I’m sure all of you have seen the latest dust-up over at AAR, since you don’t live under a rock like I currently do (my rock suspiciously resembles the LSAT Superprep *weeps*), but in case you haven’t, here’s my 100%-accurate-or-your-money-back executive summary of the high points: reader posts opinion about what readers really want, writer of historicals posts a bunch of random, half-cocked crap about Ellora’s Cave and something that comes dangerously close to sounding like anti-intellectual pablum in the course of defending wallpaper historicals, and gets kinda pissy when people point out that she’s kinda fulla crap.
My favorite post so far, however, is by Lydia Joyce. I’ve never read anything she’s written—Veil of Night received excellent buzz but flunked my 15-page test, and now I’m contemplating Music of the Night, but my rock, it is very insistent I stay here for several more weeks—but holy cow, she knocks it out of the ballpark, in terms of expressing exactly what bothers me about a lot of historical romances.
I’m going to take the liberty of quoting her at length here:
“Wallpaper” historicals are, essentially, costume dramas. Yes, the characters dress up in clothes that more-or-less resemble clothing of the period. Yes, characters sip warm lemonade and dance at Almack’s. But the reader can’t really believe for one minute that these people could have actually existed in 1813 (or whenever), nor did the world of the book ever exist. In essence, the readers just can’t believe in the book.
Jane Austen’s books, being entirely rooted in the mores, customs, and foibles of the time, would not be “wallpapers” if written now.
I think the wallpaper effect happens most often because many writers use other romance books as their primary research tool, with a secondary reliance upon books like What Jane Austen Ate… They’ve read tons of historical romance and love the genre, and so they think they really know the time period. Unfortunately, if I restrict my reading to those kinds of sources, the experiences of my characters will rarely deviate from what I’ve already read because that’s as big a world as I could understand. Hence a derivative story with no historical substance and characters that might be my next door neighbors in fancy clothes.
When people dismiss complaints about “wallpaper historicals” by putting up a “history lesson” as the alternative, I get a little…tetchy. It’s an attack out of left field with nothing at all to do with the issue at hand. Don’t care about accuracy in books? Fine. But don’t imply that anyone who cares about accuracy likes to be lectured or that Judith Ivory and Loretta Chase write “history lessons”.
*insert Candy fistpumping in the air with joy*
That’s not to say that I haven’t read and enjoyed wallpaper historicals. The queen of the wallpaper historical is, in my opinion, Mary Jo Putney. (Authors like Julie Garwood and Johanna Lindsey don’t count, in my opinion, because they didn’t write historical novels so much as novels set in some sort of wacky alternate reality. And we won’t even speak of authors like Connie Mason and Cassie Edwards because…we just won’t.) Putney gets many of her historical details right, but many of her characters behave, speak and think in modern ways.
But despite the exasperation I’ve felt over her characters, I still have a few of her books on my keeper shelves, because damn, that woman knows how to write a compelling love story. The wallpaper historical element, while it may interfere with my enjoyment, isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker for me.
On the flip side, nothing beats a historical that gets the feel right. part of the reason why I enjoy Loretta Chase as much as I do is because she gets the voice dead-on—or, perhaps more importantly, what I perceive as dead-on. I hear a very dry, witty British voice every time I pick up one of her books, and it’s not something I’ve seen any other American romance author accomplish. I enjoy her love stories, but it’s her voice that gives her books that extra zing, and what keeps me coming back for more.
So, where you do you stand in all this? Do you give a shit? Don’t give a shit? Think those of us who care about accuracy are nitpicking prigs? Think those who don’t care about accuracy are troglodytes with compromised palates? Something in between? Let ‘er rip in the comments.