FYI - I speak from a position of privilege for I am a white woman.
So this weekend an author who seems to be prone to melt downs had a melt down because a reader noted that they took off a star in the rating for a book because of the use of homophobic slur. This lead not only to the author's fans, friends and what not trotting out the "it's fiction but must be historically accurate point" as well as authors attacking readers, so it is the standard Indie author mess over on twitter.
Here's the thing.
Slurs hurt. That is why they are, well, slurs. Furthermore, it is true that most readers want a degree of historical accuracy, they are also well aware that it is not going to be 100% accurate. In much historical fiction, the women do not always act like a the women of the times must have, sometimes the thoughts of the men are too modern in terms equality. So this argument while valid on the face, is really that valid.
It is also very true that some books should not be comfortable, that by making the reader uncomfortable such work can affect society. This too has some truth, but it is not a reason to use slurs carte blanche.
So when this whole debate went down and then spiraled into indie authors being assswats, I kept thinking about the play I saw Friday night. My General Tubman is a play set in both modern day Philadelphia, and the Civil War past of America. The cast is majority African-American (only 2 white actors), it was written by a WOC, Lorene Carey. Because of its setting, Carey could have justified the use of the n word over the course of the play. (I will not type at the word, and if you do not know what the word is, well, it rhymes with bigger). She could have made all the arguments about shock, about culture, about the different ways it is used/spelled and whatever.
The word is used only two or three times, in one scene. In this scene, John Brown is preparing for his attack on Harper's Ferry and his neighbor, a white woman, comes to warn him about "those armed n*gg*rs" she saw on his property late at night. That scene occurs in the second half of the play. And when that word is used, it carries weight. We also get Brown's reaction to the word. When the word is said, you can feel the subtle shift in the audience (which was mixed) to a belief feeling of uncomfortableness, and using it there made it clear (1) the position of the woman (2) what Tubman and Brown are fighting against (3) the power of the slur. The word comes out hard because it is the first (and only) time in the play that anyone has referred to anyone, especially Tubman, but anyone that way. If you are going to use a slur in writing, this is what you should use it to do, DO NOT drop it round like seasoning because of accuracy. That lessens the context and hurt of the word.
I think also of a book I reread this weekend, Dime Store Magic by Kelley Armstrong, and there is an attempted rape scene (the woman kicks the guy's ass) and no doubt Armstrong could have justified using the word cunt in that scene. The thing is, she was able to write the scene without it and still convey the threat and misogyny of the man who would have been a rapist.
If you are going to use a slur when writing, you should know the power of the word, and reserve that power of that word for when it will have impact, not because using it makes you edgy.