If I’m reading a historical novel, or for that matter, a science fiction or fantasy novel, or a romance, or any other genre, I want to feel the grit underneath my boots.
Even in a shiny futuristic city where everyone wears white because nothing is dirty, I want to see the dirt. Because the dirt has to be there somewhere. Someone has to be cleaning up that shiny city. Maybe it’s robots. But somebody takes care of the robots, or the robots have artificial intelligence, and I want to know how they feel about their role in making the city shiny for the humans.
Or in a historical, I want the dirt. If the story’s about rich people, I at least want hints of what their servants do and think, and how the rich people think about those issues. I understand the story’s not about that, but I still want to know, just enough to fill the place in my brain that suspends my disbelief.
If I don’t get the grit, or even the hint of grit, I feel the lack. The world isn’t real to me, and thus the story can’t be true. By “true” I mean that it speaks to me, that there is a truth to the story I can feel deep down. A story with truth is honest. It doesn’t ignore the realities of our world: gender discrimination, racism, classism, human rights. Even in a book that’s meant to be an escape, I want to know it’s possible, in the imaginary world of the book, to address those issues. If they’re ignored too completely, it’s like the door of an enclave slamming down: you’re not allowed in here.