*Okay, so I got almost everything done yesterday and I’m tempted to say since today is mostly detail and fetch and carry that I’ll be back by early afternoon. OTOH what these last few months have taught me is that little tasks can eat a whole day, so no promises. I could still be at the other house at 2 am. BUT it will be done and we’re meeting with the realtor tomorrow early. So. If you guys wish I CAN post photos of cleaned/painted/wood-stained/staged rooms later. I mean, you should know what ate at least three books worth of time.
Going now. It’s going to be a rough day because I’m starting it tired. Keep fingers crossed for me.*
Help, there’s Slang in my History! – Alma Boykin
Twice, thus far, I have encountered books written by historians who lurched way too far in the “popular” direction while writing popular history. In one case I finished the book and just made a mental note to not write like that. The second case stopped me cold one-third of the way through the book, which I then deleted from my e-reader never to be touched again. And it led to much ranting and uncharitable thoughts aimed at both the author and whoever did not tell this individual, “This is excessively hip even for the American market.”
Looking back twenty years or so, the first book gave me the sense that the writer was trying too hard to be cute. She had written a light history about consumer culture during the time of Louis XIV and XV. She argued that many features of what we consider basic marketing and fashion began during this time and were centered on the court cultures of the two Louis. She then proceeded to walk through different case studies and examples. Some I don’t know enough about consumer history to judge, others seemed reasonable (the furniture showroom idea, for example, and the concept of fashion seasons.) She didn’t make any glaring blunders with the material I already knew, so I was inclined to take her arguments as pretty reasonable. But her little asides and winks bumped me out of the book on several occasions.
I’m not an expert on the aristocratic culture of 17th and 18th century France. I do not speak French. But I am pretty certain that no duchess or countess would have described herself as “fashion-forward” or have referred to Madam du Pompadour as being a “fashionista.” As memory serves, there was another place where a jeweler was referred to as the “Cartier” of the time. A few “Sex and the City” references may have been tossed in as well, in one case almost appropriately when the author interviewed a modern shoe designer about the goings on in a Fragonard painting.
The problem with this sort of cuteness is three fold. First, it makes me question the author’s respect for her topic. Just how seriously is she taking the material if she makes little winks and pop-culture shortcuts instead of using more appropriate terms? And if she’s not serious, why should I bother reading any farther? Second, ten or fifteen years from now, a reader might not get the references and will be thrown harder out of the book. Third, the book was packaged and sold as a moderately serious cultural history, not light pop history. If I had not gone through her endnotes and seen a goodly number of primary sources and academic monographs, I would probably have blown off the book and the author. As it happens, the author did do her work, is a decent historian and writer, and the book offers some interesting arguments about the origins of upper-tier consumer culture.
But the second one, oh the second one. My knowledge of Eastern Europe has some large holes, including Romania/Transylvania. So I went looking for histories of that region (that cost less than an arm and a leg). As you would imagine, the field is rather sparse, so when I found an inexpensive volume that had decent reviews and claimed to cover the history and culture of the region from Roman times to the early 20th century, I got it. The monograph started pretty well, with an outline of the topic and the author’s difficulties with the Communist-era historiography. Cool, this was what I was looking for, and so I dug in.
The first chapter had a few rough spots, but the footnotes held up and I’m willing to grant a lot of leeway to people writing in a second or third language when it comes to a few problems with almost-but-not-quite vocabulary and terms. They did not interfere with the story or the author’s argument, and I got what he was trying to say. Then the Romans arrived and the book started to get shaky. Not the facts and dates, no, but the interpretation and the language. Trajan waged a three-stage war against the Dacians, the people living in what is now Romania and Serbia, in the early second century. No problems there, until the author compared the results of the First Daican War to Pres. Bush’s speech with the “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background. That jarred, to put it mildly. It may have seemed catchy and current, but it really stuck out of the description of the campaigns, and made me a little concerned about what else might be coming. But perhaps it was a one-off comment.
Then it got worse. The Roman soldiers along the eastern limes, the frontier border between Roman Dacia and the barbarians, were “meat puppets” and a few other slang descriptions. Right there I stopped reading, closed the e-reader, and went to do something else. A day or so later I returned to the book, hoping not to encounter any more egregious abuses of historical writing. Wrong. The author continued to incorporate American slang and references when they really added nothing to his discussion about the re-organization of the Dacian countryside following the withdrawal of Roman civil authority and military forces from the province. The tone of cute asides and “well of course people didn’t abandon the land, they just relocated, stupid,” although aimed at earlier historians, grated too much for me to keep reading.
Now, I should add that the history of population movement and “who settled where when” in the area from, oh, south of the modern Hungarian-Slovak border to Corinth in Greece is a very hot topic. First, there are several periods without a great deal of records, if any, and archaeologists have to try and piece together what they can. Second, a lot of ethnic pride and nationalism is wrapped up in “who got here first,” and who should be where now. Romanian and Hungarian historians argue over Transylvania until they are blue in the face and/or cause nationwide pixel shortages. An ethnic Romanian arguing for multi-thousand year cultural continuity (and land claims) is going to be pretty vehement about the inaccuracy of claims to the contrary. That said, there are ways to express that without, in essence, calling the other side ignorant poopy heads.
I gave up on the book. Despite the author having done his homework, despite providing information that I might find useful, despite including recent research in an area that is very difficult to learn anything about, the book failed me so hard that I quit. The combination of pop references and slang, along with the rather snide tone the author took when discussing Late Antiquity and historiography, pushed me out never to return. If I were rating the book I’d have trouble. Four stars for factual material, perhaps five, at least for the portion I read, but one star for writing style and presentation. Or even zero stars, since that style pushed me out before I got to 500AD/CE.
As a writer, that first encounter with the French cultural history book made me wary of too-cute terminology. I try to keep the informality to an appropriate level based on my audience and the topic. Even in fiction, or perhaps especially in fiction, I tend to avoid slang. The most recent collision has just reinforced that policy, and made me very wary about keeping anachronisms out of my writing as well as out of the story. No medieval “Club Fed” references, no Romans asking for coffee or ancient Irish queens pining for chocolate, Goethe or Bismarck won’t have an assistant look up a bit of information from a database, and I will never, ever, ever imply that a historian with whom I disagree is a poopy head. At least, not in print.