Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The ultimate "accuracy obsessive"

Recently on a venue where people discuss historical mysteries, people got into a discussion about anachronisms in historical mysteries taking place in relatively recent times.  Somebody brought up a book they'd read, where the writer had the women wearing pantyhose back in the 1920s.  Nobody disagreed that this was anachronistic, even though women nowadays -- if they can possibly avoid it -- tend not to wear pantyhose at all(I know that in some work situations I had to wear pantyhose, and boy, even in a Seattle July or August, I hated them, and took them off as soon as I could after getting off work!).  Be that as it may, the anachronism here is this:  pantyhose weren't widely worn until the latter part of the 1960's.  I know, because I was one of the earlier adopters.  They were a lot more comfortable than girdles.  Before then, women generally wore girdles and garters to which they attached nylon hose.  These were uncomfortable in a different way, but women wore what they felt they had to wear, I guess.  So a woman wearing pantyhose in the 1920's would indeed be an anachronism, since pantyhose weren't yet invented.


Be that as it may,  and as is often the case in such discussions, it spawned another discussion about "anachronistic" language.  And this is where another "accuracy obsessive" person popped up their head.  It happened like this:  the person in question mentioned that they had tried to read Anya Seton's famous historical novel, Katherine, a story, more or less, about Katherine Swynford, who was an interesting personage living in the mid to late fourteenth century, and more or less important for who she married, and the descendants of that marriage(and other marriages of related people).  It seems that this person objected to the fact that Ms. Seton had someone (frankly, I can't remember who, at this point, it's been a long time since I read the book), uttering the word  "mollycoddle"  The poster said they were upset because "mollycoddle", they pointed out, was a nineteenth century word!  The result?  They put down Katherine and never finished it!


Here, I must , for the record, mention that I read Katherine for the first time, when I was fifteen. I loved it so much, that I think, even then, it gave me the germ of the desire to write a novel set in medieval England.  I didn't act on this desire for a long, long  time, and in the meantime, I reread Katherine several times, and still loved it.  The result, for me, at that time, was to get me reading all sorts of material about that period and some subsequent ones, and I kept on dreaming of writing a novel that romantic, set in medieval times.  The Gentle Reader of my blog may wonder why I didn't just start trying to write romances when those came on the scene.  I think that was because I loved science fiction even more.  It was only when I stumbled into the "modern human origins controversy", and decided that I had to write some work that would somehow make Neandertals respectable, that I finally found a way to combine the two genres, sort of, more or less, into my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals.  But it takes place in a far earlier time period than Katherine.  Still, the book was a tremendous influence at the time, at least in some ways, and I think it's doubtful that I would have even considered writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, if it hadn't been for Anya Seton and Katherine


So, having digressed a bit,. I come back to the subject at hand, which was the person who objected to "mollycoddle".  At no time, including the last time I read Katherine,  and put it aside, because by then I found the heroine just too darn "1950's" for my tastes, though it is still a very good read, did I ever notice "mollycoddle".  I had no idea until yesterday or so, that it was a "nineteenth century" word.  And even if I did, it wouldn't have mattered very much.  It is a word that is "old-fashioned" enough to (kind of) fit with a medieval character, even  if the word wasn't actually in use in the fourteenth century.  And so I sent a rather sharp reply to this person, suggesting that such an attitude was, well, snobbish, even for an "accuracy obsessive".  I stand by this, by the way, but I think that the moderator was right that I was overly sharp with this person.  In a more recent post, this same person suggested that  no one who has ever been exposed to literary criticism, should ever read historical novels, because, in essence, they will always find fault with them. 


This is an attitude I find even more distressing, because it suggests that anyone who has ever gone through certain kinds of college training, will never be happy with anything that isn't "deep" or "serious" or "realistic".  To a certain extent, this attitude permeates a lot of  writing, even some "genre" writing, where some readers apparently "prefer" what they consider to be "realistically sad" endings(For those interested, I've commented on this elsewhere). 


But why do most people read historical novels, science fiction, or any other "genre" literature?  Even when "lit-crit" trained, my guess is, they don't read such literature to get all philosophical .  They want entertainment.  They want to be carried away to another situation(even if it is somewhat "realistic".  They mostly, I think, don't read to "lit-crit" something.  And that, to me, is the problem.  Some people seem to be carrying their academic or other training to the point where they can't just enjoy a story for whatever it is, rather than weigh it against some standards they have learned in some classroom.  Writers, from Homer on, probably all the way back to whoever composed Gilgamesh, composed, and continue to compose, their material, to engage and entertain their readers, even if whatever they are composing, has deep philosophical meaning, or many layers of literary meaning embedded in their story.  In other words, historical novels, and other novels, are written to be read, not "lit-critted".  For those who just can't stand an unimportant anachronism like "mollycoddle"(all right, I'll be careful not to use it in my own Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals), I can only say that this is accuracy obsession carried way over the top, and is little more than, in my opinion, literary snobbery to boot. 


Sorry, but that's the way it is for me,

Anne G


Jen Black said...

I found the same as you with Katherine - I loved it first time around many years ago but found it and re-read it recently and couldn't see what had impressed me so much. Times change and certainly writing styles change. So do readers. I would be very interested to know if your "mollycoddle" reader was actually a writer herself as some of them seem to be a tad overly critical sometimes.

Anne Gilbert said...


I think the "mollycoddle" critic wasn't a writer, but I am not 100% sure of this. However, there are certain "literary" tyoes(and I must say I hate literary snobbery of any kind; I just read a recent interview featuring some writer of science fiction, who made a huge production about a supposed "distinction" between "science fiction" and "sci-fi". They hated the latter term! I'll probably be blogging about this in the next day or two, since I'm writing a Great Medieval Science Fiction Epic myself! In any case, the "mollycoddle" critic apparently read a lot of stuff set in the Middle Ages, but also, like many of these critic types, went through some English major program where he or she learned "literary criticism", and therefore came up, well, critical. The person admitted they can't really enjoy any historical fiction at all!

As for Katherine, I have to say that, despite the fact that the last time I read it, I didn't enjoy it as much as I had at an earlier stage of my life, 4cr me, it was tremendously influential. I very much doubt that I'd be writing what Im' writing now -- even though it isn't "strict" historical fiction, if I handn't read Katherine in the first place.