Even in a little thing
So many of the books I'm reading right now have historical overlays, underlays and in-between-lays. This is very good for me, because I've finally stopped getting annoyed at simple things the writers could do to improve their work and started thinking about how other readers approached the same works.
Four of the books came to me with prior comments attached by people who knew I'd be reading them. These comments were all the same "You'll love this - the history is great."
What's really interesting is the level and nature of history in each and every one of these books is different. None of them reached my ideal of what history can be in fiction. They do, however, all share tropes concerning the past.
What I'm discovering is the general readerly thought of historical accuracy and authentic setting comes from seeing certain clues about the period and being able to tick them off and say "Yes, this author has done their homework. I can trust this book."
That trust is important to readers. In a Regency setting, there are certain elements of Georgette Heyer's invented universe that have to appear. In a London setting there are certain places. If these elements can be ticked off, then the reader can more easily subsume themselves in the world of the novel and have a fine time. If they're not there at all, then no matter how precise the research is, the reader doesn't have that link and the trust is harder to develop.
Pastiche and pageant have very important roles to play in giving readers a vehicle by which they can travel into the tale. It's more comforting to think that we, as readers, prefer travelling in a nice secure history-coach, built of thirty years of careful research and thought, but it's simply not the case. I keep return to John Fowles, because the fiction created by the main character in The French Lieutenant's Woman summarises this situation elegantly. We, as readers, need to trust the narrator and believe in the story. If we don't, the whole narrative falls to pieces for us. Truth is less important that trusting in tale.
One day I ought to collect these elements and sum them up, but right now, it would add a vast amount to my work without much new insight. Still, I'd like to see it done. I know its been done for Georgette Heyer universes, for there have been several theses on them, and I've read a couple. That was a while ago and the only author's name I remember is Marlo Newton. And none of the theses I read were concerned with that particular element, they simply demonstrated it because it was such an important part of the development of the Regency romance/comedy (and now the development of the Regency romance/comedy with supernatural elements).
So much to read and so little time. So much to think about and so little time.
Every year I judge Aurealis this happens. Every year it bugs me.
As a judge, I start reading novels the moment the entries start piling up (four is a pile). Year-long, I seldom let the stack get above four. This means that all those early works have more time between them. It means that I don't see the borrowings from other books quite as clearly, and can judge each book on how well it works, as itself. This is important, because almost every novel written is massively derivative. That's how we read them. It's one of the reasons some novels are loved by so many people. Shared narratives are important.
When I read more than four of them in a week, however, it's much harder to put that shared narrative in the proper context of how the novel succeeds for itself. It's much easier to prefer a book because of its unique features rather than because of its sublime writing or utterly amazing characterisation or because it says something so very important and in such a lucid manner.
The sensible publishers know that there are award judges like me who read early and would rather spend the time on a book, and get their book in as soon as they can. Most publishers, however, seem to prefer a sprint at the end of the year. This meant that I've read fourteen books since Monday, and half of them were for the Aurealis awards. This then means that I have to take much stronger precautions to enable me to see each work as it is. So far, this is working, but just now I switched on my academic brain by mistake and did a thorough analysis of an author's work in the context of his other work, and had to stop and take a breath and realise just how bad an idea this was. That novel will score significantly higher now I've switched my academic brain off, for its strengths are now not being sublimated by me putting the single book in the context of every other published writing that author has ever produced.
Why am I stating all this, even though it's bleedingly obvious?
I'm stating it because I still don't have at least 20% of the works nominated for YA. I finish my reading on 31 December, if I can, for the December-January period is usually quite solid in work terms. This year it's even more so. This means that those books that get sent on 27 December because the publisher forgot the deadline will not even get the coffee breaks that I am using today to give myself distance, or the anime breaks I used yesterday.
Publishers and authors - it's in your interest to get your books in when they're published, not five minutes before the deadline, because the judges are, alas, human. We all have different timetables, too. You don't know how busy we will be in those last few weeks. All you can know for certain is that if the books are with us early, then early readers such as myself will juggle our reading to give each and every book the best chance of a fair reading. This gets harder to do in circumstances like this year's, when there are a lot of late nominations.
My gut feeling is that we'll see a record number of young adult books this year. Many of them are quite long (though none match the 900+ page novel I read on Monday for research). They take time to read, even for someone who reads quite quickly. This means there's less time to stop and contemplate than is ideal, for there are more books and the average page length is a bit higher than usual. I'm going to read every single word of every one of them, but the ones I got to luxuriate over and that were given a chance to resonate, were the ones submitted earlier.
I'm hoping that the missing dozen or so books arrive in the next week, for that way I'll be able to give them more time and thought.
And now, I have just a half a book to finish and then I get lunchtime and library and chiro. I've already packed the Aurealis book I shall read on the bus.
I'm full of excuses for not giving recipes. I had no time until early evening yesterday (it was a remarkably busy day) and then a thunderstorm loomed. I'll get to them someday.
What I've done today is stocktake. I have an examination (of someone else) to complete by Monday, and there are now 64 young adult novels entered for the Aurealis, so I have to read one a day throughout December, if I want to finish in time. This is better than the year most of them came in so late that I had to read three a day. Except that I haven't read any this month so far, so I am in catch-up mode. I've read three Aurealis novels today and so only have two to go. No worries.
My wonderful work experience student has let me borrow some of her anime. I get to watch one episode of Tsubasa after each novel. This gives my eyes a break and my brain a break.
This evening I'm back in the seventeenth century, I think. Last night the Middle Ages took place when I was awake due to shifting weather. And my own fiction (the editing thereof) was done while my work experience student was here.
I'm not quite keeping up with myself, but I'm making a valiant attempt.
I didn't get to the recipes last night because LJ was misbehaving and so was my computer and I got tired of it all so I read some historical fiction for research purposes. I'm still trying to make sense of what decisions writers make about the past they use and when in their writing they make those decisions.
Yesterday's novel was a tremendous help, for it contained some things it should not have and yet it was written by someone with a fair amount of knowledge. This means I have something I can cite when I need an example of choosing genre about precise research (for the writer was clearly capable of precise research and chose not to use it), but it also means I have a whole new issue, plus a curious insight.
The curious insight is that the novel demonstrates the limits of the writer's background in a rather drastic way. It's as if we don't know what we don't know, even when we're terribly knowledgeable. Which makes sense if the genre is the main determinant in the history we use in fiction: if we're writing paranormal romance (which is what yesterday's book was, mostly) then the subject ownership of the main character can come or go depending on her need to be an expert compared with her plot-needs as female protagonist. I really hate this latter for too often (and indeed, in the book I was reading) it's expressed through dumbing-down an intelligent protagonist, but I doubly hate it when someone who knows a bunch of stuff is suddenly ignorant. My example is that the character was capable of translating quite difficult Latin, by sight, until whoosh, at a key moment she can't translate simple Latin without a struggle. And we were given the simple Latin and I translated it by sight (and I really am not a brilliant Latinist) so it should have been within her capacity. That's not the only example, but it's a good one, because it brings me to my whole new issue. It isn't really a new issue at all, but it's one I haven't documented on my blog before.
This rise in popularity of historical fiction and fiction that uses history has taken an interesting path. An expert audience has developed alongside it. I know this because I have friends who are part of that expert audience. They are fans of particular authors who are more careful in their research, and I have close friends among them. And their number is growing.
What's important about this is the assumption that some writers are making is that bad history won't matter so much as long as they get the big historical questions right, or create a feel for the period, or make one particular aspect look very impressive. For some authors, sales will happen regardless, but they won't keep the core of the consistent readers and reporters in the genre and this core is increasingly important for getting the word out about books in a difficult market. I need to research this some more, I think, but I don't know where I'll find the time. I might have a chat with Sarah Johnson, in a couple of months, and see if she's seen any changes due to this phenomenon. She's someone who'd know.
I think it's a bit related to the whole empowerment of geeks. It's now perfectly fine for intelligent women to be critical and thoughtful (as long as trolls and idiots are avoided). This has created a bunch of very stable and very large readers' circles. And it means that history geeks talk to each other about books. It only takes one respected person among a group to point out that a particular emperor has no clothes for a new book to tumble from the altar of best-sellerdom.
The readers I'm talking about are by no means all women, but the women are the ones who speak out in the circles I know. Small single errors are forgiven, but Mary Sue plots are pounced on as wish fulfilment and sequential errors are pointed out.
Over the years, these groups have become more sophisticated. I think this is because their members have created a positive learning loop. I recently apologised to Elizabeth Chadwick for going technical on her fan page, and she laughed at me. Her fans like it, it appears.
It doesn't have to be all fans, or even most fans, but I think we're creating a higher bar for fiction that uses history and that authors who fumble will have to increasingly have reasons for not doing that bit of extra work. Genre is currently one such reason (though I don't know for how much longer). However, the more this group of critical readers create a new criticism that values the history in a novel, the more mass market commercial writing of all kinds will have to change to meet it. History may not be taught terribly well in many curricula, but that isn't stopping there from being a sea change in how key readers perceive it in fiction and describe it.
This isn't the first time this has happened. Walter Scott's fans did the same thing. It was a very powerful thing back then, and had a big effect on how Britain saw its history. Now, with social networking and other modern ways of linking, it's going to be even more interesting. The authors who don't take note of it will develop a different class of fan and will wonder why all the cool kids are elsewhere.
What impresses me about these readers is their capacity for learning. I'm seeing it everyday. I get questions from all sorts of people at conventions and online and even at parties. People want to know about our relationship to the past. They want to know what their ancestors might have eaten or what life was really like in the fourteenth century. Programs such as Time Team add to this questioning by supplying some of the tools to question with. One of the most-appreciated elements of the course I recently taught on the Middle Ages was my improvised This is how you assess for yourself whether a book is reliable."
So many of these questioners say "I wasn't taught at school, but I can learn now." It's a wonderful thing. I noted its amazingness ages ago, but now I'm applying it to the changing nature of of how history is presented in fiction and I think I have more work to do. I know I have more work to do.
In this case, though, I'd rather someone else did the work, for it's a vast task and I already have more research than you can poke a stick at. I know people who are doing PhDs in similar areas, so it's only a matter of time before someone does one on this. I hope.
I've cancelled everything except work today and I've replaced my plans of lunch with a friend and dinner with other friends with sleep. Sleep and work instead of meeting friends and work. It makes a difference. This virus is one that requires much sleep, it seems - it's also one that responds to sleep. What's good is that my idiot foot also responds to sleep. It quite probably needs more rest to heal than a non-driver can give it. Today, it will get much rest.
There are only five more days for people to nominate books and stories for the Aurealis awards. In theory, we're getting entries right til December 31, but the reality is that nominations close on Friday and people want their holidays, so we're actually getting most things in time. If you know anything that ought to be nominated, there's still time... but not much.
I received two nice, chunky novels just this morning, which means I should have just ten to read this month, plus the shorter works. Not much. Three novels a week (for the stories amount to two novels) which is comfortable. This is good, for I'm hoping work on the Beast will revv up a bit and, of course, Pepys is taking longer than he ought because I keep stopping to argue with him.
I'm very glad I decided to read the whole of every volume (the complete version, not the highlights) because it quite changes the view he gives of his place and time. I'm doubly glad I decided to do this so very early in my research, for I need him to be useful background, not to take ownership of it. My problems yesterday were mostly people taking ownership of my background and claiming it was something that it was not, and diminishing my own role in my life and my thoughts and my belief. I do not want to do this to my characters.
The thing about all this sleeping is it got my brain working. In sorting out my main concern with yesterday, I realised something very important about 17th century England.
From an Australian point of view, England is culturally dominant. So much of our identity is based on this, that it goes without saying that English wildlife was the pre-emininent set in literature until recently and that English thoughts often frame our world.
This wasn't quite the case in 17th century England, I suspect. It was partly its own culture, and strongly so. But it was also partly culturally a colony. The elite made it so. It was colonised by Ancient Greece and Rome. This is why, I think, the fig eater was one of the birds representing the seasons. It wasn't an English bird (though I'd be very interested if anyone can demonstrate it was, and why it was associated with figs) but a classical one, from the Mediterranean. I was halfway to this understanding in the discussion on one of the other posts, yesterday, but now I think I've sorted it out.
There is more than one type of colonisation, and England in the 17th century underwent two or three kinds. The one kind it didn't undergo was the type associated with outright physical invasion and change of government. This means that its culture is going to have all kinds of incongruities that demonstrate where the colonisation doesn't quite mesh with the reality. How people handle it is the interesting thing, and I'm glad of the grand confusion over the birds, for it alerts me to the fact that my characters have something to handle.
Culture and society in 1682 is amazingly and wonderfully complicated and I've only just dipped my toe in the water and wondered what it will be like to understand a bit more. I can fully understand why Early Modern experts are as passionate about their fields as I am about mine. They don't have the advantage of having fantasy readers and RPGers and other receivers of tales explaining that it's all sexy, but it is. The people of the seventeenth century are just as sexy as the people of the Middle Ages - the period is just as fascinating. I'm going to have an intense and wonderful time with this next year of research.
Sleep is such a wonderful thing. My body is a mess, but my brain is now working again.
No recipe until tomorrow, I'm afraid. I'm too worried that I'll offend someone, or say something that someone will fact check, or that I'll be told what I believe or how I should think or what I should do with my life. For it has turned into one of those days. So many small slings and annoyances that I've finally stopped biting my tongue about them. I mostly let the small things slide, for there are so many of them and they're really not worth wasting life over, but today the number has doubled and redoubled and I am full of ... something.
Part of that something is virus. I have the latest virus in all its splendour. Not just me. All my closest friends in Australia seem to have it. Every single one of us. And, for some reason, the world is doing to my friends what it's doing to me: lots of small and avoidable negatives, descending upon us like avalanches.
I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my evening, but I value my friends, so I shall get offline before I offend every single one of them. I've done a pretty good job with 2-3 of them, so far.
Just for the record, one of my great sensitivities is being told that I have the same deity as people from a religious group that perpetually tries to convert me. I don't care what it looks like on paper: anyone trying to convert me doesn't accept that my deity is their deity. And telling me we share this belief is a tad insensitive, perhaps.
Being publicly Jewish makes me a conversion target for so many groups (not Jehovah's Witnesses, who are always very kind, and not Seventh Day Adventists, and seldom Anglican) that I find assumptions about my belief upsetting. It assumes I live in a tidy little world where no-one desecrates graves or beats people up or tells me to go back to where I came from or assumes I have an inner desire to own the world because I'm Jewish. Ask me about my belief - do not make statements about it. For those who make statements without checking are siding with the makers of graffiti, who may not be nearly as nice people but who also assume they know stuff about me, when, really, they don't.
And those just demonstrates I have the virus, doesn't it? I'll do an hour's work before I go to bed. The work doesn't go away just because I'm a trifle unwell and more than somewhat moody.
I asked the hivemind if anyone knew the seventeenth century relationship between birds and seasons. No-one responded, so I've attempted the pairing myself, so that I can test it against literature I read. Otherwise I won't have those links when I need them, and I know I'll need them. It's a bit strange doing this from Australia, for I've only seen one set of European seasons with any birds. Everything else is long-distance. Ask me about when Australian magpies nest - I'm good on that.
This is my attempt, given the birds I know were associated with the seasons:
swallows and summer (because of the saying "a swallow doesn't make a summer")
cuckoos and spring (for how can they shove other birds from the nest, if other birds are not nesting? and I am assuming they nest in the spring, for most birds I know do this and it's a theme in English folkstuff)
robin and winter (based on the evidence of Christmas cards, I'm afraid)
fig-eater and autumn (because it's the only season left).
I'm happy to take opinions on this. I'll be looking at nature literature when I've finished with Pepys. Nature literature* will only have part of the answer, so, if I don't have my answer by then, I'll have my eyes open for data when I'm looking at other primary sources, closer to actually writing the novel. Pepys may take a while. In one way he's peripheral to my novel, but in another way he's defining some of its edges, for he wanders around the world my characters live in, twenty years earlier, and shows me another side of this very gendered society.
Pepys is curiously not interested in his natural surroundings, only that he might give a five year old pair of kid gloves to someone to thank them for relaying his salary to him. He lived in a complex world where fear and favour and finance all mingled. I sill don't know how most women fitted into that world. Women don't give him gifts and he mostly (so far) gives money to women who are inferior to him (which is implied only) and gifts so far not at all. If he gives them, he doesn't document them as carefully - they are not as important to him. I need a study of women's role in the gift-giving hierarchy of the seventeenth century.
*That reminds me - I need to source weather data. Closer to writing time, I think, when I know exactly which days each character will be where. If I could get annual data for the early 14th century, I surely can get something even more useful for the seventeenth.
VERY IMPORTANT ETA: I wasn't clear enough. The list of birds come from the particular emblem book I'm using. That means I can't change the names of the birds unless I change to another emblem book and then I'd have to use the names of the birds from that one - I can't chop and change the birds without compromising the research.
The trouble is that the association of each of these birds with a season was so very well known in the 17th century that it didn't need to be spelled out. I thought it wasn't obvious to me because of where I live, but now I wonder if it's not a set of associations that's in general use at all. This is OK - for I have an increasing list of small things to watch out for in the next six months of reading. Really well-known associations *will* be mentioned in passing: it would have been a lot easier for me of someone knew the associations, but it isn't essential.
It's odd to discover that not even the birds are a standard list for people who live elsewhere than Australia, though. Just demonstrates one cannot assume cultural continuity alongside language continuity across either time *or* space. Which is why I go to such lengths to check this kind of thing and why I don't write historical stuff more often. I'm not after probable identification (which is what I did in my list above) - I'm after the actual thing, for that decade, in that country. Given I'm using the gentry vicinity, I don't have to specify region so much, which is something. For my Languedoc novel (which still lacks a publisher - it's at the stage where if it's going to reach print in the near future it's probably going to be because someone said a word in the ear of someone else - I get wonderful feedback on it, but also comments about the impossible state of the industry) I had to specify region...
I forgot to give you a recipe!
I will work my way through your requests and give you recipes for as many of them as I can, but, to hold off your hunger, first you need the all-purpose latke. Not the potato latke, which is a mere variant, but the actual and true latke I'm making this season. That is, if I don't find a splendid-for-frying heritage potato at the market tomorrow, in which case I could be tempted to make potato ones, maybe for Monday night. My remaining vegetables for this season (unless potato happens to pass my path) are mashed sweet potato, broccolini, zucchini (which I will grate, rather than chop) and possibly tinned corn. I haven't decided which should be combined and which cooked separately.
Take any vegetables that you need to use up. If they're pre-cooked, they will fry faster and you'll have an outer crunch and an inner softness. If they're not pre-cooked, the texture varies. Chop these vegies up into fine pieces. Add some finely chopped onion (the latke recipes I've given out without onion were devised for siblings with allergies - for myself, I put onion in, almost always). For every two handsful of vegies, add one egg. Add enough liquid to make the desired batter (do you want hefty latkes, or thin and elegant ones?). The liquid can be milk, but I've experimented with all sorts of things. If you need gluten-free latkes, then tinned vegies work nicely, for they require no chopping, and you can use the liquid from the tin for the liquid in the mixture. Add a bit of flour or besan or matzah meal or chia or equivalent when you need to thicken the runny coating a bit.
Mix everything well. Season with salt, pepper, and, if you're me, tabasco or chilli or lemon myrtle or something more exotic. If you want to cut down on the salt, then a squeeze of lemon juice does the job rather nicely.
At other times of the year, I would shallow fry or (preferably) almost dry fry, using just enough oil for colour, texture and flavour, but for Chanukah you use more oil, and use hot oil and if you don't have crunch, you've done it wrong.
Serve with sour cream, or apple sauce, or, sour cherry jam, or well, almost anything that balances the flavour. For potato latkes it's always sour cream for me, but since apple sauce is traditional for some US friends, I will serve it when I'm making a gluten free variant.
Work was slow taking off today because my own slowness is infectious. I had a lovely time with a friend who dropped in this morning and we went to the library. This is good. What isn’t so good is that my week was so… interesting that I gave up after lunch and went back to bed. I don’t hurt nearly as much and I can now think again. Which is a shame, for it means I have to deal with two aspects of the problem that is Pepys.
The first aspect is the amount of gift-giving he documents. I think that this is just an element of the early modern economy: people gave Pepys gifts because of his role (socially, politically, economically) as well as for the reasons we assume that people give gifts today. In other words, gifts were an aspect of finances. This is not so unexpected – Australia is unusual in not tipping and in seldom using favours to oil wheels. My problem is that I don’t know where this stops and where the social starts. There may not be a boundary at all. The problem with no boundary is that the practice of gift-giving and recompense (the price is a gold coin, offered after the event with no strings attached) for small favours done is it makes it almost impossible to see how women fitted in. I rather suspect that one way women were disempowered was by being excluded from this aspect of the economy except in certain circumstances. Actresses were part of it, mistresses were, and prostitutes were, but where did housewives and estate owners and businesswomen and servants fit? This is my first problem.
The second Pepysian problem relates to my ongoing work on how writers see history. I didn’t realise that variety of questions that Gillian-the-historian poses the texts she reads. Somewhere in the last thirty years I put some of my reflexivity away, for safekeeping. Now that I’ve taken it out of storage, I find that some writers ask the same level questions I do, but that most don’t.
What I need to find out is whether the type of questions writers ask of primary sources changes according to genre. I don’t need to measure the research of writers against the research of historians, but against the research of other writers. And it’s not a simple theoretical structure (the way we’re taught to conceive of research as undergraduates) but a complex one. I’m certain now that our use of certain notions as writers (“I’m working on the research for this novel.” “I’m deep in reading primary sources.”) hides more disparate uses of sources and decisions and quite different understandings of the past than they demonstrate similarities between writers. And I’m beginning to think that this, too, may be genre-linked and that only a very, very small minority of fiction writers make reflexive and aware decisions concerning the nature of the research they’re undertaking.
Later on today I’ll post a recipe. Right now I’m still puzzling over Pepys.
( It's second night, so here's my version of The Chanukah Story - with a few modest additions, mainly my footnotes and their footnotes developing footnotes of their own. They were feeling left out. Enjoy the next seven days, everyone. Burn many candles! Eat much fried food! Gamble!Collapse )