*I apologize for the length of this post. As you know I’m not feeling quite well, which means I’m more meandery (totally a word) than normal. However, the steroids are working, so…*
Yesterday I found what I think is an indie mystery series, (okay, only two books but I’m hoping she writes more. It’s published by Steel Magnolia press which seems to be on the level of Naked Reader when it was going full tilt) which reminded me of how much I love mysteries and which in a way, backwards, swung back towards the Hugo mess. Not as what is going on in the award but as a “what the situation is in traditional publishing.”
As you guys know I’ve been feeling poorly. Feeling poorly means hot chocolate and a glass of port wine in the evening and historical mystery books.
The… ah… vineyard of historical mystery books, much less “historical mystery books I can stand to read” has grown mighty dry since about twelve years ago. There was some sort of a shift in publishing where they decided historical didn’t sell (as they told me over and over again) and the spigot of historical – by which I mean before the 20th century, by the way. Sorry. I was raised in Europe. Less than 100 years old is not historical. For that matter, real historical is 500 years old — almost ran dry. And what there is…
Well, let’s just say that I started noticing two things in my historical mysteries: a) they often try to preach modern values to the time they are writing about. The women particularly are all modern women b) They make it a point of displaying their erudition, sometimes with lavish forewords. (I know why they’re there, I do. You’re dealing with an establishment that often “knows” wrong things about history and those lengthy forewords are self defense against the copyeditors who’ll correct you according to wicki.)
So, even though I adore books set between the wars in England – part of the attraction of Agatha Christie are the books set in that long summer holiday of history – and read almost an entire series set in it, around book 14 I got sick and tired of being in the head of a 21st century woman set in the past. It’s not just how she thought. Yeah, there were people like that at all times. New Age for instance has a long pedigree going back to the 19th century at least. No. It was what she noticed and didn’t notice. The character was, to put it bluntly, a graduate of a good university in the 21st century America who looked at the world in terms of classes but not as an Englishwoman of the time thought of class. The woman looked at the world in terms of “class struggle” and “privilege” and racism and sexism and… evaluated everything through this lens.
This was roughly the equivalent of a character in the 16th century whose guide to life is My Little Pony. Even if it could make for an interesting character if there were an explanation or time travel involved, since there wasn’t, it was just annoying a niggling itch that grew until it became unbearable and I abandoned the series.
Even series that aren’t that bad have this level of “tolerable annoyance.” I know from tolerable annoyance. I’ve had eczema since I was one and a half and I am rarely without a flare up. The high flare ups like right now are excruciating, but I learn to ignore the “slight itch” flare ups. And I’ve learned to ignore the occasional silliness or out of place observation in books – traditionally published books – since I know to some extent they’re there as writer insurance, and to some extent they’re there as a sort of reflex of excellently educated 21st century authors.
For instance, I know if a medieval churchman is introduced and I’m not in Ellis Peter’s world, he’s either a bad guy or he’s a secret agnostic, who got sent to the monastery for family reasons and who views religion with distrust. I know if someone is very rich he’ll be the villain. I know—
Well, I downloaded, not expecting much, a bunch of historical mysteries at 99c by various authors, some traditionally published. One of them I returned. Yeah, the one I mentioned a few days ago. The foreword was never ending, and by the end of it she’d managed to insult everyone not to the left of Stalin, which meant I knew I couldn’t trust her to guide me through her world.
The other one I haven’t returned yet – I hate returning 99c reads. It seems churlish – but probably will because heaven help us, it’s set in a 19th century that never existed. Like the mystery set in regency England, where you can kill peasants with impunity if you’re a nobleman, every detail of the setting jars. To make matters worse, like that other mystery, I realized on page 15 the character is female, though from the setup, manner of talking, etc, I expected it to be a man. (I probably should check if those are both written by the same person.)
The third one I started without great hopes. I’m going to say right here that it’s set in an era where I don’t spend much time – the time of Coeur de Leon in England – and therefore it could have mistakes I fail to see. However, I know enough by touch-feel that if it’s a truly clumsy effort it normally pushes me out and this one hasn’t. Now, I’m not saying it would pass Suburbanbanshee’s sniff test. But who knows? It might.
Anyway, against it even as I started was the fact that the day before yesterday I’d started feeling truly ill, so I couldn’t concentrate on much. The book starts with a convoluted Medieval sort of argy-bargy that left me cold, but the character had enough voice to draw me through.
I read it through in the next few hours, including through the night when I felt so bad. Halfway through the night I bought its sequel.
The books are The Season of the Raven and The Season of the Fox by Denise Domning, and they are highly recommended, even if those of you who know more about the middle ages than I do might find nits I didn’t.
They’re excellently convoluted mysteries, with an engaging protagonist, characters who come alive and who are not all bad or all good and who ring true to life, and with a lively enough voice to keep you reading. If you like Ellis Peters you’ll like these. The 99c sale must be done because they’re now 3.99, but it’s still an excellent price for historical mysteries.
I want to say something RIGHT HERE. I have no idea what the author’s politics are. And I don’t care. The characters have opinions I don’t necessarily agree with (there is a great scandal at usury for instance) but they’re perfectly in the time and place in which they’re set.
For the people who will inevitably be sent here to look for signs of recidivism or revanchism or reactionary thought or whatever, I’ll spell it as if in braile: The characters don’t need to agree with me or embody my beliefs. I can perfectly imagine reading an historical (what Americans consider Historical) mystery set in early communist Russia and loving it, even if the character is an avowed Leninist (at the time he’d have an excuse, since the horrors that always result hadn’t been proven by multiple experiments in multiple settings) because the character would be true to the time and to himself, and if the other characters (and that one too) were alive and individual, I can imagine enjoying the world and the plot.
What I object to is the intrusion of the “only correct way to view the world” projected into a past in which it never existed and also turning everything, no matter what the time period it’s set in into same old, same old.
If I read only books by libertarians, and what’s more by my flavor of libertarian, my library would be very tiny indeed, but more than that, it would be boring.
So, I enjoyed these mysteries, by this lady of whose politics I know nothing and whose ability to create characters made two very difficult days more bearable.
My one complaint is that she has only two books out, and now I’m done with them. I bought a trad. published 99c mystery and started it over breakfast. It starts with the obligatory erudite foreword. The beginning is good or at least not patently offensive, but… but I wish the other series had more. I already detect a defensive “I know what I’m talking about” tone in the writing of this other mystery that is setting my teeth on edge. And I’m afraid the hectoring about class or sexism or whatever will start at any minute. Mind you I can tolerate a certain amount of it if the rest is very good, but it grows wearisome.
And this is where we run into the Hugo thing. Or at least we run into Irene Gallo. I don’t know if it came across in Shout It From The Rooftops but what appalled me about her utterances was not what she said, as such. I mean what she said was strange and calumnious, but it was what has been repeated since entertainment weekly. No, what shocked me was the way she said it.
Look, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a thinking person of mature years to be a communist. Not after the history of the last 100 years. But I can excuse it in college kids, and people who mentally never left college. And I can excuse it in people for whom communism is sort of a family religion. People tend to be unable to reason through things they drank with mother’s milk. If I say “oh, he’s a communist” it’s usually with the feeling of rolled eyes, not with the feeling of “he’s Satan.” (With exceptions, of course.)
The way Irene Gallo said “Neo Nazis” though was more in the tone of “Satanist” for a medieval monk. She knows, on faith, these people exist and that they’re out there. And she’s been told by everyone she trusts that they’re “racist, sexist and homophobic” and she believes, because everyone around her believes.
She talked not as someone who had looked at the situation and come to the regretful conclusion that all these people were “bad to reprehensible” but as someone who’d heard it so much, and into whose inner narrative it fit so well that “of course this is the truth.” She didn’t need to examine it, any more than you need to run out the door and verify that the sky is still blue. You were taught it is blue, (even when it’s gray) and everyone you know says it’s blue. So, it’s blue.
My friend James Schardt said that she was utterly sincere, and he was right. The utter sincerity comes through. She’s not being insulting, she’s telling the truth as she knows it.
And that’s what appalled me about it. Oh, I knew it – sort of – from moving in these circles, at cons and from submitting/dealing with agents and editors for years. I knew what I had to do to pass, at an instinctive level, and I knew that any deviation would be interpreted as “right wing” even though I think the country in which I’d truly be “right wing” or “conservative” would be an improbable country populated by eccentrics. (Maybe Heinlein’s moon?)
But one thing is to know it instinctively – and even then when I write about it, people email me to tell me that I am wrong and “paranoid” and yeah, one is always afraid – and another to have one’s nose rubbed in it in the form of a supposed adult saying with the simplicity of a 12 year old that the people who oppose her are “racist, sexist, homophobic” and “bad to reprehensible” even before the “poopy-head” level classification of “neo-nazis.”
Look, it is the fact that Irene Gallo is sincere and, in her own mind, fighting on the side of angels, that is shocking and scary. And it fits perfectly with what I’ve seen in the publishing world (other than Baen, natch) in my years working as a professional writer.
These people don’t live in the world we live in.
Most of us – well, some of us – went through excellent universities, and read voraciously, and were subjected to the barrage of media that projected the same mental picture Ms. Gallo has: the left is eternally right (when they were wrong, their mistakes – like segregation – are now attributed to the right) and the future is a bright socialist utopia (really communist, but we’ll call it socialist so as not to scare the squares) and anyone who stands against it is an evil right winger, a fascist, a neo nazi and by definition racist, sexist, homophobic.
The thing is that this view was propagated pretty uniformly from the academic/media/entertainment complex for most of the twentieth century and people absorbed it to some extent. But most people in the real world come across enough stuff that doesn’t fit, or perhaps read enough about the fall of the Soviet Union to know it’s not just “this time it will be different” but the system itself is flawed.
And some of us come to view individual rights, individual conscience and individual freedom as the only best system (not perfect. No system is perfect.)
But that’s because the places we work in, the world we move in isn’t a unified front. Those who stay in academia, those who go into the arts or into publishing, though, move from a world of being fed a message into a world of being fed the same message. Not only is there no incentive to doubt, but doubting or showing any wobbling of belief will be detrimental to you. You stay within that world because it’s safe and because it’s what everyone around you believes. How can everything you know be wrong.
Shadowdancer in her excellent post about why “Nazi” is not a word to throw around lightly mentions her years in East Germany:
This was particularly emphasized by the fact that the Second World War was excised entirely from East German education at the time, and they were only taught about ‘The Great War’ – what the rest of the world was calling World War I. Socialist Germany was a big exercise in erasing the past and reconstructing it in a great big lie – and somewhat inconveniently, there were still people who remembered WWII. It was a verboten subject, and the younger generation knew nothing of it. They didn’t believe that someone as evil as Hitler could have ever existed.
Dad, the Aristotlean gadfly that he was, liked to smuggle in copies of Mein Kampf and give it away as gifts, his own little subversive fight for the truth. I know he horrified one of our babysitters with it, who was a college student and an avowed Marxist who enjoyed being able to pit wills and philosophical arguments with ‘someone unfortunate enough not to be educated in Socialist education.’ It was her awakening into questioning what she knew.
One of the people working at the consulate fell in love with an East German woman. The only way they could marry was if she escaped East Berlin, and so he smuggled her out. The details of that I don’t know, but I remember my dad saying she was struck dumb for three days from sheer culture shock after she saw West Berlin for the first time – and realized that everything she’d been raised to believe, and had known as truth was in fact a carefully manufactured and maintained lie that was possible only through total control of information. Everything had to be spoon fed. They had to develop a disdain, to instil contempt, pity and aversion to Capitalism, America and other countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
In a way Irene Gallo lives in a similar world. A world in which some verities are so absolute they can’t ever be questioned. The same world as the person whose book I returned because her foreword went on and on about how there had always been “progressive” thought even in the middle ages, and made it clear that by progressive she meant the 21st century’s idea of it.
People are talking of boycotting Tor. That’s silly. This is not Tor. This is “all traditional publishing except for Baen” and a few authors at other houses. I will continue reading authors from Tor – Kevin Anderson, John C. Wright [Jim Butcher is Roc, and I even know that. I’m just not functioning any too well. Thanks for the correction in comments.]– whose politics are of little concern to me because their worlds breathe and live.
But that’s part of the issue – people like Irene Gallo can’t help selecting authors who move and think within their construct-world. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just sense. If they think that’s the real world and there’s a side of angels and a side of devils and the devils are everyone outside the narrative, why would they encourage evil? If I were an editor, I probably wouldn’t buy any outright communist books (not the author, mind, the books) unless the author left enough holes that I could see doubt seeping in. I wouldn’t buy it because the pov would repel me, and because I tend to think 100 million sacrifices to the impossible ideal that always slips into medieval tyranny in the end are more than enough. It wouldn’t be a black list or an organized anything, but if every house were staffed with editors who felt about communism as I do, it would be impossible for a communist author to publish.
Now, I’d like to think my world view is complex enough that I wouldn’t be buying only authors whose villains are communists. However, my world view was formed in the real world.
The problem with the narrative construct pushed by the educational/media/entertainment complex is that its paper thin and that it leads its disciples to believe that bad think needs to be abjured, “consciousness must be raised” etc. I.e. they believe the only reasons someone would oppose them is because they’re either evil or insufficiently “informed”, so preaching is a great part of their work.
And this results in problems like the ones I have finding decent historical mysteries (and sometimes fantasy or science fiction) because there needs to be preaching in every book, and the preaching is not only counter-factual but and this is far worse, boring.
It never occurs to the Irene Gallos of the world that people who disagree with them might not disagree with their largely laudable objectives. It would shock her speechless to know that I personally would like equal rights for men and women (under the law) and that I think some accommodation must be made for different sexual expression in a world where sex and reproduction are increasingly divorced, and that I frankly think races are a construct with very little hold in reality. Where we disagree is where I – who read and study history – view governmental force as the worst way to attain those objectives. I also, with good and sufficient reason, view the government counterproductive (frankly) in attaining a fairer economic situation or in relieving the plight of the poor. (Of course, I also don’t believe all these problems have solutions. I believe at best most of them have palliative relief.)
They’ve been taught, they’ve heard from everyone they trust, that there is only one objective and one right way to get there. And those who disagree with them must be against their objectives/ideals and not against their methods.
The reality this creates is a publishing establishment that looks for markers of compliance from their authors and, depending on how much the authors are part of the establishment, in flat books about clichés.
This fight is not about the Hugos, nor about publishing, nor about a particular publishing house. This fight is about being able to create worlds that live and breathe, outside the rigid constraints of ideology and of “correct thought.”
The art of the Soviet Union and of Nazi Germany, no matter how much some people like it, had the same ridiculously flat and lifeless look, the same “I’m serving a larger ideal” tone. It came across boring and predictable.
Art or even JUST entertaining story telling requires looking at things another way. It requires creating characters we recognize. It requires a depth of emotion and observation that is impossible when it’s “in the service of a larger ideal.”
Which is why publishing has been in decline. Thank heavens for indie. Over time people with real stories and real characters will come back. Real story telling is always better than preaching to the choir.
Part of the screams we hear are a dying establishment struggling to convince us they still matter.
Ignore them and write and create. I need books to read. And the best way to destroy them is to outcreate them and outcompete them. And now we can.