Friday, August 29, 2014

TL;DR: Read Everything. Believe Nothing. Write Authentic Stories Anyway.

So yesterday I was asked how to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate history books, and the shortest answer is: "You can't." The less short, more accurate, answer is: "There aren't any." All history is inaccurate, all sources are biased; that's just the way it goes. Two loving parents can disagree about the best interest of a child; two competent doctors can disagree about a diagnosis. History is the same way.

That doesn't mean research is pointless, far from it; but it means you can't accept authorities at face value, no matter how tempting this may be. You have to approach history resources as you would real people, reading and talking to as many primary works as you can, assessing the kinds of innocent inaccuracies that are likely to creep in (Do any two people in your family agree on which year it was that the cat decided to have her kittens in mom's underwear drawer? Mom's diary can tell you for sure - but it may also say that they were all she-cats, because you didn't get the kittens correctly sexed till they were almost ready to adopt out, and she never noted that down, but the reason you're trying to remember the year at all is that you started wondering exactly how old Aunt Maybelle's tomcat Knickers is, so -); what biases the source has ("As a completely objective historian whose grandfather was in that battle, I can tell you for a fact -"); what the agenda of the recording agency is ("Yeah, people say my youngest son looks kind of like the handyman but I can't see it myself and that is totally my husband's nose, I mean look at it!"); and how the source knows, or thinks it knows, what happened and why. You already have a lot of the skills necessary to make these assessments, because you have to make them every time you're called on to referee your kids or your co-workers, or choose between the recommendations of two different contractors, doctors, theologians, or relatives. (And don't think I've never wished I had the option of knocking two historians' heads together and sending them both to their rooms! An awful lot of disputes, in any profession, are six of one, half dozen of the other.)

This is all very well when you have conflicting information; but far more insidious is the conflicting information we don't realize we don't have. This is especially true when you're trying to learn about people who aren't speaking for themselves, whose voices have been erased from the record, or never entered into the record, or are filtered through the voices of others - generally, people with more power, more privilege; people in control of what is and is not worth preserving. We don't hear the voices of medieval women very often; the voices of medieval children, almost never. The voices of slaves seldom come to us except through their masters, or people who resemble their masters enough for the slaves to be wary. Monolinguals can only hear most of the voices in the world through translators; anthropologists monitor the interface between "primitive" and "advanced" cultures (and how many people even understand those terms as jargon rather than as value statements?); folklorists translate spoken words into written ones and don't always ask themselves why their source is being a source or how that might affect the story. The person keeping the records has purposes for keeping and curating them, the person asking the questions has reasons to ask certain questions and not others, and these may not match up well with the reasons the person answering the questions is answering them.

A lot of these lacunae are invisible to us until we make conscious efforts to notice them; and they are not always surmountable. One thing all medieval women have in common is, that they're dead. But, if you are a woman, you can read between the lines of male narratives and use your own experience to try to fill the gaps. It won't be perfect, but it'll be better than taking the word of literate medieval men. If you are a white person writing an American slave protagonist, you can find black historians who will discuss with you the pitfalls of reading WPA slave narratives and help you negotiate with them - and they will have their own reasons for helping you, and their own biases, which will at least be different from the biases of even the best-intentioned white historians, and that will be better than nothing.

You can't change that. But you can remember it, and screw up less often than you would if you forgot it.

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