Books are what we as writers leave behind. So it is human to wonder about the longer-term reactions to what we write. We may ask ourselves occasionally: “What might I be thought of a century or so from now?”
Case in point. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of her childhood memories. Some of those recollections are framed in ways we would not usually in our present:
I feel as decades pass a fiction writer gradually shifts from being a writer worth reading for purely reading sake to becoming increasingly a useful historical voice and source for his or her time. I’ve noted previously that’s how I read Ernest Hemingway: not as a
toxic male man of our time, but as a man of his time. Similarly the likes of an early-1800s writing Fenimore Cooper – employing memories of his own childhood and with access to older people who remembered those times – fictionalizing the pre-United States in New York and New England in The Last of the Mohicans: that is almost, to us in 2018, another galaxy.
It is a mistake to judge by “our” standards writers and their books written in “earlier eras.” Their true value in our present is instead what those books tell us about their authors and their time and place. Indeed if writers, including we today, feel the need to be “cautious” and pull punches to assuage the present, we are to an extent messing with history; for literary dishonesty is in its way a crime against the future because it distorts the past for readers inhabiting that future.
For instance, Wilder wrote her Little House books in the 1930s and 1940s; but the actual stories were of events and people living many decades before that. Suppose she had instead portrayed her parents’ and others’ attitudes towards Indians and African-Americans some sixty years before in ways that were inconsistent with what she actually remembered and what that late-19th century reality generally was? Would that not mean that we today reading her first-hand recollections, and those who follow us, might be misled into believing things were actually better than they were?
We need to be mindful too of the danger of “presentism” (viewing the past as we do the present), for we cannot best comprehend today’s “27 June 2018” present if we attempt to alter the previously present because we wish, in a sense, to avert our eyes from it. We got to here, to today, in some ways due to the positive, yes, but also as a consequence of other ways that were negative. When we attempt to critique the present, we cannot begin reasonably to do so if we fail to understand how we got here, and we can only try to do that if we are able to interrogate as truthful a past as we are able to uncover.
And when we say “our” standards it is also worth remembering that although we all woke up this morning in 2018, we don’t live at precisely the same time in our lives; our existences overlap. I am increasingly aware that, for example, someone now “age 21” was born in 1997. (I’m not going to reveal to you how old I was in 1997.) We may walk the earth side by side (for now, at least), but what I write as a memory of the past in the mid-1990s therefore pre-dates the births of some readers; that means unlike to those closer to my age the books to those much younger are not a recollection of a shared past, but are instead tales of an earlier time… and might even be termed “history” by those readers.
That reality once smacked me across the face a few years ago when my oldest nephew (born in late 1994) revealed to me he didn’t remember New York’s “Twin Towers” much at all. They were only about “9/11” to him. He related to me that he enjoyed reading about them in my first novel as being merely an exciting tourist attraction and not as a place of mass murder.
Another case in point: my friends and I watched Friends, first run, when it was brand new…
…and we loved it, but we got it was silly too; for one, we knew even back then that no “normal” roommates could have afforded Monica’s and Rachel’s apartment. 😉 At that time, I also never imagined that I’d be discussing that program over two decades later and that people not even born then would have taken to watching every episode. Yet why should that be a surprise? Certainly I watched TV programs and old films that predated my birth too? (Yes, they did have television then.)
A wider point on our present day as compared to “1994’s.” Today relations are quite strained between our “West” and Russia. In 1994, that was not so, and OUR perspectives were then often framed at least in part as well by personal experiences with our Russian (or Ukrainian, or others from the former USSR, or its possessions, such as Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians) new friends, whom we had often met in university.
Most of us had never known even a single Russian before. We reveled in that we were no longer “enemies” and could even in ways laugh together about the former Cold War. So as I think back now in regularly reading “today’s” news, that aspect of “1994” seems like another time in history; but it is also a vivid part of MY memories of MY young adulthood.
As many of you younger readers now may be as well, we too were also often short-tempered with our own parents and grandparents:
Inevitably a writer will produce something(s) that some readers will dislike and/or condemn. But that reality does not mark out a book as being unworthy of being read; in some ways the opposite: we should discover what people had thought and which today we may find “cringeworthy,” for that’s how we learn. Especially when it comes to a novel written in – what is, once again, only to us – the distant past, first and foremost we need to better understand its context… and in doing that we are also taking in history.
I’d be lying if I said here that I did not hesitate now and then about being “too honest” in those 1990s stories. But unlike Wilder’s the books are meant for adults, and that is an important distinction too. Still, in the end as writers today we have to accept that our books shall by “2118” probably be viewed as “ancient history,” and we as once living people dismissed as “old-fashioned” or worse.
Some few of you, though, may still be alive and kicking in “2118” – perhaps 121 years old, which we are being told shall by then medically be quite possible, and even perhaps common. You’ll be able then to tell that “18 year old” who was born in 2100 and is “bashing” me: “Eh, I remember his books. Ya oughta read what he actually wrote, kid! Yeh, I know some of it is not what you’re used to, but that’s how we learn. It was the 1990s. He was his time, like I am mine too. What they’re sayin’ about him, geez, you’d think he was a monster. He wasn’t that bad. Well, not most of the time anyway.”
Have a good day wherever you are. 🙂
UPDATE, July 2: About the comment “exchange” that appears below, and why I closed the comments on this post so quickly, please visit this post: “Sea lion, you’re in my house.”