We all want our books to be, and to seem, authentic – don’t we? – but there is plenty of room for debate about what that really means. Robert Barnard tells a story about an American critic who praised his deep understanding of the backstage world of opera, when in fact Robert had no first hand knowledge of that milieu at all. But he wrote well enough to persuade the critic that he did.
A book or film that makes obvious mistakes of fact will tend to be panned, but a common experience is that people with specialised knowledge recognise that authenticity is lacking when others do not. A good example, I thought, was the comment made by Josephine in relation to my review of Lewis on Monday – she felt that the work of a translator was not convincingly portrayed.
More usually, the complaint is voiced by police officers that crime novels fail to describe their work with sufficient authenticity. Journalists often say the same. So, come to that, do lawyers. I cringe occasionally when I read some of the unrealistic descriptions of legal life, although if the fiction is written well enough, I am certainly prepared to forgive a lot. It’s a mistake to be excessively picky, I think.
Sometimes, an issue arises about authenticity as a result of a deliberate decision by the author, rather than a mistake. The other day I received an interesting email from a reader who enjoyed The Serpent Pool, but was troubled because I’d created a fictional university in Cumbria. She made the point that resources are barely enough to support the one uni that does actually exist in the area. I'm sure that is true, but I tried to explain that I was very well aware I was inventing something. I just didn’t want to libel inadvertently an existing institution, or the people who work there. The whole point about fiction is that, whilst it may seek to cast light on real life, it is not quite the same as real life.
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
Posted by Martin Edwards
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Martin - Thank you for bringing up such an important topic. There are many issues that bear on just how authentic writers can/should be. For instance, I thought your comment about the Cumbria school very interesting because I faced the same thing in my own Joel Williams series. I've made up several fictional schools and other places in the area of Pennsylvania where the novels take place. I know they're fictional, and that the area doesn't exactly have as many places as I described. But, for the same reason as you mentioned, I put them there. To me, there's a delicate balance between authentic enough to "pass muster," yet still having some "author's license," so to speak.
What an interesting dilemma. I'm sympathtic to the supporter of the Cumbrian University, but I can well see the advantages of not being too literal about the location!
I think this is a great post. Sometimes authenticity isn't the goal. The goal is to create something new because what exists isn't suitable (or wouldn't appreciate being used). Definitely a post to get us all thinking. Thanks for sharing.
As you say, Margot, it really is about striking a balance.
Seana, yes, it is a dilemma. And as a lawyer, I'm especially keen to avoid accidental libels!
Cassandra, thank you. I've checked out your interesting blog and added it to my blogroll.
I think it's a real challenge for writers. I write one fictional location and one real one. With the real one, I'm VERY careful.
Very wise, Elizabeth. As you are alert to the issue, you should be absolutely fine. It's when a writer isn't aware of libel risks that problems can multiply. I like to think it's just a matter of taking sensible steps to take care, without going 'over the top'.
Roger Ebert, in his review of the movie "War Games," said: "I'm not saying the movie is accurate, I'm saying it seems authentic--and that is more important."
Deb, a great line - and very true, I think.
You were just following in the footsteps of Dorothy L. Sayers, who created the fictional Shrewsbury College in _Gaudy Night_ (obviously modeled on her alma mater, Somerville, but the point is that Sayers did not use Somerville directly).
In crime fiction it is often a wise idea to invent the actual buildings and institutions! I have sometimes toyed with the idea of killing a particularly nasty boss I had many years ago, but I wouldn´t dream of making him or the place of work recognizable. (After all, he might be able to afford a better lawyer than I could) :D
The post reminds me of my review of Robert Goddard the other day. His description of Aarhus (I took my university degree there, and two of my children study in the same town now) was fairly good, but not quite convincing. Middle-aged women in tweed and sheep farms? Not impossible, but not likely either.
I'm reading Cipher Garden and you keep mentioning that the characters live near where Betrix Potter lived. I wanted to know if that's accurate or not. But, ultimately, it doesn't matter. Fiction is meant to have parts that are made up or else it would be non-fiction.
I've always looked to the story first. As for authenticity, I have no special knowledge of a lot of subjects. I suppose I might be horrified if I knew certain liberties were taken with the subject on books I've enjoyed.
That's why a good story will lure me away from trying to analyze a tale too heavily. Something outrageously wrong might catch my eye, but other wise...
Thanks, Dorte - better safe than sorry!
Clarissa, the village of Old Sawrey is invented, but there are two other real life Sawreys near the Claife Heights, one of which has the Beatrix Potter cottage. So the general area is accurately portrayed, but the parts where the crimes are committed, and the suspects operate, including the restaurant and garden businesses, are fictional.
Hi Randy, thanks for your comment; your approach is similar to mine.
Hi Martin – I’m nearing the end of John Harvey’s ‘Far Cry’, an absolutely compelling long novel about child abduction from a master crime writer whose work is always characterised by great authenticity. And Harvey has caused me to mull over a few matters relating not only to your ‘Authenticity’ post but also to your recent and equally intriguing ‘Too Much Information?’ post as well.
In ‘Far Cry’ there are many references to music and art, and because these stem from the genuine enthusiasms and sound knowledge of an author I admire, I find they enrich the work even if incidental to the plot.
With fiction, isn’t it true that our preferences are determined by authorship quite as much as subject matter; that whilst an intriguing plot is important, the author’s personality and style are equally important: in short, that we’re drawn to those particular authors whose company on the page we enjoy? Perhaps the most important character in a novel is the unseen one, the author him-or her-self.
Glaring errors of fact, ‘howlers’, are best avoided of course because they jolt us out of the story, and they’re surely not so difficult to avoid these days when pretty well any subject can be easily researched on the web. That said, the authenticity we demand from individual authors surely depends upon the kinds of books they write – I wouldn’t expect the same factual fidelity from Terry Pratchett as I do from John Harvey!
Perhaps a distinction should be drawn between authenticity and plausibility. Ian Fleming knew about espionage from his wartime service with Naval Intelligence yet Bond’s adventures were highly implausible, and who gave a fig about that? Certainly I didn’t when I moved straight from Conan Doyle to Fleming at the age of 15!
Oh well. glad you enjoyed Crimefest and hope to catch up with you at your Crippen talk during the Lymm Festival.
Paul, good to hear from you, as ever. Thanks for these thoughts. And I do look forward to seeing you at the Festival.
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