Monday, September 12, 2011

New words, old words, words that hurt

I posted this a few days ago at Dear Author, in a lengthy discussion about their proposal to apply a new "tag" to historical romances that don't measure up to someone's standards of historical accuracy.  The standards are never defined, not even by the individual DA reviewers who responded in the thread.  At best, they seemed to be saying it would be used at their individual discretion, regardless whether they liked the book in question or not.

Some posters felt the new tag was a good idea, some felt the opposite.  I was in the latter camp, not because I felt errors of fact should not be pointed out in the review process, but first because the tag itself had a distinctly pejorative denotation and second because there were no standards for its application.

At one point, one of the posters, going by the name "DM," took me to task for inaccurately refering to the term "space opera," which in fact DM had introduced to the discussion.  In doing so, however, DM addressed me as "Linda Hamilton."  Since I post on DA under my own name, there was no reason for DM to have made this error, which in fact DM had made a few days earlier as well.  Clicking on  the "reply" button would have correctly identified me.

DM dismissed the error as discourteous, apparently therefore not really an error, but continued to insist what I had written was wrong.  Not wanting to start -- or in some opinions continue -- a flame war, I waited until the next day to post my response, which follows:

My apologies to all for hashing this out, but I don’t know how to do it privately.
You wrote –
Science fiction was once where romance is now. It was published by specialized presses, marketed to one gender, and identified by a distinctive style of cover art that evolved over time. Today, outstanding science fiction is recognized as just plain good literature, it is read widely by both genders, and classic titles are optioned and re-optioned and adapted and remade by Hollywood ad finitum. Science fiction didn’t shrink from making distinctions that some authors no doubt felt were pejorative. Space opera was not always a flattering term. Hard science fiction was felt to be more authentic than soft science fiction. Readers gravitated to the best titles, soft or hard, space opera or earth bound dystopian, that suited their individual tastes. And those books broke out and found their way to the wider reading public.

I responded with:

“Space opera” is a classification by type, not by quality. For a reviewer to sneer at an author’s latest offering as “space opera” might suggest the subgenre doesn’t merit a second glance, but it doesn’t in and of itself imply the writing (research, characterization, the actual science) in that particular book is faulty. One could (and can) write a “space opera” masterpiece or just more “space opera” dreck.

You then assumed I didn’t know the history of the term and that I was unfamiliar with science fiction, and your response was unnecessarily snarky, rude, and discourteous –

Unfortunately, like some historical romance authors, you failed to check your facts. And you didn’t need to look far. Space opera has its own page on Wikpedia. If you’d bothered to google, you would have discovered that:

The problem with your response is that I wasn’t citing the history of the term “space opera,” which as you explicitly stated “Was not always a flattering term.” I’m the one who said it is — present tense — a descriptive term for a classification by type of SF, thus implying (but apparently not clearly enough) that the term “space opera” in and of itself, as two recognizeable and reasonably familiar words, does not contain inherent disparagement. When I threw out the phrase in conversation with the SO yesterday afternoon — he had never heard it before and does not read or watch very much SF at all — and asked him what the phrase suggested to him, his instant response was “2001,” but only because that’s the first “space” movie that came to his mind. There was no immediate negative reaction, because the basic meaning of the words isn’t negative. Even someone without a background in SF, like him, could grasp a basic meaning without the quality connotation because he knows what the words mean.

The word proposed here, on the other hand, is a manufactured word with a distinctly negative first syllable. If I tell one of my reader friends I’m reading a book of that kind, they will have to ask me what that means, and I will have to explain to them that it’s a book with mistakes, errors, wrong information. The inherent meaning of the word is negative, which “space” and “opera” are not.

Nor did I ever suggest the HR subgenre wouldn’t or couldn’t grow if it receives criticism. I’ve been criticizing its shortcomings for a good many years. But I’ve also defended the genre — if not necessarily individual books — against the pejorative and inaccurately applied labels it’s received from uninformed critics, both those inside the romance community and outside (including the professors who held my degree in their hands). I don’t think this new term does anything to bring respect to the genre; I think in fact it detracts from serious criticism.

As for your comment regarding publishers of SF and publishers of HR: Historical romance was a staple of mainstream hardcover and paperback publishers for years and years and years before Harlequin/Mills & Boon became a specialized publisher of romance; the books were standard fare for book club reprints. That’s how I acquired my 1940s and 1950s editions of Yerby and Wellman, Westcott and White, Shellabarger and van Wyck Mason and Marshall, Marian Castle, Laverne Gay, et alia. And even Harlequin started out publishing other genres, including westerns, as well.

Right now sitting on my desk is a 1974 Fawcett Crest edition of Red Adam’s Lady. Fawcett was not a specialized paperback publisher of HR. Woodiwiss sent her original manuscript to editor Nancy Coffey at Avon because Avon was an established paperback house. I have 1940s editions of Pocket Books (Ellery Queen mysteries, among others) that include a note printed on the back cover material “You can send this book to our armed forces overseas for 3 cents.” Dell was around at least in the late ’50s; I own several. Ballantine was a well-established paperback house when they published the authorized edition of LOTR in the mid-1960s — I bought my set when I was in college the first time in 1966 — and then they went on to publish all kinds of stuff besides HR.

It wasn’t that new publishers sprang up to publish HR — even Leisure and Kensington were publishers of semi-porn before 1972 — so much as they jumped on the profit gravy train of HR after Woodiwiss. Since I don’t see too many HR titles published by DAW or Baen, I’m going to assume those houses at least remain dedicated to SF and fantasy, and perhaps there are others. But I don’t know of any publishers that are dedicated solely to HR. I could be wrong, and I do not claim to be an expert, but only to have some experience to call upon.

The point being, however, that again “space opera” does not contain an inherent negative, imho, the way the term under current discussion does. The only way to explain the term to the uninformed is to say “it’s a historical romance in which the author got a lot of the history wrong.” I don’t see any way that can ever be made into a non-pejorative descriptor. Yes, it can still be applied to books the reader/reviewer liked even with the mistakes, but the fact that it can’t be defined without reference to negative terms like “mistakes,” “errors,” “wrong,” et c. means that it is less likely imho to become an unfreighted descriptor the way “space opera” has.

I don’t see how you can accuse me of getting the facts wrong. I stated how the term “space opera” is used today; I did not say it had never been used otherwise, because I knew differently. The same with “horse opera,” and there’s someone in my house who watches those on a regular basis, and I grew up first listening (I had no choice) to “Helen Trent” and “Ma Perkins” and then watching (again, not my choice) “Guiding Light,” “Search for Tomorrow,” “As The World Turns,” “The Edge of Night,” “Days of Our Lives,” etc. because my mother was a devoted (obsessed?) fan. I know what the terms mean and I know where they came from. I think it’s grossly unfair for you to accuse me of getting facts wrong, when I didn’t cite anything inaccurate. I didn’t say “space opera” had never been a pejorative; I knew it had.

I’m not totally ignorant. My personal library includes enough speculative fiction of a variety of subgenres (Piers Anthony, L. Sprague de Camp, Raymond Feist, “Doc” Savage, Fritz Leiber, Clarke, Niven, Dick, Farmer, Heinlein, etc.) to give me some inkling of its history and nature, and I’m old enough to have seen some of the developments first hand rather than just reading about them.

(edited to clarify a multiple negative)
* * * * * * *

And that was the end of my Dear Author post.

But there was much more I would have and could have said, except that I chose not to clutter up their blog with my ramblings.  After all, I have my own blog for that! 

First point -- Science fiction has never been as popular as romance.  For every Jules Verne there is an Alexandre Dumas (pere et fils), a Victor Hugo, a Charles Dickens, a Horace Walpole, a Walter Scott,  an Ann Radcliffe, even  Henry Fielding.  For every Robert E. Howard and James Branch Cabell there's been a Kathleen Winsor and Margaret Mitchell and Rafael Sabatini, an Elswyth Thane and a Noel Gerson,  a Gwen Bristow, a Daphne DuMaurier, a Norah Lofts and a Jean Plaidy.

And if there have been great science fiction novels made into movies -- Dune, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea -- how many times has the story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian been told?  The Count of Monte Cristo?  The Three Musketeers?  How many variations on the theme of Captain Blood?  Sabatini's The Sea Hawk, Shellabarger's Captain from Castile and Prince of Foxes,  Gone with the Wind, Jamaica Inn. . . . . .

If you add contemporary romance to the mix, there's even less for science fiction to crow about in terms of popularity.  Movies, theatre, print fiction, even poetry:  Romance is going to beat out SF every time hands down.

Eventually, however, I did receive a sort of apology from DM, and the flame war, such as it was,  burned out.  The issue of historical accuracy spread to other forums and other blogs and sometimes the question was raised as to whether historical romance authors had some kind of obligation to present accurate "facts" in order to educate readers, but often it wasn't. 

As I noted in my 2000 honors thesis (which should be live on Amazon sometime today), many romance authors do not consider their work to be anything other than entertainment.  They don't set out to educate or inform their readers, or help to change their readers' lives.  If their readers are trapped in loveless marriages or abject poverty, the books should provide only a few moments' escape, not strategies for change.

Would the use of the new, but inherently disparaging, descriptor "mistorical" make any difference?  Unlike a review grade of A, B, C, D, or F, or a particular number of stars or hearts or kissy lips or whatever symbol is used to identify a reviewer's level of satisfaction with the book, a tag such as "mistorical" makes a factual assessment, not a mere opinion.  It is one thing to look at a review and see that the reviewer liked or didn't like the book.  That is an opinion, and reviewers can have a wide range of grades based on their personal preferences.  They like or don't like the writer's style.  They like or don't like excessive dialect.  They like or don't like characters with red hair.

Stating that a book contains errors is like stating it contains scenes set in a castle or it features characters who are baseball players.  Either it does or it doesn't.   That's not opinion; that's a statement of fact, but a fact that has no reference point. 

And it is one thing to tell an author that you didn't like his or her work, but to make make an assessment of its factual veracity puts the review into a different territory altogether.  If in fact the author has gotten the history (or other research) correct but her book has been labeled as wrong/inaccurate/"inauthentic", the damage may have already been done.  And it's a kind of damage different from just a negative personal opinion review.  The application of that word could be a mistake in and of itself.

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