Having been on a social media break for a couple of weeks. I popped briefly onto Twitter the other day, and within 2 minutes realised there was a bit of a kerfuffle taking place in relation to quality and accuracy in historical romance. It sent me away from Twitter again, to find the blog discussion that started the whole thing off.
The comments in the blog discussion that had prompted the tweets I’d seen related to diverse representation and the display of ‘modern viewpoints’ by characters in historical romances. I’ll touch on those points a bit later on, but to be clear, I’m making no attempt here to unpack the long and detailed discussion that took place. I didn’t even read every comment in the thread and only skimmed a very few of the reactions on Twitter that were clearly the tip of a larger iceberg. This post is no more than a few thoughts of my own on the topic of how readers consume historical romances, based on one particular reader.
That reader is me.
There’s an odd thing about fiction. It’s explicitly made up – and we know that going in – and yet the thing that we readers seek, above all else, is to believe in what we’re reading.
Which is kind of weird when you think about it.
A phrase often used to describe how a reader comes to a state of belief is that the reader has exercised a “willing suspension of disbelief” (a phrase coined by the poet Samuel Coleridge). One of the interesting things about that phrase is that it gives the sense that, whether or not to take that step – to willingly suspend disbelief – is firmly in the reader’s hands. As though it’s a conscious decision the reader must make. Should they release their hold on the objective certainty that the story is not real in order to fully enter the imaginative world they’ve been invited into by the author? Or not?
Coleridge talks about the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief” constituting a sort of “poetic faith” – as though the reader is putting aside rational knowledge in pursuit of a more transcendent experience that can only be achieved following a leap of faith. That makes it sound – to me, at least – as though the act of suspending disbelief is a binary thing. Something that the reader either chooses to do or not do. But as a reader, I experience something much more subtle than that.
I have quite a complex spectrum of responses to the books I read, when it comes to reader belief. These begin with eyerolling, impenetrable scepticism, move through a wide range of increasingly engaged responses, and end up (in rare and wonderful cases) in complete and utter conviction. In these very rare cases, I will feel, when I reach the end of the book, as though I have returned from another world. Sometimes, the sudden knowledge (or recollection) that the characters I’ve just left behind don’t *actually* exist makes me feel forlorn.
So, what makes a reader suspend disbelief?
I think it’s different for every reader and every book. There are many things that play into this, for example, the quality of the writing, the accuracy of the depiction of any real-world setting/ the vividness of any fantastical setting, the consistency of the worldbuilding, the logical coherence of the plot, the rationality of the characters’ actions.
But just as important as all of these reasonably objective measures are the subjective measures that come from the individual reader.
Every reader comes to a book with a complex web of personal knowledge, opinions and biases of their own. And this complex web informs what that reader will consider to be ‘accurate’, ‘authentic’, ‘rational’ and ‘logical’. Every reader also has their own set of priorities – what matters most to them in deciding that a particular book ‘works’ for them. And we readers have our moods too. Sometimes we want to read something challenging, other times something comforting. All these elements interweave in ways that are honestly difficult to unpack when the reader comes to articulate why they did or didn’t like a book. This can result in readers seeming to hold inconsistent views, damning one book for its historical inaccuracy while praising another that is objectively just as inaccurate.
So, does historical accuracy matter in historical romance? I would say… it depends. In reality, it matters a great deal to certain readers, doesn’t matter a jot to others, and varies in its importance to the rest of us depending on the individual book’s qualities and the individual reader’s many complex preferences and priorities.
Accuracy, diversity and modern sensibilities
I mentioned earlier that the blog discussion had raised two particular issues, namely the relatively new increase in diversity of character representation in historical romance and complaints from some readers about overly modern sensibilities being displayed by characters – these two issues were unhelpfully conflated at times in the discussion.
The diverse characters issue strikes me as a pretty obvious no-brainer. Historical romance has been really horribly homogenous for a very long time. Diverse representation – already far too scarce in the whole romance genre – feels even more scarce in historical romance and to my mind it’s clear we need more, not less of it.
Complaints about ‘modern sensibilities’ are slightly different, I think, though I need to exercise some care here, since ‘modern sensibilities’ is one of those phrases that is capable of a number of interpretations, some of which I may have some sympathy with and others I definitely won’t agree with.
My view is this: I am all for characters with progressive ideas and values – something I’ve always loved in historical romance is to see characters battling against the societal norms they have grown up with. However, having said that, I will admit to not much liking characters who appear to have wholly 21st century mindsets and who seem not to struggle at all with being at odds with the society they live in. I like to see the characters in historical romances having to wrestle with the norms of their time and I don’t mind seeing them making bad decisions along the way, if they come to regret those choices / change later.
One last thing I want to mention in this already too-long post: we are all creatures of our time. And creatures moving through time. Books are written, time passes. When I pick up a historical romance book, I will be reading about another time, in my own time. One of the first historical romances I read was Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer, set in the late 18th century, first published in 1932, and read by me in around 1987, when I was a teenager with an interest in politics and left-wing views.
Now, Heyer’s books are wonderful but they are absolutely brimming with objectionable class snobbery and an apparent unshakeable belief in the rightness of aristocratic privilege. I minded this – but I also loved Heyer’s books, and I found I could sort of “filter out” what I didn’t like, internally managing my objections.
This sort of ‘filtering’ is not something that can always be done though. Some issues are too glaringly awful to be filtered out. I recently picked up another old favourite from my teenage years, written in 1983 (Daphne by Marion Chesney). I had completely forgotten that the villain – who wanted to marry the heroine – was a homosexual man who wanted her as a ‘cover’ wife. The distinctly unpleasant homophobic tone made this book a wallbanger in 2019, but to my shame, I can’t say whether I even noticed in 1987.
So there you are – that’s my thoughts on the complex process of reading historical romance. Tl;dr: accuracy matters, quality matters, and representation matters… but none of it amounts to much if the reader doesn’t believe.