On Historical Accuracy: why it doesn’t fucking matter

Look, I’m not here to argue with you that yes there were Moors in medieval Spain, that yes even though we didn’t have the words to describe them or frame them in modern ways there were people who did not fall into heteronormative ways of expressing their sexualities, and that neurodivergent people existed long before modern medicine. I’m not here to argue with you because it doesn’t fucking matter.

We’re all very impressed by films and TV and literature that touts itself as being historically accurate, as if its accuracy is some badge of merit or proof of value or worth but, really, what’s the point of it all anyway?

I mean, okay, there are historical facts. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was not, to the best of my knowledge, devoured by a dragon in the Antarctic plain in the year 2032. But wouldn’t that make a cool story? That’s what fiction’s for, isn’t it? When did the highest form of praise for a thing that is fundamentally not-real become its realism?* Scott Westerfeld took World War I and added mecha and bioengineered animal weapons, and it was really freaking cool.

leviathan_4_westerfeld
I dare you to tell me this isn’t the raddest thing ever.

History is important, and I’m not here to disregard that. History is important because it informs who we are right now. History is important because we look to history to provide us with past examples on how to (or how not to) act in the future. History is important because an understanding of history is an understanding of our present. But history is a framework, not a deadlock.

And history is not the basis by which things derive value. Modern media reflects modern sensibilities and our modern society, no matter how “historically accurate” you make it. Mad Men is never going to be a 1960s work of art, it will always be one produced in the 2010s, just as Julius Caesar is more reflexive of Shakespeare’s time than it is of Marcus Junius Brutus’. So I want you to give me one good reason why a work of fiction written in 2016 should reflect more of the past than it does the present, especially when our versions of the past are in no way reflexive of the reality of the past to begin with.

History shouldn’t be disregarded when you’re writing on subjects with historical basis, but really, you’re not being “true to the past” when you exclude people. You’re not being “true to the past” when you ascribe to a conventional, elitist view of how the world worked in some idealized past, because the first thing you learn in any history course is that we can never have a true vision of the past; we only have what’s left behind by the ravages of time, and even then we only have it through multiple lenses of interpretation. If the Romantics thought Roman marbles were pure white, it’s because they didn’t know that they’d been painted with blues and purples and reds. This is why the field of historiography exists. Different methods privilege different conceptions of history, and here’s the thing! Fiction! Is! Not! History! It’s not a research paper, you have leeway to experiment, so why not be more inclusive, even if it’s at the expense of the construct of accuracy?

And if you think dragons are more historically accurate than people of colour, and if rape is how you construct modes of relating to even fictional women because it somehow reflects an attitude that, let’s be clear, is not at all accurate to history, I think you may want to consider that your priority is not actually historical integrity in storytelling.

 

 

 

 

*I should probably clarify here that yes, I am in fact aware of the historical basis behind the championing of realist art over other ways of telling a story, but I don’t know if y’all can tell but I couldn’t give less of a shit about realism, and I also by and large think the entire 19th century was a mistake.

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