Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Friday, June 25, 2010

The "language" debate -- again

Another bomb in the "language and authenticity war" has blown up in the blogosphere that caters to readers and writers of historical novels. Since I have one foot in that camp(and try to keep the "history" part at least reasonably accurate, and another foot in the "romantic science fiction" camp, I tend to follow such debates rather closely. And they do go on and on, seemingly forever But this one

One school of thought, and, contra the author of this particular blog, may be a minority, but it's certainly not slient. The followers of this school of though tend to be very vocal in insisting on usuing lots of "period" language, up to, and including, "old" place names, and deliberately "olde-tymey" langauage. Such usage isn't always appropriate; I recently tried to read a book set in Anglo-Saxon times which used this "olde-tymey" language, and it came out sounding like really bad imitation Shakespeare(and it wasn't meant to be funny, as the use of such language often is), but this author was dead serious.

In the case of the above author on the above blog, the person actually makes a case for this kind of writing. They admit, however, that one has to be careful about such language; there are words like "jet" and "go-cart", used for travel, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but 300-400 years later, they have quite a different meaning, and that is to be expected. Yet some readers reading the work where this kind of language is is used, claimed the usage was "too modern", even though the usage was authentic! Which is just one hazard in using "olde-tymey" words that are familiar to a modern reader.

But it's worse than that The author of this blog sets up a distinction betwee "writerly" and "readerly" books.. The former are somehow to be savoredfor their word usage and word play. The latter are "popular" -- the kind you would find in a drugstore or at an airport, which automatically implies, to the author, at least are forgettable things you usually just throw away. Many such books, whether historical novels, mysteries, thrillers, or something else, are basically "forgettable" in the way he describe. But not all. Because of this distinction, which is basically derived from earlier critics' dismissal of "genre" fiction, as opposed to a certan type of "literary fiction". The latter,is, in the minds of these sorts of critics, automatically "superior", the "only" kind of fiction anyone with a brain should read. In some circles, if you even admit that you like science fiction, or romances, or enjoy reading thrillers, no matter how silly the premise of any given thrilly, as opposed to, say, Jane Austen(no, I don't generally read literary fiction or Jane Austen; I just don't like either genre all that much, though some people are shocked, shocked when I tell them this) This author thinks "erudite" readers will "prefer" this kind of language-play and weird, or "olde-tymey" usages, place manes, etc. The blog entry also implies that readers and writers who "prefer" this kind of literature are somehow superior to those who want a good story. Whhich, IMO, is an incredibly snobbish way of looking at reading habits. My feeling is this: If you want "serious" stuff, get out a book on the history of any given period, read up as much as you can, while dipping into books written in your favorite time period or place. I also realize that what some historical fiction authors, in their heart of harts, really want to write a lightly fictionalized history text. And some readers like this, too, including, apparently, the author of the blog entry. There is nothing, per se, wrong with this, if you really do like this approach to historical fiction or any other genre. But it's not a matter of superior reading or writing habits v. inferior ones.It's a matter of individual taste. And it's not a matter of "good" or "bad", either/ there are, in general, no "good" or "bad" tastes in reading, or writing, just individual ones.

Which brings me to the blogger, and his "relationship" to Anya Seton's Katherine. For the blogger, Katherine basically falls into the "popular but forgettable" category. And the author goes after Katherine for what I think is one of the flimsiest of offenses, namely, what he considers to be "howlers", e.g., "mollycoddle", "chunky", and "scrawny", among other things. I don't know for sure about "chunky" and "scrawny" being used as words in the 15th century, but there are some who say they can make a claim for "mollycoddle". But, as the author of the bolg points out, most readers probably won't "notice" this. He does, because he says he cares; for him, the use of words like "mollycoddle" in the 14th century are just plain dealbraeakers. Fine, if that's what ye wants. But to argue against an author, and a book, which has been highly influential, often to readers and writers of historical fiction, in the nearly fifty years since it was first published, shows the blogger doesn't really really know, or care much about what many readers and writers like to read and write. Or if he does, he simply dismisses it. This is unfortunate. But perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Anya Seton was a woman, writing historical fiction at a time when most historical fiction writers were men, and those men may well have been jealous of her popularity upon writing Katherine.

I should also add that Katherine had a tremendous influence on me, personally. I first read it in my fifteenth summer, and I thought it was wonderful! I have reread it several times since then, and loved it, until the very last time, when it seemed a bit, um, "19050's-ish" to me. But in many ways, it was not only and enjoyable read, but in some ways, a highly influential one. Without having read Katherine the idea that I wanted to write a novel set in medieval England would probably never have occurred to me at all. Since I was also quit3e the science fiction reader at the time(and still am, to some extent), I never would have dreamed up the category "romantic science fiction" to characterize the "science" part of this historical fiction. Furthermore, I think I began learning a lot. I'd never heard of Katherine Swynford before, and ti made me want to learn a lot more about that, and the subsequent period that led to the Wars of the Roseses. I realize few readers would go this far, let alone end up doing some fairly serious historical research for the novel I"m writing now, but I"m hardly the only one so influenced. Katherine is hardly a "forgettable" book; it has sold steadily and appreciated by many since the day it was published. And I truly do not think one needs to be a snob about admitting this, whether reader or writer.

The bottom line here is, I really, really detest snobbish attitudes about anything at all. And when it comes to writers and writing, I practically hit the ceiling when I see evidence of this in writers or readers. Sorry, but I do. Such people may have cultivated "good taste", but they don't seem to realize that it is their tastes they are promoting. Which, in and of itself, is also not bad. If one, for instance likes books and movies with "weepy" endings, that's fine. I've seen at least one person who has explained why they do. And that is also fine. But they didn't attempt to impose their tastes on anybody else, nor did they consider themselves in any way "superior", though I still prefer "happy ever after", and that's the way I write mine.It is the assignation of certain kinds of literature that the truly "erudite" "should" enjoy, if they are truly "erudite", with its built-in attitudes, still sometimes filtered through departments of English in various colleges and universities, that does. I should add that though people who have gone through English majors, are exposed to a lot of "good stuff" , and this is sometimes visible in their writing efforts, most of these "English major survivors" are not snobs about their experiences, though their tastes in reading may be different from mine. In any case, it saddens me to see yet another opinion piece or blog space, still, in this day and age, expressing such opinions. But even then, I respect them, though I disagree.
Anne G


Michael Katsuro said...

My opinion on all this has always been that an interesting story that has good characters in it and is well told always has high cultural value. For instance, I rank Stephen King as avery good writer, and Dostoyevsky (spelling?) too. But on the other hand, I definitely believe that some books are just plain better than others. What I mean is that if a book is interesting all the way through, but has no moment that genuinely touches you, and makes you go That's so beautiful, it's not as good as a book that's as interesting and does. You say you don't read a lot of literary fiction, but I'm a little more broad-minded; I don't go by the genre, just by the individual book. It doesn't make sense to me to judge a book by its genre. Also, on the subject of some books being better than others, I've noticed that some books are disliked because they aren't that well-written (like cheesy thrillers), while others are disliked because the disliker doesn't understand them. To illistrate my point, what is students' most ? That they don't understand what anyobdy's saying. They don't like him because they don't understand him.

What makes me want to read a book is a beautiful style of writing and interesting people in it. That's what matters to me. A good story doesn't hurt, of course; but it's not my main priority. After all, I don't read Raymond Chandler to find out whodunnit, I read him to enjoy his style of writing and the wonderful mood.

Anne Gilbert said...


When I said I didn't read a lot of literary fiction, I meant just that. I have read some literary fiction in the past, and I will continue to do so from time to time. It's just that most of it just isn't very interesting to me. AS for "beautiful writing", I think that if someone can tell a good story and write, well "stylishly" that's a plus. But IMO, and this is just IMO, I look first for "sotry", preferably one that "hooks" you right away. Which is what I'm trying to achieve. If the writing turns out to be "beautifu", that will be a plus. And really, I don't "judge a book by its genre, just by whether it's reasonbly plotted and decently written. But again IMO a lot of literary fiction seems to me to be just "navel gazing".