One reaction to my presentation on how Historical Romance has been largely shaped by an imperialist (and therefore white supremacist) ethos has been, “Okay but people like their guilt-free fantasies. And Dukes sell. How exactly can we change this?” So here I am to blurt out my own thoughts on this, which are new and tangled and probably will change over time because again, I cannot emphasize enough that I don’t know anything about anything. I’m just trying.
My first disclaimer: My own books are not glorious examples of how to do this. I think I’ve managed to paint a Regency world that would not lead anyone to think “Oooh, what a delightful slice of humanity this is!” So that’s something, at least? But I’m mostly just fumbling along like all of us.
And I’m not saying this is easy. Look, writing a novel is HARD. Writing a Romance novel is, as we all know, even HARDER. Writing a really good one, with complex characters and halfway decent research and believable conflict, is HARDEST. Doing all that while trying to build a new and different perspective of a setting from which everyone has set-in-stone expectations – that’s HARDEST-ER. But you know, if you’re not here to challenge yourself and try to be a better writer, then you should probably go now. Thanks for stopping by.
For everyone who stayed, let's look at my thrillingly black and white bulleted list. (That's me: forever setting the world afire with my flashy graphics.)
The first thing to say here is: I do not want to change anyone’s fantasies. We couldn't if we tried. People want what they want, and that's that. And closely behind that is: I think we (some of us, anyhow) absolutely MUST keep writing Dukes and nobility, at least for now. Let’s start there.
Keep Writing (Some) Nobles
I did say to maybe dial back on the Dukes a little, remember – I did not say to stop writing Dukes altogether because they were all horrifying shitstains. I have not done the research, so maybe only like 30% of them were shitstains, what do I know? (Full disclosure: in my heart, I think probably more like 90% were shitstains, but I’m a working class American with a chip on my shoulder about rich people, so welcome to my bias.) I firmly believe that if all writers who are troubled by the “Dukes = Good” formulation stop writing Dukes, then we are really and truly fucked.
Because if you stop, then Dukes will only be written by people who will coat the nobility in sugar, and the very many readers who want All The Dukes will only ever get that sugar-sweet version of the nobility. (AND they’ll only read those while rejecting a more diverse/inclusive version of history, which is the exact OPPOSITE of what’s needed.) And it’s not just about representation – it’s like how long ago, we all believed that if only we could get more women in the workplace, in management and executive positions, then there’d be no more sexism or sexual harassment. It doesn’t work that way. Representation is extremely important, but it’s only half the solution. It’s the underlying structure that has to be fixed or else the problem lives on.
What I think is this: Go ahead and make your nobleman a fantasy – as unrealistically dreamboat as you want – but make the nobility and their world closer to the reality.
Here’s an example of how we already do this: We all know how repressive and confining and downright UNJUST the 19th century was for women, right? No voting, the law gives the men all the power, no such thing as marital rape, forget about going to university and becoming a doctor much less wearing trousers, etc etc. It was a horribly misogynist, sexist world. Yet our spunky heroines somehow always manage to find the one guy in all the land who’s not an irredeemable asshole and supports her independent spirit. That is pretty unrealistic, all things considered, but who gives a damn? Not me, because YAY FANTASY. And we manage to deliver on the fantasy while still painting a world that clearly shows our readers the true historical situation with women’s rights.
As I said in my presentation, go ahead and write rich white Christian people in England - just don’t write stories that make it hard for non-white, non-Christian perspectives to even exist in the same space. I’ll try an example here: it’s like how we too often paint a world in Historical Romance where, if you’re a woman with a sex life, you’re either a Virgin (who is introduced to the glories of nookie via the rakish Duke) or a Villainess (who has lots of non-marital sex, which means slut, which means evil – often The Evil Ex.) Again, I’m talking general rule and not the exceptions, here. Virgin or Villainess, those are your choices of sexual women. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner where readers are conditioned NOT to accept a heroine who has a healthy sex life before the hero comes along. It’s not that you have to write that neither-virgin-nor-villainess heroine; it’s that you don’t have to write a world where she can’t exist without readers saying “Gasp! That’s not a romance heroine!” Does that make sense? This is what I mean when I say to make room in our communal fantasy-land for alternate perspectives to exist, even if you don’t write those perspectives.
That’s truly all I’m saying: paint a historical world that doesn’t pretend, for instance, that the British brutalities in India weren’t happening in the 18/19th century. Your hero can be heroic not just by being tall and handsome and mindblowing in bed, but ALSO by being on the right side of history. He’s in the House of Lords, and maybe he made political enemies when he supported the Slave Act of 1807 – and maybe that’s honest to God all you have to say about it, as a bit of backstory, a tossed-off comment when someone wonders why he and the Marquess of Malice have some longstanding beef. Have your 12th century warrior come back from his trip to Spain determined to class this British joint up a bit with some better architecture and a center of learning or two, like he saw down south. Like that. Little details that remind your reader of the world you’ve set your story in.
I am told this is called world-building (please understand how incredibly ignorant I am when it comes to craft-speak) and I am talking about changing that, not tarring and feathering the British nobility in some sort of retroactive fictional revolution.
I am not in the business of telling people how to write their stories. There is no checklist of rules, and anyone who DOES think there should be a checklist of The Right Way is cordially invited to kiss my ass. There might be wrong ways, but that doesn’t mean there’s one right way. My personal belief (with which I know many disagree) is that my only job is to write a good story. That’s the only thing I’ve signed up for and it’s my only duty. Anything that does more than that is just gravy.
But I also don’t want to write a story that supports, empowers, and facilitates a destructive worldview that has consequences in the real world – not if I can help it.
So this is what I’ve come up with so far, just as guidelines for myself. Some are basic rules and some are aspirational goals. I’m hoping I find more ways to re-shape the world I give my readers, but for now this is what my raggedy creative brain has come up with, and maybe it’s of use to you. It’s kind of done in levels – like most basic to advanced.
1. First Do No Harm
If we never achieve more than this, we're doing better than whole generations of writers. Be aware of harmful stereotypes and just don’t put them in your books. That’s it. They are never needed for a story to work. They are always hurtful to many of your readers (and at the very least make most of your readers think you’re a shitty writer.)
Would you like to join me in actively thwarting white supremacist narratives? Then make it your priority especially to NOT further the stereotypes they employ to make their ideas mainstream. Those stereotypes are:
Non-white, non-Christian cultures (and people from those cultures) are depicted as degenerate and/or exotic
Non-white men are depicted as sexually violent, and non-white women as hypersexual (in both cases, they barely exist as humans outside of their sexual behavior)
Colonialism is shown in the best light, as an unqualified/unexamined good thing
Europe and especially Britain is, historically, a whites-only place
Don't put these stereotypes in your books.
First, do no harm. That’s it. You can stop here. You don’t need to do anything more than this to contribute to a better genre.
2. Speak Up
If you’d like to go further in the actively-fighting-propaganda role, you can push back wherever you see readers, reviewers, other writers, and just anyone claiming that it’s “unrealistic” to depict anyone who is not white or Christian as happy in history. White women were oppressed in history but still fell in love, right? Lots and lots of other people were oppressed in history and still fell in love, too, despite the ugliness of the world that surrounded them.
When you hear “that couldn’t have happened in history, so it shouldn’t be a story” – challenge that. How do you/they know it can’t have happened? Can you find one similar example in history – does the author give one? Why isn’t that enough? And don’t let the word “unlikely” slide by. Super muscular dukes whose teeth weren’t rotting out of their heads are unlikely too. So what? Help make room in our communal fantasy world for other stories to be told.
And part of speaking up is telling people about the books that already do this. There are authors out there writing these stories, and you should never pass up the opportunity to include them. Here is a link to help you find some.
3. Use History To Inform Your Stories
This can be an even bigger challenge for those of you who are not so hot on the research. I get it. But if you’re willing to push yourself, let go of history as it’s painted by romance novels and look to real history for inspiration. Get ideas for your characters and your conflict from real historical happenings, real political and ideological battles. Your Victorian heroine can be an abolitionist just as easily as she can be a suffragette. Your Regency hero can run afoul of the East India Company. Your medieval knight can refuse to help expel the Jews from England. There are like a bamillion ideas just waiting there in history, and they have the added advantage of not being done to death. ADVICE: Save your research receipts and put an Author's Note at the end of your book, telling your readers where this came from in the real historical record. Readers LOVE that shit and it will pre-emptively shut up some haters: win-win!
As Susannah Reilly just said on my Twitter feed: “Let us all remember how sexy it is to fight Nazis, and proceed from there.”
4. Non-White non-Christian Characters
For many of us who are white/raised Christian, this might feel like AP Advanced Creative Writing here. It's a daunting prospect because we’re very worried about getting it wrong. (The blunt truth is: we should be worried about that. Don’t write it if you’re not prepared to work your ass off to get it right, and also be prepared to fail.) (Actually that’s just a good overall writing tip: Always be prepared to fail.) But if you can populate your world with a greater variety of people, you’re going a long way to changing the shape of this genre for the better. I don’t have any tips on this because I haven’t yet done it. But I just know it’s an awfully white place, historical romance. If I never find a way to adequately depict people who don’t look like me, then at least I want to encourage others to try – especially authors who aren’t white and aren’t Christian, and who feel shut out from this genre. The world that we paint is incomplete without those perspectives.
That’s all I got, in terms of practical ideas for How To Combat White Supremacy Through History-Based Fiction. And look, no one book is going to be able to do ALL THE THINGS, so don't stress over trying to fit all of human history into your novel. We're all going to be a bit of a bumbling idiot from time to time and forget that oh yeah there was that whole Boer War going on then, oops. (I mean on a good day, I'm just hoping to write a believable blow-job, okay, this job is A LOT.) Like with anything, insisting on perfection from yourself is crazy-making. Just remember: first, do no harm. Then keep the rest in mind as you try to write the best story you can.
I hope this helps to flesh my thoughts out a bit. Like I said: tangled, new, fumbling. But I'll be damned if I don't try.