In the weeks before my latest novel, a historical fantasy titled The Peculiarities, was published, complaints about my depiction of the Jewish characters began to be posted on sites like Goodreads. “The anti-Semitism in the book was revolting,” one reader notes. Another suggests I ought not to have included a Jewish character if I only meant to make “her a constant object of ridicule for the gentiles around her.” Yet another considers it disgusting “to emulate, unchecked, the antisemitism and other prejudices of the time period.”
It wasn’t until I saw a similar complaint articulated in a post-publication review — “I appreciate the author was probably trying to reflect attitudes at the time the book was — set, it didn’t bring anything to the story” — that I realized these responses are part of a larger problem. Rather, there were two problems, one new and one old. The new problem is to be found in how contemporary readers approach certain kinds of fiction. The old problem, it turns out, is antisemitism.
The Peculiarities is set in late nineteenth-century London, a time in which Jews enjoyed opportunities and freedoms impossible to imagine in previous times or other places. They could become citizens, attend universities, and work alongside non-Jews. Antisemitism, firmly embedded in the British psyche, hadn’t gone away, but it had changed shape in accordance with the times. Victorian Londoners had to learn to accept the proximity of foreigners of all types, but Jews were always placed in a special category: they were considered both familiar and unfamiliar, demonic and pedestrian, pervasive and elusive, unforgivably retrograde and diabolically future-oriented. There were conspicuously wealthy Jews who rose to global prominence, while the number of poor Jews swelled as refugees from eastern Europe flocked to the United Kingdom. My own family came to England as part of this migration.
The culture of my fictional 1899 in The Peculiarities diverged from the real world only about ten years before the start of the story, so much of what I depict is as it would be in a non-fantastical novel. My protagonist, Thomas Thresher, comes from a wealthy banking family, and, accordingly, he bristles at contact with anyone not English, not European, and not Christian. He dislikes Jews in the same way he dislikes being caught in the rain. It is a natural reaction for someone from his culture, and so, at the beginning of the novel, when his older brother attempts to pressure him into marrying a Jewish woman, he is both aghast and incredulous. Any other reaction on his part would have been ahistorical nonsense.
In this time and place, there is no escape from antisemitism outside of death, isolation, or abandoning one’s Jewish identity.
Nearly all of my novels grapple with Jewish identity in previous eras, and this one is no different. I could have avoided antisemitism in The Peculiarities either by omitting Jewish characters or by reimagining the past to erase antisemitism. What I could not have done was accurately depict Jews of the period without showing the relentless antisemitism they endured. I could have spared readers exposure to the intolerance of the past only by rewriting the past.
This last, ahistorical option points to a trend in a great deal of today’s fantasy fiction. The genre has long since moved away from once-ubiquitous pseudo-Euro-medieval settings. A speculative novel set in a world inspired by nineteenth-century China, or eighth-century Arabia, or ancient Sub-Saharan Africa need not include any of the cultural, ethnic, or gender biases of those times and places. Why not imagine a world without ethnic strife or patriarchy, or a world in which a wide variety of gender or sexual identities were normative? It is, after all, the business of speculative fiction to speculate — to play with possibilities, to game out scenarios.
The downside to these utopian reimaginings is what I perceive as a growing intolerance of unidealized portrayals of the past. Some of this can be seen in the backlash to televisions shows like Game of Thrones and the fiction that inspired them, which casually trafficks in sexual violence. A general distaste for eroticized violence is long overdue. There is, however, a difference between reveling in brutality and naming it. Depicting women in nineteenth-century London living without fear of sexual violence undermines the experience of the women who lived in those times and whose vulnerability is part of our collective story. The desire to depict women of the past as safe might comfort contemporary readers, but it does violence to the past.
This desire to police historical power inequities is hardly limited to gender issues, yet I don’t believe we can understand these reader objections to The Peculiarities simply in the context of utopian yearnings. I suspect readers’ complaints are not about any depiction of cultural bigotry, but rather about Jews and Jewishness. I refer back to the reviewer who felt the description of cultural antisemitism “didn’t bring anything to the story.” This reviewer wanted the narrative energy of antisemitism to build toward something — a storming of the castle of antisemitism, in which the antisemitic characters would get their comeuppance or reform their views. This expectation that suffering must inevitably lead to redemption is a fundamentally Christian perspective.
Naively, it never occurred to me that in writing about Victorian Jews, I was creating a plot thread that required resolution. My principal Jewish character exists in a world in which her Jewishness makes her an object of scorn. That is the “message.” In this time and place, there is no escape from antisemitism outside of death, isolation, or abandoning one’s Jewish identity (and even then, it would take decades, possibly generations, for the taint of Jewishness to fade).
As David Bladiel argues in Jews Don’t Count, antisemitism is often posited as a thing that happened in the past, no longer existing in any meaningful way. I suppose a reader who imagines antisemitism to have been resolved in real life might want to see that resolution happen in literature, too. I would counter that to depict Victorian Jews without including the unavoidable and casual antisemitism they endured is a kind of denialism, an assault upon the past. It is a way of soothing ourselves today, so we don’t have to confront the discomforts of yesterday. Frankly, that might be putting too positive a face on it. Demanding that a story either erase historical antisemitism or make it serve a narrative “point” is, in fact, antisemitic.
Every member of every outgroup must constantly make decisions about which offenses to confront and which to ignore. I’m a Jew who writes about historical Jews, and I have run out of patience with reviewers and readers telling me what I should and should not write about the history of my own people.
David Liss is the bestselling author of eleven novels, including the Randoms space-opera trilogy and A Conspiracy of Paper, which is being developed for television. He is also the author of numerous superhero and science-fiction comics, including Mystery Men, Black Panther: The Man Without Fear!, and Angelica Tomorrow.