historical accuracy on twiter

The Historical Accuracy Fallacy

historical accuracy on twiter

One of the more ridiculous aspects of this week’s discussion around Game of Thrones is how often people try to trump any complaints about (among other things) the abundance of rape or the dearth of POC characters with agency with: But Historical Accuracy! The number of people I’ve seen talk about how things were back then with all seriousness would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad.

Public Service Announcement: Game of Thrones is a fantasy novel, not a historical one. It does not take place in the past, it takes place in a fantasy world that shares some aspects of our actual past with many elements that are made up, including dragons, White Walkers, and people who can come back from the dead.

All of the elements in Game of Thrones are there because George R.R. Martin put them there. He, as the author, made choices and decisions and continues to do so. He uses history as a guide, but guess what: he’s allowed to do whatever he wants because he’s the author.

If a woman is raped in the story, it’s because he wrote it that way, it didn’t just happen because “that’s the way it was.” If all the brown-skinned people are slaves or savages[1], it’s not because anyone forced him to conceptualize them that way.

No speculative fiction author is bonded to historical accuracy, even when writing historical SFF. If you’e allowed to add magic and dragons and elves, you’re allowed to add brown people where folks think they didn’t exist[2] and you’re allowed to leave out the sexual assault.

Anyone who tries to argue otherwise probably has no real clue what’s historically accurate, anyway, and they also don’t understand how speculative fiction works.

The Grace of KingsWant an example of an author who gets this? Come here and let’s talk about Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

The novel is set in an alternate world in the island empire of Dara, a fantasy analogue for China. The series depicts a fictional, fantastic version of the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han Dynasty. There are several analogues to real people and real events in this first book. There are also major differences, especially in the technology available. And then there’s the treatment of women.

Minor spoilers ahead.

It’s easy to go with the default assumption that all past cultures were patriarchal in nature and therefore women have to be confined to certain roles and no man ever questions this or does anything about it. Liu doesn’t do that. He does the opposite.

At one point the two main characters are hunkered down in a town with an army waiting to destroy them outside. The army general can’t get them to come out and fight, so he attempts to lure them out with taunts. Flyers descend depicting the men dressed in women’s clothing and accusing them of being cowards with “feminine hearts.” The gendered insults are many and varied, but they all boil down to: these men are like women and therefore weak.

One of the main characters responds by asking “what is so bad about being compared to women? Half the world is women.” He later gives a speech about the courage of women, using events seen in the book up to that point as examples, and concludes:

“By custom, we wield the sword and wear the armor, but who among you does not know a mother, sister, daughter, friend, who exceeds you in courage and fortitude?

So let us no more think of being compared to women as an insult.”

Think this isn’t historically accurate? It might not be. But Ken Liu made a choice to give his character, a pragmatist, a logical reason to reject sexist nonsense.

This kind of thing happens more than once in the book. On top of that, all of the major and minor women characters get complex personalities and backstories. Some fit in to what might be considered traditional roles or types, many do not, all of them are well drawn[3]. I won’t say the book is some feminist utopia. I will say that the choices Liu made feel deliberate and considered. He didn’t let “Historical Accuracy” get in the way of creating characters that weren’t insulting to modern readers.

Every spec fic author has this option, this power. They are the creators of the world inside their books. Every aspect of a fictional world is a choice, even if the choice is “it was like that in the 1300s in England so it’s like that in my world, too.” That’s fine, but let’s not pretend that that isn’t what you chose and not something forced on you by God, History, or The Rules Of Writing.

Acknowledging this means that we have to stop responding to “There’s a lot of unnecessary rape in these books” with “That’s the way it was” and instead with “The author chose to include all that rape. Why? Is it really integral to the plot and character arcs, or is it down to laziness? Misogyny? A fondness for rape?[4]” Pushing aside that convenient excuse leads to a number of uncomfortable questions, doesn’t it?

And Historical Accuracy is an excuse, not a reason. Period.

Footnotes

  1. I’ll point out here that I don’t know if this is true, I’m saying if it’s true.[]
  2. And hey, guess what, they probably did.[]
  3. I have several specific examples but they are all spoilers and best discussed with folks who have read the book.[]
  4. I’m going to nip this in the bud right now: I am not accusing George R.R. Martin of liking rape or of being a rapist.[]

Further Discussions of Rape in Fiction and Media

Sansa wedding

Once again, the showrunners for Game of Thrones added a rape to the TV show that isn’t in the books[1] and, in doing so, managed to piss off a vocal slice of the fanbase. The reactions I saw on Twitter were vehement, with some even offering their condolences to George R.R. Martin for how the show has destroyed his creation[2]. The scene has re-ignited the neverending debate over the use of rape in fiction and media and specifically why Game of Thrones returns to it over and over.

One friend on Facebook[3] posited that Sansa’s rape is justified by the plot and characters and filmed in such a way that it’s not titillating. They asked: “If that’s not an appropriate way to handle a scene of sexual assault, what is?” My answer is: Not having it there at all, in this case.

I’m not convinced that the rape was justified by the story and character arcs, especially since the showrunners put Sansa in this situation where rape is now the only way to upset her so much that she allows Brienne to come rescue. The writers could have avoided it instead of making it seem necessary.

That’s really the crux of this: writers don’t always have to make rape necessary to the plot.

Writers can choose to do things differently. A few days ago I came across this post on Seanan McGuire’s Tumblr about her “No Rape” rule:

wordsandstrangeways asked:

I just wanted to say to you how grateful I am for your ‘no rapes’ clause on writing. My mum and I have very similar taste in literature and I found you about the same time she found Ilona Andrews so we’ve been swapping books to try them out and I’d never realised before how much the fear of assault hangs over me when reading fantasy. It’s shockingly common both in reference and in act and when dealing with anxiety it’s wonderful to have a safe book space to retreat into. Thank you.

seananmcguire answered:

That’s pretty much why it’s there.  I’m not saying “no one gets to write about this, ever,” but it’s not a tool I need when there are so many others for me to use.  Giving people a little peace is a joy. (If you wonder what this is in reference to, here: http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/470626.html)

That reader’s reaction is key. It’s important to have fiction you can count on not to include rape because that element is so prevalent in other books and media. That’s a thing some people need.

All writers don’t need a No Rape rule. And I would never say that no one should ever include or talk about rape in their fiction. If you choose to do so, it should always be a considered choice. And even then it’s not going to work for every reader.

That tweet inspired this post by Kelly Robson, the author of the story in question. She explains why she included rape in her story and lists all of the ways in which the story does not engage in the problematic aspects I point out in this post. And she’s absolutely right in that. Her inclusion and depiction of rape is not about quick and cheap character motivation, is not there to titillate, and is a considered choice. I also understand her reasons for needing to write that story.

I didn’t have a problem with her story on those grounds.

Though she interpreted my tweet to mean her story wasn’t worth reading, I meant what I literally said: it wasn’t worth that rape scene. It triggered me, and I didn’t feel that the story offered enough to make how much it triggered me worth it. It almost got there–Robson is a good writer, which helps–and for someone not as triggered as I was or not triggered at all, that story likely works just fine. For someone who would be triggered, maybe not. From the responses I got to my tweet at the time it seemed as though folks who also have issues with being triggered were glad to know this.

Any writer who decides to include rape in their fiction has to take that into consideration. You can do everything right in terms of how and why you include and depict rape and still some readers are not going to want it. As long as you’re aware of and fine with that, just keep doing the best you can. Some writers, like McGuire, make the choice to just not include rape at all, which is just as valid.

Right now I would settle for a lack of rape that’s included due to bad and lazy writing. If we can just eliminate or minimize that, I think we could have a productive and meaningful dialogue about the rest.

Footnotes

  1. As some have pointed out, what Ramsey did to Sansa on the show he did to Jeyne Poole in the books so technically it’s not an extra rape it’s just the rape of a different character than expected. Not that it makes any of this better.[]
  2. I have some quibbles with this reaction, but that’s another post.[]
  3. No link because the status is locked to friends. You’re free to out yourself here if you wish![]