Friday, September 30, 2011

Guest Blog by Stephanie Dray and Giveaway - September 30, 2011

Does Historical Fiction Glorify Sexism, Racism and Class Discrimination?
Stephanie Dray
September 21, 2011

I write books set in the early Roman empire, a time during which a lot of horrible things were accepted as commonplace. Slavery was a normal part of life. Social class was enshrined into law. Women were sexual chattel, often without a say in their own lives and without representation in government. Human beings were forced to battle to the death in an arena for the entertainment of others.

In short, life wasn’t pretty.

In spite of this, people in the early Roman empire weren’t all that different than we are. Their aims for their lives have remarkable resonance with our own. They wanted to honor their forefathers. They wanted greater security and prosperity for their children. They were patriots. They believed in some forms of social mobility. They built beautiful things that are still a wonder to our eyes. They created governmental and public programs that worked more smoothly in some cases than our own. In short, they tried to instill a sense of order into the chaos of the world around them. They survived and thrived and bequeathed to us a wealth of knowledge without which we would be much poorer as a civilization.

So how to handle their portrayal in a fictional novel? Does one make the Romans out to be fascist monsters? (Certainly, that’s how my heroine sees them at first.) Does one take a stance of moral relativism and present them without censure and perhaps with a glow of rosy admiration? (Colleen McCoullough seems to take this approach.) Does one use humor to deflect readers’ discomfort in reading about such a ruthless way of life? (John Maddox Roberts seems to have gone this route.)

Or does one simply trust the reader to know that a portrayal of history is not an endorsement of it?

Until recently, I’d have thought it was understood that just because an author writes about something horrible doesn’t mean he or she is encouraging it. We do all understand that horror and thriller writers aren’t advocating murdering people, right? But it seems as if historical fiction and fantasy writers aren’t always given the same benefit of the doubt.

I’ve seen a bizarre slew of criticism lately, ranging from one author being accused of bigotry for writing from the viewpoint of a character with a documented distaste for Jews to another author being panned for her ancient heroine being insufficiently appalled by the institution of slavery.

Now, I’m all about reading the subtext and thinking critically about what a book’s true message is. I understand that an author can inadvertently write a body of work, the underlying theme of which makes you question the author’s values. (The combination of Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300 comes to mind.)

That said, some genuine effort at giving a fair reading to the author’s motives ought to be made before announcing, say, that George R. R. Martin is creepy. (I know. Martin isn’t a historical fiction novelist, but his fantasy is loosely based on the historical War of the Roses, so the reaction to his work is still relevant here.)

So why do historical fiction writers choose to revisit the past when it was a nearly unrelenting march of injustice, sexism, racism, and just about every other bad -ism you can think of?

My own primary motivation in writing historical fiction is to use it as a mirror to hold up against contemporary society. I want my readers to look at the ancient world and compare it to the world in which we live today. I want my readers to realize how far we have come. I also want my readers to realize that the progress of women’s liberation is not a straight line. There have been setbacks in the ancient past and there will likely be setbacks in the future against which we ought to be wary. I want my readers to compare the political propaganda we hear in the news today to the kind that was spewed by Augustus.

This is my intent. And yet, I realize that sometimes my intent is not conveyed. This may be because I’m not talented enough. It may also be because every reader carries their own baggage. Every reader’s experience of my novel is going to be unique to them. They are going to tend to see in it things that conform to their own world view.

But if their world view is that writers never write about the depravity of history unless it’s out of a creepy sense of wish-fulfillment, then their world view is spectacularly ill-informed.

Oh, I’m sure there are Civil War writers who really wish that slavery had never been abolished. (Newt Gingrich comes to mind.) I’m sure there are horror writers who use the therapy of putting pen to paper to keep them from sacrificing babies to Satan. I’m sure of it because given a large enough population of people, you will always find some percentage of sociopaths and freaks. However, since it’s very clear that those people are a deviation from the norm, why don’t we just assume that writers of fiction have some other more benevolent reason for writing about evil?

(Also, isn’t it worse to air-brush over the horrors of the past as if the world was so much better back then?)

Some authors write historical fiction for the same reason I do. Others write it because they have an obsession with documenting little known facts. Still others wish to put a human face onto an obscure time period. So they write about all the awful things people did back then. They don’t generally write about it because they want their audience members to pine longingly for the day when kings ruled absolutely and could behead their wives.

I’ve heard it argued that some readers do romanticize that past and wish to return to the glory days when women, peasants and brown people knew their place. This is horrifying, but the fact that lunatics and losers might read the wrong thing into a fictional novel has never been, to my mind, any real criticism against that novel.

About the Novels of Cleopatra's Daughter

Song of the Nile
Cleopatra's Daughter 2
Berkley Trade, October 4, 2011
Sorceress. Seductress. Schemer. Cleopatra’s daughter has become the emperor’s most unlikely apprentice and the one woman who can destroy his empire…

Having survived her perilous childhood as a royal captive of Rome, Selene pledged her loyalty to Augustus and swore she would become his very own Cleopatra. Now the young queen faces an uncertain destiny in a foreign land.

Forced to marry a man of the emperor’s choosing, Selene will not allow her new husband to rule in her name. She quickly establishes herself as a capable leader in her own right and as a religious icon. Beginning the hard work of building a new nation, she wins the love of her new subjects and makes herself vital to Rome by bringing forth bountiful harvests.

But it’s the magic of Isis flowing through her veins that makes her indispensable to the emperor. Against a backdrop of imperial politics and religious persecution, Cleopatra’s daughter beguiles her way to the very precipice of power. She has never forgotten her birthright, but will the price of her mother’s throne be more than she’s willing to pay?

Lily of the Nile
Cleopatra's Daughter 1
Berkley Trade,  January 4, 2011
Heiress of one empire and prisoner of another, it is up to the daughter of Cleopatra to save her brothers and reclaim what is rightfully hers...

To Isis worshippers, Princess Selene and her twin brother Helios embody the divine celestial pair who will bring about a Golden Age. But when Selene's parents are vanquished by Rome, her auspicious birth becomes a curse. Trapped in an empire that reviles her heritage and suspects her faith, the young messianic princess struggles for survival in a Roman court of intrigue. She can't hide the hieroglyphics that carve themselves into her hands, nor can she stop the emperor from using her powers for his own ends. But faced with a new and ruthless Caesar who is obsessed with having a Cleopatra of his very own, Selene is determined to resurrect her mother's dreams. Can she succeed where her mother failed? And what will it cost her in a political game where the only rule is win-or die?

About Stephanie

Stephanie graduated from Smith, a small women’s college in Massachusetts where–to the consternation of her devoted professors–she was unable to master Latin. However, her focus on Middle Eastern Studies gave her a deeper understanding of the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion.

Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

Stephanie's Links

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The Giveaway


What:  One commenter will win a copy of Song of the Nile from Stephanie. (US/ Canada mailing addresses only)

How:  Leave a comment answering the following question:

Who is your favorite historical person? 

Please remember - if you don't answer the question your entry will not be counted.

You may receive additional entries by:

1) Being a Follower of The Qwillery.

2) Mentioning the giveaway on Facebook and/or Twitter. Even if you mention the giveaway on both, you will get only one additional entry. You get only one additional entry even if you mention the giveaway on Facebook and/or Twitter multiple times.

3) Mentioning the giveaway on your on blog or website. It must be your own blog or website; not a website that belongs to someone else or a site where giveaways, contests, etc. are posted.

There are a total of 4 entries you may receive: Comment (1 entry), Follower (+1 entry), Facebook and/or Twitter (+ 1 entry), and personal blog/website mention (+1 entry). This is subject to change again in the future for future giveaways.

Please leave links for Facebook, Twitter, or blog/website mentions. In addition please leave a way to contact you.

Who and When: The contest is open to all humans on the planet earth with a US or Canadian mailing address. Contest ends at 11:59pm US Eastern Time on Friday, October 7, 2011. Void where prohibited by law. You must be 18 years old or older to enter.

*Giveaway rules are subject to change.*


  1. One of my favorite historical figures is Benjamin Franklin. He invented so many things that started us on the path of growth and technology to where we are today.
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  2. this book looks AWESOME!!

    fav historical figure will have to be..the wright brothers!! i love to fly!

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  3. Hey everybody. Thought I'd chime in to say that I also think Ben Franklin's a fabulous figure!

  4. Cleopatra is my favorite.
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  5. Great post to read. The books also look awesome with gorgeous covers.

    My favourite historical figure would be Joan of Arc.

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  6. OOOOH! I've been lusting after this book forever!!!!!

    I'd have to say that one of my fav historical figures would be Joan of Arc. I've read several nonfic and fic books about her and she's fascinating! Mentally ill or Divinely driven? Debate will rage on forever :)

    Thanks for the awesome post and giveaway!

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  7. I think President Abraham Lincoln was a great man. He freed the slaves. Please enter me in contest.

  8. I love reading about Anne Boleyn, so she would be my favorite :)

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  9. I love all of the Tudors

  10. One of my favorite more recent historical figures is Mother Theresa. She worked so hard trying to help others, especially children.
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  11. I love Tesla! edysicecreamlover18@gmailDOTcom
    GFC Krystal Larson

  12. My favorite is Ramses II.

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    Tracey D
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  13. My favorite historical figure has to be Selene and im not just saying that! im serious, she really is :) ever since i read michelle moran's Cleopatra's Daughter ive picked up everything that had to do with her and i loved lily of the nile and cant wait to read song of the nile :D

  14. My friend Albert Bell shows slave-owner Pliny the Younger with occasional moments of reflection on the peculiar institution that was normal to his time. When I wrote my story The Aristotelian, I tried to show the "white man's burden" attitude of Victorian England in the narrator, Mycroft Holmes.

    Nobody can reasonably be upset if Pliny were a flat-earther. Or if Mycroft Holmes doesn't hold to Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

    If moral laws are like the laws of physics, then the racism, sexism, and all the other things may simply be things our protagonists have not learned. If these moral laws are real, then Pliny and Mycroft should see some negative consequences of their ignorance.

  15. Marie Antoinette, I know she wasn't a great person, but her life is still fascinating to me.

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  16. I think that whenever an author chooses to include very controversial issues in their books, I am actively looking for the answer why. Is it there to tititillate? Is it the only way this particularly story could be told because of the constraints of the environment? Is it because the author is trying illustrate some grave wrong? Is it because the author is trying to argue against some previously applied prejudice?

    I don't always get the answer from the text and if the question is left unanswered, I'm often disturbed.

    As to a couple of your points, I believe the author was Heyer and from her body of work and other texts about her, some readers have strong evidence of her anti Semitism and her staunch classism. I thought Sunita's view of Heyer's work was persuasive:

    It's important for authors to be thoughtful in their editorial choices because I think too often that just "writing" without conscious though to those choices can often lead readers to arrive at uncomfortable conclusions in the books. I had one such experience with a pnr book I read. The author, who I believe strongly is not racist in any fashion, wrote her characters in such a way that the blue eyed blonde haired creatures were all good and those that had colored skin or darker hair were not good. The juxtaposition, albeit probably unintentional, left me taken a back.

  17. My favorite historical figure is William Shakespeare. He was so prolific and many current works are based on the themes or characters he created.

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  18. Great points, Jane. I'm not sure you left me anything to disagree with.

    I think that whenever an author chooses to include very controversial issues in their books, I am actively looking for the answer why.

    I read books this way too. To be clear, I'm arguing that historical fiction authors ought to be given a presumption that they're decent human beings--not a free pass.

    Is it there to tititillate? Is it the only way this particularly story could be told because of the constraints of the environment? Is it because the author is trying illustrate some grave wrong? Is it because the author is trying to argue against some previously applied prejudice?

    I would add to that list: Is the controversial subject there because of some genre expectation? If so, is there something wrong with that genre expectation or does it serve some literary value?

    As to a couple of your points, I believe the author was Heyer and from her body of work and other texts about her, some readers have strong evidence of her anti Semitism and her staunch classism. I thought Sunita's view of Heyer's work was persuasive:

    Alas, the author I was speaking about in my example about bigotry was not Georgette Heyer; I was late to that debate on the Dear Author blog and don't feel qualified to weigh in on Heyer as a historical fiction author.

    However, I will say that I'm frequently frustrated with Shakespeare's stereotypes even though I realize he was probably rather progressive for his age. His sexism would not cause me to downgrade "Antony and Cleopatra" as a work of historical fiction, but it's a legitimate basis for critique.

    It's important for authors to be thoughtful in their editorial choices because I think too often that just "writing" without conscious though to those choices can often lead readers to arrive at uncomfortable conclusions in the books.

    There are historical fiction authors who don't believe there can be subtext in the fictionalization of a person's real life. (And readers who agree with them.) I don't take that position; I'm made nervous by the idea that historical fiction is somehow to take the place of actual biographies.

    (I would not presume to take on the mantle of a historian and I resent when folks who have not had the rigorous training for it behave as if they've earned a degree by writing a book. The science of history demands an academically neutral approach, a standard to which even the best historians fall short, but a standard to which I'm not sure I would even want to aspire.)

    There are also historical fiction authors who believe that their primary purpose is to educate. (And many readers also take that view.) Those in this camp believe that the literary value in historical accuracy trumps any personal discomfort difficult issues might provoke in the reader. This is what causes internet flame wars about historical accuracy.

    Setting that issue aside, I take the position (which is controversial in historical fiction circles) that my first duty is that of a novelist. I respect history as a science but my personal mission is to use history to tell a story--and all my stories have messages.

    Occasionally my message may be obscured by either mistakes I've made, poor execution or by an unexpected emotional response from a reader, but I use (or abuse) history for a reason, so I'm mindful of the subtext and wish that other authors would be too.

    That said, accidents do happen, and I generally give historical fiction authors the benefit of the doubt if there's a question about their personal motives.

    Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation.

  19. No pluses for me :) I want to comment solely on your terrific post about judging writers by what they write.

    I write about history because I think knowing our past is essential to understanding our present and future. It wasn't always pretty. But how does pretending otherwise make it better?

    Let's assume George R. R. Martin is a horrible, violent misogynist. So what? He's one man. If that is truly the message people take from his books, what does it say about our society that he's a bestselling author? And if most people don't see that in his work, what does it say about the ones who do?

    We can only begin to change after we acknowledge our shortcomings. Shooting the messenger (in this case the author) is a knee-jerk reaction, because we don't want to acknowledge the truth: that many of those past errors are still with us, hiding under a veneer of respectability.

    I propose that when we can read and discuss controversial topics like rape, racism, or classism without attacking the person who who shone a light on them, we as humans will have truly overcome them. Until then, we should never try to suppress or deny thier existence (past or present), because hiding things never fixed anything.

  20. In thinking about my favorite historical figure I immediately flashed on Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure LOL Oh to be able to actually have an adventure like that. I do not know that I have one specific person, but I would liked to have been a fly on the wall and met Sir Winston Churchill. Thank you for the fun today and the lovely giveaway opportunity.
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  21. Interesting post. I find historical fiction to be such a fascinating genre because of how differently people interpret past events.

    My favorite historical figure is Caesarion, Cleopatra Selene's brother. Ever since I read Cleopatra's Heir by Gillian Bradshaw, I have been obsessed with the time period. :) Thank you for the awesome giveaway!

    GFC - Lieder Madchen


  22. One of the historical figures that I find very fascinating is Belisarius, the Byzantine General. Reading about his campaigns got me interested in the Byzantine empire.

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  23. I have so many favourite and one of them is Oskar Schindler. At a time when humanity seemed loss he really stepped out and risked his.

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