Monday, September 7, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Indulge me, dear reader, for I am about to make a far-fetched comparison in order to make a literary point.
Pop and pulp science-fiction novels and films (Jurassic Park and the like) have sometimes peddled the idea that, with a lot of “modern” DNA “retrofitted”
into ancient DNA, dinosaurs and other extinct species could be brought back to life. Find fragments of dinosaur DNA in fossils, combine it into sequence with the DNA of living birds or other creatures most closely descended from dinosaurs, and in no time triceratops and his mates will be romping around in secure (ha ha!) enclosures.
I’m no geneticist, but apparently real scientists now ridicule this idea, which not so long ago seemed plausible.
Still, the image stays in my mind as the perfect image of how most historical novels are conceived.
You get a sliver of historical fact. You do a little research to avoid too many obvious anachronisms and other historical howlers. You construct a story that seems to fit in with the historical situation. But then you come to characterisation and (if you are the average, as opposed to the exceptionally good, historical novelist), what do you do? You want to make your main characters sympathetic, so into their mouths and thoughts you insert all those values and attitudes that will be congenial to the mass of modern readers.
You have your nineteenth century characters presciently deploring the “scientific racism” that was the norm among educated Europeans in the nineteenth century. You have Renaissance women ask for suspiciously 21st century-type women’s rights. You have medieval knights having crises of conscience about going on crusades to kill infidels. You have nice Romans worrying about the morality of slavery.
Of course, you put these attitudes (most of which I have encountered in “historical” novels) into the mouths and minds of your sympathetic characters. Your nasty, negative and unsympathetic characters unthinkingly support the values that were prevalent in the historical age about which you are ostensibly writing.
What have you done but insert modern DNA into dinosaur bones?
Worse, you have really led your readers into a fantasy world, which has nothing to do with history, even if the dates and external circumstances of your fictionalised characters have been culled from textbooks. You have led your readers to think that all “good” people in the past thought just as we do, and that therefore those who supported the values of the past, those who had a worldview radically different from ours, must all have been obtuse or evil or somehow aberrant people.
The way is open for your readers (and probably you yourself as writer) to assume that our values and attitudes here and now are those against which all history should be judged. The way is also open for the fantasy, which says that the evils of the past could easily have been sorted out if only people then had thought as we do now.
Move on a few generations from an “historical” novel’s publication date, and you quickly find that it really tells us much about the values of the age in which it was written, but little about the age it imagines it is chronicling. (For example, can anyone now read Charles Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake and Westward Ho! as anything other than expressions of mid-Victorian Protestant bigotry, even if they are, respectively, set in Saxon times and in the 16th century?)
ALL attempts to construct the mindset of long-dead generations are, of course, speculative. But I applaud those younger New Zealand novelists who have at least made the effort to get into the minds and mentalities of the past, and who show a full understanding that people then did not necessarily make the assumptions we make now. (Some of these very good novelists I have mentioned on this blog.) I mean Eleanor Catton, Paula Morris, Hamish Clayton and CharlotteRandall.
On the other hand, New Zealand is also lumbered with the historical novels of Witi Ihimaera, which commit all the sins I have mentioned above. They really are cases of retrofitted DNA.

No comments:

Post a Comment