can I think of any words to bring them to my way of understanding.

    To place this—or any other fiction set in a non-contemporary time—outside of an already established, yet limiting, label and put it under another label of any kind, and especially one that is acknowledged by Janet as perjorative, marginalizes the book. It states that the book is this thing (mistorical) and this thing is not only different than the original, it is less. You can read it if you are so inclined, but don’t expect much out of it. The silly nature of the tag undermines and, quiet honestly, hijacks the valid argument that Janet is making regarding historicity.

    Write from what you know doesn’t mean that a surgical nurse from Ohio can only write about the practice of nursing, the being and nature of hospital politics, and the great state of Ohio. If it were that limiting, no one living today should be allowed to write books set in the past. It does mean that you should write from who you intrinsically are as an individual. If you are a Julie Anne Long you shouldn’t try to write like you are Stephen King or Marion Zimmer Bradley, if for no other reason than you can’t. I think this is what editors are squawking about when they say they want voice above anything else.

    Before I stop, I do have to ask what the purpose of tags are. Are they meant to find things or are they meant to filter things out. If they are meant to find things, can anyone explain to me who would specifically look for or click on a mistorical tag for anything other than the snark factor? I actually did click on it and in both reviews the historical tag is there also. Historical/mistorical. This is all a good deal of tail chasing at this point and I am getting dizzy.

    ReplyReply

  46. Linda Hilton
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 15:52:49

    @DM: I assure you, “soap opera” hasn’t been a pejorative to the bazillions of fans of soaps for years and years and years and years and years. If it were, there wouldn’t be “Soap Opera Digest” on prominent display at the grocery store check-outs. Again, the phrase came from two readily identifiable words that had specific and clear meanings in and of themselves, so that whether the phrase was used negatively or positively, it still had some surface meaning. Ditto with “space opera” and “horse opera.”

    My mother — and my grandfather after his retirement — slavishly watched their soaps. They would never have thought the label insulting; even if they had forgotten (or even never knew) some of its original meaning, the words themselves carried no negativity.

    The people who DO use the phrase “soap opera” disparagingly frequently apply it to romance novels as a pejorative, and they usually know very little about the former and almost nothing at all about the latter.

    And again, as I have said before, it’s not a matter of the books and authors — mine and myself included — being held under someone’s microscope. Mistakes are mistakes, errors are errors, fuck-ups are fuck-ups. Whether there’s a new tag or not doesn’t change that. I’ve never said the errors shouldn’t be pointed out. I’ve never said HR (or CR for that matter, or PNR or UF or YA or VSOP) shouldn’t be analyzed and criticized. My concern has always been with the word itself, its potential for doing far more harm than good, and the lack of standards by which it would be applied.

    In fact, it occurred to me while I was writing this that IF the concern is with historical accuracy and the damage that may be done when readers take bad information/inaccuracies/blatant untruths out of HR, then those “good” books (by Garwood, Quinn, anyone else??) that fall under the rubric are actually more dangerous than the bad ones. because more people will read them, more people will enjoy them, and more people will be less aware of the errors.

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  47. Amber
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 16:12:33

    @Lynne Connolly:

    “But I don’t want to make anyone who wants a light read feel discriminated against, inferior or in any way shat on.”

    We are already treated as lazy, intellectually deficient readers. A tag that highlights books *you* should avoid won’t affect that ;)

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  48. Reflex
    Sep 12, 2011 @ 11:18:44

    [...] Post; – Ler ou Ouvir, no Crónicas Obscuras; – Inspiration, my ass!, no blog de Deanna Knippling; – Introducing the “mistorical,” and The Uses and Limits of History in Romance, no Dear Author; – The revision go round, no The League of Relunctant Adults; – Finding the [...]

  49. Anon76
    Oct 06, 2011 @ 00:20:10

    @Kate Pearce Pearce:

    I’m just now reading this thread. Very good post.

    ReplyReply

  50. Anon76
    Oct 06, 2011 @ 12:23:02

    Aww, heck, after reading the entire thread I realize this is the true reason I never finished my second book.

    Fear that any mishap in my representation of the time period would be dragged over the coals. This after researching in depth (six months) the laws, land and products, festivals, clothing, layout of the castle in question, taverns, surrounding areas, etc.

    And that was just the small side of it. Much more time allocated to researching the timeline of events. Which was horribly difficult until I found that the calender changed in England at that point and all the “historians” either used the new calendar dates or the old. WOOF.

    Then the research that showed two sides to the political issues of the time. As always. Woof! Woof!

    Next time I should just go straight forward and have the heroine in a marraige at thirteen. With sex.

    ReplyReply

  51. Stephanie Dray
    Oct 06, 2011 @ 13:29:16

    @Anon76: Aww, heck, after reading the entire thread I realize this is the true reason I never finished my second book.

    Try not to let fear prevent you from writing a story you want to tell. I know it’s scary, but you have to just accept that you will get some things wrong.

    This isn’t an excuse for sloppy research, but just an acknowledgment that you are human. I spent more than five years researching for my first historical novel, and there are almost assuredly errors in it. I’ve already caught one in my second historical novel–one I had to acknowledge in the author’s note.

    This is going to happen because there are countless ways you can stumble. Perhaps a source you relied on was wrong or the scholarship behind a theory outdated. Perhaps an inability to actually visit a place and see it with your own eyes leads to descriptive errors. The flowers might bloom in the wrong season if you’re not careful; a spice might not have been imported yet at the time your story is set.

    Most dangerous of all are idioms that we rely upon to express ourselves which contain anachronistic ideas. I was sent into a panic just yesterday upon realizing I’d had my ancient heroine “rifle” through her belongings and had to double-check that the origin of the word didn’t start with firearms. Another ancient author I know was sent into a tizzy for having described someone as having velvety skin, when of course, her characters wouldn’t have known about velvet.

    These are knots that good historical fiction authors tie themselves up in, but if they miss something, it doesn’t ruin their story for the majority of readers. If you’ve got something worthwhile to say, you’ve got to say it and let the chips fall where they may.

    ReplyReply

  52. Setting Course For … Where? | Shannon McEwan
    Oct 14, 2011 @ 11:39:28

    [...] weeks later, Dear Author published a justification for their introduction of a new post tag — ‘mistorical’. The ensuing discussion was lively. Under what circumstances it would be appropriate to use such [...]

  53. Annonymous
    Dec 24, 2011 @ 15:40:23

    You should be ashamed of yourselves. This is a terrible tag that adds nothing to the genre and now I see why this blog has such a bad reputation.

    ReplyReply

  54. Weihnachtsmarkt
    Jan 07, 2012 @ 15:29:25

    Attractive component to content. I simply stumbled upon your web site and in accession capital to claim that I acquire in fact loved account your blog posts. Anyway I?ll be subscribing in your feeds or even I achievement you get entry to constantly rapidly.

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  55. Boycotting the Dukes, and Other Reading Choices | Something More
    Mar 01, 2012 @ 12:39:28

    [...] title. Or maybe it’s any book with a Duke in it? Or possibly it’s High Concept Regency Mistoricals with titles based on songs/movies/other pop culture phenomena? I’m not sure where to draw [...]

  56. Jennifer McQuiston | Historical Romance Author | Florence Nightingale: Rebel in a Skirt
    Jul 21, 2012 @ 18:22:57

    [...] “Rocking the Mistorical, by the lovely Duchess Valerie Bowman) have focused on the concept of the “mistorical” and whether historical romance today does due diligence to the time periods about which we write. [...]

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