Back when I was writing New Zealand military non-fiction, our leading local academic military historians often ended up reviewing my books for national magazines or newspapers.
What followed, every time, was a trawl for anything they could construct into a denial of my professional competence in a field where I was being published on merit, and where they wrote and published competing books on full-time salary at my expense as taxpayer. None of these strangers had the guts to approach me personally, and none responded to my approaches. Since then I’ve discovered I can’t get on mailing lists or into the symposia these people organise at public expense, and I’ve been advised that their public representations appear to put me at a disadvantage relative to being fairly assessed for the public-funded work and opportunities their employers offer.
Funnily enough, if I’d been as witlessly incompetent as these local academics insisted, I wouldn’t have had a look in with publishers such as Penguin who produced my military material solely on due judgement of its merits.
That brings me to the point of this post, which is the problem of readers taking umbrage at what they suppose to be an ‘error’. This is also an occupational hazard for fiction writers. Especially historical fiction. The author may not get feedback – but the reader doesn’t get the intended enjoyment out of the novel, and may even abandon it. Why? Because some detail the reader believes to be an error destroys the suspension of disbelief. That’s one of the key hooks that keeps readers engaged. And that can be blown in a flash if the author makes mistakes over the factual background.
Sometimes the error rests with the reader, who thinks they know something – but actually, it is they who are wrong. That, I suspect, is why Alexander Fullerton added a note at the beginning of his First World War nautical novel The Blooding of the Guns, detailing which way the helm was ordered to turn at the time, relative to the direction the ship was turning.
But sometimes the problem is with the author, or their editor. My favourite example is Dan Brown, whose version of Paris in The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) was very different from the one I knew. He confused railway stations – he conflated two that are actually about 1.5 km apart. He apparently didn’t know what’s under the pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre (the reception desk), or how the museum works and is laid out. He had his heroes drive along streets that aren’t driveable. And so it went on. I suppose Brown hadn’t visited Paris when he wrote the novel.
The point being that if you’re going to present yourself as ‘factual’, as he did, the onus is on to be so. There are, I think, many reasons why the novel was so wildly popular. One of them was Brown’s absolute mastery of pace. But for me, the suspension of disbelief – absolutely essential given the outrageous premise of his plot – was totally blown by his egregious lapses of fidelity. There is a lesson therein for novel writers. More soon.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014