Your post ended up getting me to write a musing on the subject:
Another day, another comment on someone else’s essay. Today it’s my forum colleague and recently-published author, David Craig, who has written a piece on Writing Social Values in Historical Fiction. Craig discusses the challenge of writing settings where the social norms are… different… from our own. Not in a fun, alien sense, but in an “oh god, these people are a bunch of racist misogynistic bigots” sense. Craig identifies the difficulty in balancing authenticity with having unsympathetic characters, and potentially attracting readers who like racist misogynistic bigots. It’s an issue that I am actually dealing with myself at the moment, as I write a story about one Lionel Terry – but we’ll get to that later.
Where in-story Values Dissonance (as TV Tropes calls it) really becomes a problem is not the truly alien setting. Writing an Aztec Priest who sincerely believes that sacrificing small children to Tlaloc will bring rain is not an issue – there is comfortable distance between the Priest’s world and our own. You aren’t going to run into people in 2019 who actually think like that, and getting inside the mindset of such a person can be an intriguing (if disturbing) adventure. Rather, the problem are those settings that are almost-but-not-quite like our own. The chief offenders here are eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and North America (the twentieth century is easier to fudge). In these cases, there is enough overlap between their views and ours that modern Westerners can relate to them, but enough difference that we can still spot the uglier aspects of the older culture. Uncanny Values, if you will – it’s the West’s proverbial (or maybe literal) racist grandfather in the attic. Worse, there are still people around who do have these sorts of views, even if they are less socially acceptable than they once were, hence the writer’s fear of attracting an unsavoury audience.
The example Craig cites is his own book’s setting of 1893 Glasgow, a place and time we in 2019 simultaneously can and cannot relate to. While I have never met (so far as I know) anyone who was alive in 1893, my parents (born in the 1950s) have. This is the world as it was when my great-grandparents were children – in one sense, it is not distant at all. Yet for all that I have immense fondness for the intellectual enthusiasm and boundless curiosity of the Victorian era (I also live in a city dominated by gorgeous Victorian architecture), we all know that some Victorian social views have aged badly. Hence the setting being a prime candidate for Uncanny Values, and why Craig ran into it when writing his book.
Thinking about how I have dealt with the issue myself, Wise Phuul – set in a world of approximately 1900-level technology – gets round the problem by virtue of being secondary world fantasy, rather than historical fantasy. Since accuracy is of less concern for secondary world fantasy (it’s made up whole-cloth), there is much greater freedom to play with social attitudes – though not infinite freedom, since I do want to evoke a particular time with my setting. This means I can drop the real-world ugly bits (why would the Viiminian Empire care about gender and sexuality when all that matters is necromantic power?), and give them a whole heap of imaginary ugly bits (the necromancy thing). There is values dissonance in Wise Phuul, but I think it is of the Aztec Priest sort, rather than the racist grandfather sort.
My short stories that have historical elements are not so lucky. My taniwha/railway story, An Extract from the Diary of Peter Mackenzie, is set in North Otago in 1896 – so, yes, Victorian. I get round the problem by focusing on the less offensive aspects of the Victorian world-view – Religion (Wilson) and Progress (Mackenzie), though the occasional bit of mild period prejudice is there, treated more as a decorative turn of phrase to evoke the time-period. In The Happiest Man Alive, set in Britain in the 1960s, I also include the odd bit of deliberate values dissonance (a certain reference to a tea-caddy) to remind people that Sam is not quite from our era. The point is that in both stories it’s there in the background, but not something I go into in any detail, because it’s not important to the story.
This brings us to my story about real-life Lionel Terry (strictly Edwardian, not Victorian, but close enough). Fascinating guy, in a train-wreck sense, one of the most famous inmates of Seacliff Lunatic Asylum, and someone who would be a potential story gold-mine for a historical New Zealand piece, were it not for complicating factors. Namely that the guy was more than just a mad self-made messiah with some painting ability and a taste for white suits. He was also a convicted murderer (he was in the Asylum having escaped a death sentence via insanity), and a lifelong White Supremacist. Sadly, local far-right nutters still consider the guy a hero.
So he’s an unlikable, morally reprehensible, protagonist – what of it? There are plenty of those in all forms of literature. Well, leaving aside that Terry, as a historical figure who never changed his views, can’t have a redemption arc, and the additional issue of wanting to avoid giving him any sort of glamour, the biggest problem I have encountered in writing this short fantasy story is that (sadly) the majority of the real-life New Zealand public were quite sympathetic to his cause. He was basically New Zealand’s Edwardian-era Ned Kelly at one point, only with industrial strength hatred of Jewish and Chinese people, and with what was later diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. This sense of culturally normalised racism prevents Terry’s views from being thrown into appropriately sharp relief when he interacts with others in the setting, and when dealing with a figure like Terry, I think you need in-story contrast. If everyone is defined by being racist in the story, then he loses a key distinguishing attribute, quite apart from the writer’s fear of producing a text that inadvertently condones racism.
My solution – time will only tell if it works – is to have the narrator be a fantastical entity of some description (think Gil-Martin from James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner). This narrator is safely outside the value constraints of the historical period (fantasy rides to the rescue of history…), and thus able to give a critical perspective on events, even as Terry confides in him. Not that the narrator is sympathetic either – he’s quite clearly capital e-Evil, and unreliable as anything – but he at least serves to deflate the main character. I don’t want Terry to be a glamorous Hannibal Lecter-style villain, and I don’t want his genuine mental illness to be a moral excuse for his actions. At the same time, I don’t want to present Terry as a moustache-twirler. I find those uninteresting, and Terry may be many things, but uninteresting is not one of them. It’s a strange tightrope to be walking here, and I normally would not describe my ideas about a half-finished story in such detail, but I ran across Craig’s post, and though I’d untangle my thoughts a bit…