Monday, March 6, 2017

When PC Language Creeps into Historical Fiction

When I heard the historical fiction novel Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was about to be published, my sister and I hurried to the library and put our names on the reserve list.

Lincoln in the Bardo is set during the American Civil War in 1862 at the time President Lincoln lost his beloved son Willie. According to historical accounts, after Willie's death, Lincoln visited his son's gravesite on several occasions and held his son's body in his arms.

Any parent who has lost a child (no matter what the child's age) understands the deep and dark sorrow President Lincoln must've experienced, so I was curious how that was handled.  I was also interested in the historical aspect of the story.

After the library called that the book was in, my sister and I picked up our copies. That was two days before my first chemo treatment, so I've been reading a few pages at a time when I'm feeling up to it.

The structure of the novel is creative and unconventional. The story is told mostly in dialogue through the eyes of the ghosts and without quotation marks. The speaker attributions appear on the lines beneath the dialogue passages.

Because of the novel's unusual structure, my sister told me she couldn't get into the story.  I suggested she try reading just the dialogue and narrative and ignore the attributions centered below. She tried, but last I heard she quit reading.

Yesterday I came across a tweet that George Saunders has written an article "What Writers Really Do When They Write" in The Guardian, so I checked it out.

In the article, Saunders discusses the mysterious process of writing. He writes about revising one's work, moving from the general to the specific--"revising up to the reader" and respecting the reader. As a writer, that's advice I can use. As a reader, that's what I expect from an author.

Last night I picked up Lincoln In the Bardo again, determined to charge ahead so I can return the book by its due date (today). Since there is a waiting list at the library I can't renew the book. I guess I could keep it longer and pay a fine, but that wouldn't be fair to the other readers on the reserve list, so I'm determined to return the book today.

Back to the novel: I was willing to suspend my disbelief that ghosts in a graveyard hold conversations. I even overlooked the unusual structure and lack of quotation marks.

I made it as far as page 73, when I could no longer suspend my disbelief. Not because of the ghosts talking, but because of what one of them said.

On page 73 my mind whipped from the story to the words on the page.

I wondered if, in 1862, a man (a ghost actually) would use politically correct language that is commonplace today.

The ghost in question uses the term "his or her choice." Somehow, "his or her" doesn't sound right to me for a novel set in 1862. Wouldn't a man in that era simply use the term "his choice" even if women were involved?

So, here I am this morning, wanting to finish the novel because of the reasons stated above, but knowing that rather than getting lost in the story as a reader, I will be looking for more PC creep.

Perhaps, after I return the novel, I'll try finishing it at a later date.

Or maybe I'll just give up the ghost.

16 comments:

  1. I've read books like that - some I've finished, others have been abandoned. It's really no fun pushing yourself through, is it? Hope you are feeling better!

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    1. Thanks, Karen. I'm feeling better today, preparing myself for tomorrow.

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  2. I do the same thing re returning books to the library. If I know people are waiting for it, I try really hard to not keep it past the return date. Every once in awhile I do, but I usually feel guilty. :)

    Take care!

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    1. When I return a book late I pay my fine then leave a little extra - out of guilt!

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  3. Donna--One, what a perfect ending for this post.

    Since there are so many wonderful books to read, I'd suggest you just set that one off to the side permanently, and start another book.

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    1. Took you advice, Sioux. I returned it unfinished, but on time!

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  4. I know exactly what you mean. I am reading a novel written form a ten year old girl's perspective, and she is using dialogue no ten year old would use in 1950. It gets frustrating.

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    1. That is frustrating, Linda! I've had the same reaction and wonder how did this stuff get past an editor.

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  5. Move on to another book. Once I'm taken out of the story, I'm out.

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    1. Same here, Val. Once I check out it hard to check back in --- the opposite of Hotel California.

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  6. I'm impressed you even reading with the chemo. During first week or ten days after chemo I can't even read. Over the last few months so many books have caused me this same reaction you are having. I didn't know if writing in general was sinking or if it was just me. The one exception was the nonfiction book about Kick Kennedy, astoundingly good. Have you read it?

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    1. Hi Claudia,
      The first week after chemo was the worst, but after I got treated for dehydration I felt much better. I'm not looking forward to tomorrow though Not going to lie.
      I'll have to check out the Kick Kennedy book. I just visited the library. Maybe on my next visit.
      Hope you're doing better, cause I know what you've been going through.

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  7. I had that same feeling as you and your sister that I needed to grab that book and read it immediately. In our recent travels, we stopped in a bookstore so I got a chance to pick it up and leaf through it and dip in to read a few selections. I found the style off-putting and decided to wait until I could either purchase a used copy or be allowed to renew the book once it's gone through the waiting list at the library. So thank you for your feedback about the book. I'm especially curious about the personal (war?) stories of the ghosts.

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    1. Off-putting is a good way to describe it. As readers, I guess our brains are wired to accept words in a certain way. I found the format distracting.

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  8. Hi Donna. It doesn't sound particularly appealing to my tastes but I commend you for giving it a try. Hope each day gets better for you. You are in my prayers daily. Susan

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  9. Hi Donna. I'd never heard of this book, so I went over to Amazon and 'looked inside.' I know that is not the greatest way to judge a book, but from reading it there I never understood what was going on. It seemed a very confusing read to me. I noticed the editorial reviews were all good, but the reader reviews varied widely. A lot of them didn't seem to like it, either. I love historical fiction, and you are right, you have to keep it in the time period. I just published my MG historical and I tried my best to write it that way. Thanks for the review and I am praying for your complete recovery.

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