Writing about Connie Willis’s London Blitz-set Blackout, novelist Kari Sperring takes issue with Willis’s explanation of her choice of setting: “That era [Britain in WW2] is just so fascinating — the blackout, the gas masks, the kids being sent off to who-knows-where, old men and middle aged women suddenly finding themselves in uniform and in danger, tube shelters and Ultra and Dunkirk, and running through it all, the threat of German tanks rolling down Piccadilly! What’s not to like.”
Everything, Sperring replies: “History is not a theme park. It’s not a story, either. It’s people’s real lives. If you’re going to write about it, about any part of it, you need to do your homework properly, you need to be respectful, because — as Ms Willis did with me — otherwise, you’re going to find someone’s sore place, someone’s vulnerability, someone’s sacred or difficult or secret thing, and you’re going to do damage. Other countries aren’t theme parks, either, nor museums, nor big bags of useful resources. They’re homes to millions, they’re people’s lives, too … the Blitz is not likeable, it’s not fun, it’s not an adventure playground. And talking about is as if it is lessens us all.”
This reminds me of something I read on Twitter a couple of years back: distorting the truth of historical characters is bad because it causes pain to their living descendants. Which may be true, but I’m more inclined to the side of “you can’t libel the dead” (a legal rule). Though I’d also make lots of exceptions, depending on how recent the person is and whether there are race/gender issues in play. Martin Luther King is secretly the Zodiac killer? Um, no. George II or Grover Cleveland sacrifices babies to Satan? I don’t feel any moral qualms.
I have a similar reaction to Sperring’s criticism. Looking at the past and thinking “ooh, exciting times!” doesn’t offend me. And to me, that’s all Willis is doing in the quote (Sperring obviously disagrees). She’s not saying “Wow, everyone in that era must have had fun!” but that it’s fun to write about. I’d have the same reaction if I had an idea for a story involving WW I or the Hollywood blacklist. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at the past as an adventure playground, as long as the execution shows some respect for what people went through (I haven’t read Blackout so I have no opinion on that score). Doubly or triply so if you’re writing about stuff that truly requires sensitive treatment — Auschwitz, Wounded Knee, Selma, the Belgian Congo.
Like most things, I suspect the boundary of “requires sensitive treatment” varies with the reader. I enjoyed Tim Powers Declare with its secret history of the Cold War; someone I know online said she hates secret histories of more or less contemporary events. I didn’t like Project Blue Book but it didn’t press any buttons for me; perhaps my friend wouldn’t be as comfortable.
Likewise, some people have written they enjoy seeing historical stories where a gay or black protagonist can have adventures just like white dudes instead of suffering the Oppression And The Bigotry. Others say that’s just erasing how awful the past was.
I’m not sure there’s a clear answer to any of this beyond that even a good book (again, I have no opinion on the Willis novel) won’t work the same way for everyone.
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