When authors writing today use bigoted language in period fiction, the defense is that it adds to the authenticity. I think that excuse isn’t just lazy—it’s pernicious.
Bigotry Doesn’t Make a Period Piece Authentic
On Twitter I wrote,
When authors writing today use racist/sexist/homophobic language in period fiction, they and their fans often protest it wouldn’t feel authentic if they didn’t. Writing a piece now in hardboiled 1930s vernacular, I can say that excuse isn’t just lazy—it’s pernicious.
And I got a little (good-natured) pushback, so I wanted to delve into this just a little more.
Even if you’re writing a story set in the 1930s, you’re writing it now, for audiences who are your contemporaries. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett had ostensibly sympathetic protagonists acting like racist, misogynistic homophobes, but their audiences—and the writers, for that matter—wouldn’t have perceived them that way.
Writing today, I shouldn’t do that even if I wanted to. Why? Because it’s not going to be read by audiences in the 1930s. The context has changed. Characters can’t be casually racist or queerphobic and be perceived as the good guys by most readers. Even if such behavior wouldn’t be considered a negative in the period the characters are in, your readers are here, now, today. At best, you’re giving your hero a character flaw, so you’d better be doing it on purpose. At worst, you’re inviting reactions of “I just couldn’t get past that.” Taking your hero on an arc in which they learn not to be racist and queerphobic may not be a salve here, either; you run a high risk of making your story didactic in ways that really do break the period immersion, and even if you somehow pull it off, readers may not be inclined to stick out the protagonist’s initial awfulness.
This isn’t an argument that you can never have characters—even ones who are sympathetic—use bigoted language, behave in bigoted ways, or have internalized prejudices. Instead, it’s an argument for intention, specifically your intent as the writer. If you’re going to use that language, show those attitudes, you need to know why doing that improves your story. Just saying “well, people talked/acted that way in this period” is a weak defense.
The bottom line for me is making a clear distinction between what I include and what I leave out. Of course Nora, my 1930s hardboiled detective heroine, should have a narrative voice that’s believable for her, and she’s not going to sound like a 2020s social justice activist. But at the end of the day, you, a reader in the here and now, are supposed to like her. As the author, I can choose not to have her use bigoted language. I can choose to have her be relatively sympathetic to minorities in her milieu. None of that has to break immersion. She can still be reminiscent of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.
Here’s the thing: what kind of reader would truly stop and give Nora’s story a one-star “didn’t finish” review because she’s not queerbaiting, or denigrating Chinese immigrants? Do you think that hypothetical lost reader is, regardless of what they say, truly concerned with historical accuracy, or do you think they’re more concerned with taking a performative stance against the scourge of wokeness? I don’t know about you, but I know where I’m putting my money.