Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A Matter of Perspective

 by Janis Patterson


I have decided that I am a different sort of reader.

On one of my booklovers’ lists it seems there is a constant discussion going on. This particular list happens to be about a very specific kind of historical romance, a genre I have always loved, but sometimes these discussions get very heated. The author involved is noted for her historical accuracy and therein lies the problem.

The current discussion is - as it usually is - about aristocratic snobbery and unconscious racism. Personally I don’t mind either in historical fiction, as the stories in question were written in the past about a time even further in the past, and that was pretty much the way things were then. I said the author was renowned for her historic accuracy, didn’t I? However, some members of the list keep repeating how they loathe those particular attitudes and how they think they taint the stories. Of course that is their right - those antique attitudes are and should be loathsome by today’s standards - but the stories weren’t written about today, today’s society or today’s mores. As they were first published so long ago they weren’t even written for today’s people. They are a story of their time - not ours.

When I open a book, I am entering someone else’s world. By going there I am a visitor and should understand that by being there I accept their world as it was then. If it becomes too upsetting to me, I close the book and leave. The same ethos applies if the book is sci-fi or paranormal or futuristic or even today’s plain (or perhaps not-so-plain) world. It is the world of that book, the world the author has created for it - not for me or any other reader. It is an discrete entity in and of itself, and we should treat it as such. We are mere visitors, observers - not residents.

To give this a more concrete example, I can think of no worse fate than to live full time in a tiny glass-walled treehouse set high up in the woods’ canopy and accessible only by a twisting, dizzying, exposed staircase. That said, however, I thoroughly enjoyed a two day holiday there and would not mind going back - but not for more than a day or two. It is not my world. I am a visitor.

It’s the same with books and movies, and TV, and other entertainments. I choose to go there, wherever ‘there’ is. I choose to stay there. It is different from my real life. If I don’t like it, I can leave by closing the book or turning whatever it is off. Implicit in my going there is my acceptance that it is the creator’s world, not mine; the creator’s thoughts and history, real or made-up, not mine. It was not created for me. I am a visitor, not a participant, and as such part of the artistic contract is to see the story through the author’s and characters’ eyes and beliefs - not my own. If all I cared about was my own, I should sit at home and stare at the wall.

You cannot apply today’s mores and ideals to the past. As someone famous once said, “The past is another place. They do things differently there.” The past is over and gone, and if it offends you don’t go there.


Larry W. Chavis said...

It is a failure of thought and logic that seeks to conform past attitudes and mores to present-day standards. Good post.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I so agree with you. As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I recognize that beliefs and attitudes change with time. I do considerable research because I do believe in historical accuracy. Sinful Seduction and my soon to be released Highland Heart reflect this as well as my earlier novels.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Great post and exactly the way I think. Thank you.

Sierra Donovan said...

Well said! My husband and I love old movies, but cringe when characters of color are relegated to brief walk-ons as porters, servers, etc. But it doesn't destroy the entertainment value of the main story. As people, we're learning all the time, and we'd lose far too much if we disposed of every book or film that reflects less progressive attitudes of a different time.

Unknown said...


Morgan Mandel said...

No sense in erasing history and pretending it never happened.