Saturday, August 20, 2016

Guest Post: Jeanne on "To Smoke or Not to Smoke?"

Jeanne of the Bristol Public Library is back today with another interesting guest blog…

To Smoke or Not to Smoke?

Recently I blogged about how certain things can date a work, whether an author intends for it to or not: use (or lack of) certain technological devices, brand names, or social customs.  This time I’m turning the question around to ask how these things work in historical fiction, especially social custom.

The idea was prompted when a patron commented on a recent episode of the series Endeavor. She felt it was inappropriate that there were so many people smoking because it set a bad example.  I’d heard a similar comment about the amount of smoking and drinking in Grantchester, and of course much was made of all the smoking and imbibing in Mad Men. All these series are set in a time before the general public was aware of the dangers of smoking and are, I feel, true to their time.  An article in the NY Times about Mad Men interviewed a number of former advertising folk and while some of them felt the smoking, drinking, and other attributes were exaggerated, others felt it was the right amount—or not enough.

To bring this back to books, when I read Mary Stewart’s first novel, Madam, Will You Talk? I was struck by all the smoking and drinking.  Were I to read this in a modern book set in the 1950s, I suspect I would think this all overdone; but this book first appeared in 1954. Is it a more or less accurate picture of its time period?  Certainly my reaction to it is based on current trends or else I probably wouldn’t have even noticed.

Which brings us to the question, accuracy or adaptation?  When writing a piece set in another time period, should an author try for authenticity or adjust for modern sensibilities?  This isn’t a question I have an answer for, but it’s one I’ve pondered.  In many cases, it seems to me, the author’s solution is to have a cast of unusually enlightened folk and allow the unpopular contemporary notions to remain with non-sympathetic characters or else poke fun at an outmoded idea.

My gut reaction is to remain true to the time, but that can bring with it a host of problems often in regard to attitudes toward women, other races, or other social questions whose answers are very different today than they would have been even a decade ago.  For example, a recent article reprinted a number of “Dear Abby” letters from the 1960s; by today’s standards, most of the advice was cringe-worthy, but reflected the attitudes of the times and—as the article’s author points out—reflects a reality modern readers may not fully understand.  For me, that was never done better than in Doomsday Book by Connie Willis.  A student from our future goes back in time to study the “contemps” of the 14th century.  Kivrin is an enlightened young woman who has studied the era extensively and tries very hard not to render judgments but whose observations are strongly influenced by her modern views.  By the end of the book she has had to revise some of her feelings because for the first time she truly understands what life is like for the ordinary person of that era.  To be more specific would constitute a spoiler, but one scene in particular made a strong impression on me—and made me think of things a bit differently.

What do others think?

Mad Men article link
Dear Abby link


jrlindermuth said...

Spot on for supporting being true the times. I've employed the technique of having characters express their views on various issues now controversial. I didn't find the smoking or other splinter issues in Endeavour or Grantcester offensive. It was a case of authenticity for the times. Even if it wasn't harmful to your health, who the heck can afford to smoke these days?
Enjoyed reading the post.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Excellent post. I'm old enough to remember how much people smoked back then (and I did too for a while), so when I see cigarettes and spirits (as in alcohol, not the other kind) I only think that, yes, those behaviors are accurate. I do think historical fiction should be accurate in the details because if not, then I'm less likely to come away having learned something or pushed myself to think differently.