Tuesday, July 04, 2006

When Fictioneers Lie Too Much

My writing group met last night, and we got on the subject of historical fiction and the historical inaccuracies that bedevil it. I remember L. Sprague de Camp writing that the first time he picked up a story by Robert E. Howard he had immediately tossed it aside because Howard had Romans using stirrups and the Romans had no such thing. I must admit the stirrup thing didn't bother me a bit, although I guess it's as anachronistic as having a Civil War soldier glance at his wristwatch. On the other hand, I've read books where the author made historical or factual errors and my response has been: "What an idiot. Doesn't this guy know anything?" So what's my reasoning? As near as I can figure, here it is below, though don't expect it to be logical. I do think these are much the same reasons others use, however.

1. I'll forgive the error if I don't even know it's an error. Frankly, I didn't know the Romans didn't have stirrups.

2. I'll forgive the error if it's a minor one. If the clothing isn't exactly right, but it's pretty close, who cares? I don't. I don't read fiction because I want to learn the precise details of another time or culture. There are textbooks for that.

3. I'll forgive the error (even if grudgingly) if the story is just a ripping fine read.

4. I won't forgive the error if it would have been easy to get it right. If a writer has the wrong year for the Gettysburg Address then I'm going to be irritated since a couple minutes of checking would have revealed the correct answer.

5. I won't forgive the error if the writer holds himself or herself up as an authority and claims that they got it all right. I've seen writers who put in notes at the end of their books to make the reader aware of anything they changed for purposes of the story. That I respect. But don't tell me you're an expert and then proceed to fill your pages with nonsense.

I think that's about it for me, but perhaps others out there have different opinions. What do you think?


cs harris said...

Sounds like a good line of reasoning to me. Errors in detail are so easy to make, most writers have mistakes in print we wish could go back and change. The unforgivable errors, I think, are the ones where the writer makes statements of fact that are both gratuitous and entirely wrong. There are already too many "pseudo-facts" that are accepted as truths in our society simply because they are repeated over and over again. And as you said, when a writer goes on and on about his research, and publishers use that "research" as a platform to push his books, people are more inclined to believe his errors. It seems then we're no longer talking about errors, but about lies, and misrepresentation, and a lack of respect for the reader. And that's what leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Sidney said...

I think things should be as real as possible and as accurate as possible, but when a detail like the Romans and stirrups comes up I think I'd be inclined to say: "OK, you caught me. I made the whole thing up. And those poisonous plants in the dungeon that wrapped themselves around the guy--just something from my imagination. Oh crap, and the dragon. That's made up."