Tired of the Reader Shaming

I've mentioned before my high tolerance for historical inaccuracy as long as the story and characters are compelling. But once again, I feel the need to rant about something I've seen more and more frequently among blogs and on Twitter. There's a continuing trend in the book reviewing world that really sets my teeth on edge. Specifically, it's the calling-out of historical books as historically inaccurate.

Now, I'm not talking about taking someone to task when they've touted their book as 100% accurate. I'm not even talking about when a historical romance feels too modern, as that is often a failure in world building. I'm talking about the use of pejorative labels that shout out mistakes and errors, big and small, and invite attack against the book and the author's craft.

I understand the frustrations of those who would like historical romance to be more historically accurate, or those readers whose fields make them particularly sensitive to historical errors. But I think, as a group, this attack against "mistoricals" isn't doing what people hoped it would.

Instead of helping those accuracy-seeking readers find books that fit their standards of historical authenticity, it is making readers for whom those mistakes aren't a problem feel ashamed of their reading preferences.  In short, it's an extension of the reader shaming that many romance readers already suffer under from the non-romance reading public.

Instead of using terms like "wallpaper" or "mistorical" in an often snide tone, why don't these seekers of historical excellence come up with a positive term to trumpet a book that does it right? Instead of mocking a book for something that sales figures already indicate the majority of readers don't care about, why not highlight those books that will satisfy even the worst nitpicky reader?

And yes, "mistorical" is just as much of a pejorative as "wallpaper" is. You can tell by the superior tone of comments whenever that word is used. The public mocking of errors by certain people in my Twitter feed have had my finger hovering over the Unfollow button more than once. 

I don't enjoy feeling like I have to justify my preference for story and characters over historical accuracy. Or that I'm somehow letting down the book world if I really don't care that a book mentions an event that is a few months off from its actual date. I'm not a lazy reader (as often suggested by those of the pro-accuracy brigade.) My reading preferences are just that, and I don't think anyone should make me feel like I have to justify them because they've decided to make their own reading preferences into a crusade.


  1. As romance readers I think we've all had experiences with people (non-romance readers) who try to "educate" us on why our reading preferences are "not good." So it tends to really grate on me when I see it within the genre, among fans. I see it a lot with category romance (Yes, I read romance but it's not like I read those trashy Harlequins!) and you see it a lot with things like this mistorical debate.

    Admittedly, I will use the wallpaper label - especially when it pertains to world-building. I think I've also used the term "lack of flavor." But just because I didn't like it, or didn't find it credible (for whatever reason) doesn't make another reader "wrong" for liking it. I'll admit it might frustrate me because I think I'm always right (LOL!) - but they enjoyed it, and good for them. Life is too short to not find book(s) that you enjoy, and it's a big, wide world out there in the publishing universe. There's something for everybody and we all have the free will to embrace what we want to.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Amber. Story and character win for me every time. I like historical trivia, sometimes historical detail is sacrificed in telling the story. Other times too much detail (even in contemporaries!) can be overwhelmingly dry and can even kill an author's intent or ability to write a great story.

    I agree with Wendy above though, it's bad enough we have to defend Romance to the world, but to have to defend why a particular sub-genre does it for us within the Romance Community is sad to see.

  3. @Wendy,

    I think, more than anything, it is the conversations I've seen that tie a lack of accuracy to laziness that irks me the most. Accusations that errors/authorial choice = sloppy research and readers who enjoy those books are obviously lazy, too.

    It's at that point that my teeth start to grind. I sit on my hands to keep from pulling out my (admittedly wimpy) "I have a history degree" card. Because I shouldn't have to defend myself. And romance readers and writers shouldn't be trying to dismiss my preferences as somehow less than, just because their priorities are different.

    I think you use wallpaper the way it was intended. And, as I said, I don't take issue with that. It's the judgmental tone that often accompanies it that I find troublesome.

    I just find it disheartening that romance readers continue this snobbery when we already have so much nonsense to deal with from those outside the genre.


    I think there's a style that works for everyone, and I don't like to see any one style being held out as the "only" acceptable one for readers. We all appreciate different things, which is why I wish those for whom accuracy is important would find a label to identify books that are accurate, rather than being snide about those they feel aren't up to snuff.

  4. Argh! I tried to write a comment a while ago but Blogger ate it. Bad Blogger. Let's try again.

    This is such a thought-provoking post for me. I'm one of the people who supports the "mistorical" tag, but I don't think of it as something to be used indiscriminately or across all historical books that have flaws (they all have flaws, for one thing). I read and enjoy plenty of historically inaccurate books, because they can more than make up for it with great romance, dialogue, characters, etc.

    What really gets me, though, is when authors tell me they have done careful historical research and then make obvious, unambiguous mistakes. To me, those authors want it both ways: they want the kudos that come with serious research but they don't make sure they deliver on their promises. Is it because they're lazy? I doubt it. But whatever the reason, it misleads readers who think they are getting historically rich material (and filing stuff away as correct information).

    As a reviewer, I don't ever want to write a review that makes a reader feel guilty or shamed for reading and enjoying something with errors. But it's part of my evaluation if I know the material, and I'm going to remark on it in the context of the review. I see it more as a "reader beware" than a "reader don't even think about picking this up."

    1. @Sunita,

      Sorry about Blogger eating your post. :(

      I know the original intent was to help people find books that fit their reading preferences, but lately all I've seen (off of DA, where the reviewers are very careful how they use that tag) is the association with general historical inaccuracy. And a corresponding contempt for readers who don't mind it.

      I think I said it in my post, but I'll reiterate, if an author claims he/she did xyz research, they are inviting detailed debunking of that research. I don't have a problem with that.

      I don't even have a problem with nitpicking dates, word usage etc (although lately it does tend to make the nitpicker seem more about showcasing his or her knowledge than helping like-minded readers avoid/find books).

      I have a problem with the disdain that leaks out from discussing the book to assigning a judgment to readers who may like that book. And I'm seeing that more and more often. And much of that has involved the use of "mistorical."

      This isn't a plea to "be nice." This is about challenging those nitpickers to find books they can crow about. But I suspect that's not going to happen, because it's far easier to point out errors than put something forward as mostly accurate and invite someone else to poke holes in your recommendation.

      But mainly, I'd like to see an effort being made to avoid judgments against readers. It's often casual, and I'm sure often unintentional, but there's been a slew of it recently on Twitter and on the blogs.

      "I can't see how anyone could like this book." "Readers don't want accuracy because they're lazy." "God forbid readers use their brains while they read."

      It's the same kind of condescension I get about reading romance as a whole, but all the more disturbing because it's coming from within. And that's what I am calling out.

  5. Janet W: I would love a blue ribbon panel *or whatever* commending books that are both historically accurate AND interesting (Lord save me from accuracy than somehow prevents me, often in an info-dumping way, from falling in love with a story). Condescension from within, particularly on twitter or in comments, is disturbing. Believe it or not, authors who join the bandwagon often have me deciding not to try out their books -- because their criticism gets too close to shaming me. I know what I'm doing when I'm reading (for the most part, there's always an exception, of course).

    I learned a valuable lesson last year -- I thought a word was inaccurately used in a novella and I was pretty snarky about it. I was wrong, I corrected my review and going forward, I'll think long and hard before I go down that path. Someone really tweeted, "Readers don't want accuracy because they're lazy."? Gosh. How do they know what's inside a reader's choice?

    I don't care for wallpaper or mistorical or indeed any overarching labels -- they so quickly turn into easy insults (even tho I know that was not the intent of the creators). Just tell me in a review what I should be aware of ... which is exactly what most good reviewers do.

    1. Hi Janet,

      Yes, they really did say that. Repeatedly. Intellectually lazy, if I remember correctly. And it almost always stems from the never ending accuracy debate.

  6. As one of the readers who isn't fond of historicals in which authors don't pay attention to details or creating an authentic atmosphere, I find the terms and reviews useful. That's information I really want to know.

    There's a vast range of opinions in the romance world. My own opinions often differ widely from the popular views. I've had to develop a thick skin about it and not take it personally. The reviewer is criticizing the book, after all, not me. If I think the book has virtues that are being overlooked, I can always say so.

    Of course, if the reviewer goes off on "what kind of idiot could possibly like this book" etc, that's another story.

  7. Huh. Almost all of the previous comments weren't showing when I wrote mine, so I didn't see the clarifications. Never mind... ;-)

    1. @willaful,

      Blogger has been glitchy lately. Sorry 'bout that.

      I know you saw my clarification, but I do want to say that I'm glad the terms are helpful to you :) I just wish they didn't so often cause discussions to veer off into the realm of 'readers who like this are stupid.'

  8. Oh my gosh, yes! This is why I hate the term mistorical, the application of it seems to be an immediate dismissal of the book, its author and its fans, based on....what, exactly? So often the types of things that are used to justify such a claim are just really missing the point. A normal Victorian mother wouldn't raise her own children! A courtesan could never end up married to a viscount! Uh.... so what!? This is fiction. I think you could go into every single historical romance ever written and say, but would this really happen? Was it common? Was this turn of phrase used? Yeah.... no. That's not what we're doing here. Yes, there is something to be said for making a reader feel like they're int he period. It's world-building, and it's a good thing, but the fact that you can point out an inaccuracy does not mean a damn thing to me.

    Okay... LOL... apparently I had some pent up emotions about that.

  9. Right on! I've maintained for years that the word "historical" in "historical romance" indicates only that the book takes place in the past.

  10. I'm with Wilaful (big surprise, eh?)
    While I'm careful not to condemn people who prefer the non-historical historicals, I do dislike them myself. Intensely. I need a reference to know what to avoid.

  11. Oh, and you want to see lots of criticism from within? Maybe readers saying they "never read this" because it's bad for the genre?
    Try writing and reading erotic romance. That seems to be the number one target.
    So can we turn this post into something positive and find a term we can all agree on, that will warn readers like me without being perjorative?

    1. @Lynne Connolly,

      Hi Lynne,

      I would like to see a term that applies to books that *meet* your standard, rather than one that applies to those that do not. Something akin to the DA recommends ribbon, but as a term open to everyone in the romance community. I think that's the only way to keep the tone directed at potential readers from veering into the negative.

      But honestly, I don't care if you (and those with similar preferences) want to rip apart books in reviews for historical inaccuracy. I just want to make sure that you're not attacking readers while you're doing so. And that, unfortunately, seems to be what's happening with both wallpaper and mistorical. I'm not sure why we have to have a term, rather than just use 'inaccurate'?