In a column in the July 13 issue of Publishers Weekly, children’s book author Peter Mandel deplores the current emphasis on getting the facts correct in fiction. He doesn’t understand why anyone cares whether the hair styles, clothing, and settings in the John Adams miniseries or in Mad Men accurately reflect the eras in which the dramas are set. He has personally received complaints that his new children’s picture book “wasn’t fully researched” and that one character was unfairly portrayed.
Oh, Mr. Mandel, you should come on over to the world of crime fiction if you want to witness a true mania for getting the details right. An entire branch of reference book publishing is devoted to guides for writers of mysteries, suspense, and thrillers. Behind me as I type this are bookshelves loaded down with such titles as The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide, How to Try a Murder, Cause of Death, Bones, The Crime Writer’s Reference Guide, Hidden Evidence, Corpse, Crime Scene, Death Investigator’s Handbook, Howdunit, Deadly Doses, Crime Classification Manual, The Criminal Law Handbook... Well, you get the point. I have at least 100 books covering various aspects of crime, police work, criminal thinking and behavior, and the workings of the US legal system, and I still have to go online sometimes to find answers to vexing questions.
Online sources of information are even more numerous than the books on my shelves. The Crime Scene Writers list on Yahoo and Dr. Doug Lyle’s blog and website are among the most popular internet sources for those of us who dream up ways to commit murder and get away with it for 300 pages or so. The national Sisters in Crime listserv has a feature called Mentor Monday that allows members all-day access to experts in various fields.
Why do we bother, if as Mr. Mandel contends in PW, the purpose of fiction is to divert and entertain us, to take us to an alternate reality, not to painstakingly recreate reality itself? Why are so many readers unable to enjoy a mystery if it gets a single fact wrong, and why do writers themselves jeer at CSI and Without a Trace for being more fantasy than reality? (Five-minute DNA tests? Don’t we wish! Thirty-second fingerprint matching done entirely by computer? Ha! We all know it takes hours, days, even a week, and a human, not a machine, must make the final match. The FBI rushing to launch a search when some guy doesn’t come home for dinner? Give me a break!)
The blame for our make-it-real mania may rest with the medium through which you are reading these words. Anybody with a computer and an internet connection can find out almost anything these days, verify any statement or prove it false. Readers who spotted bloopers have never hesitated to point them out to the authors, but those knowledgeable readers were once far fewer – and they sent their complaints on paper through the mail.
I don’t think our educational system is such a grand success these days that every student emerges with encyclopedic knowledge of the world – quite the contrary, unfortunately. And I don’t think television has enlightened anyone. After all, TV is what gives us those ridiculous scenarios on CSI and Without a Trace. Newspapers are teetering on the brink of extinction. So where are ordinary people picking up knowledge about crime and crime-solving? The same place I go for it, apparently – the internet. And once in possession of proof that an author has erred, the reader (chortling with vengeful delight, I’m sure) immediately taps out a withering digital letter to the writer and hits Send.
But am I complaining? No. I am one of those readers who demand accuracy. I don’t point out mistakes to authors because I’m a crime fiction writer too and the last thing I want to do is embarrass another of my species. I take notice, though, and I remember. And I remind myself yet again to check my facts when I’m writing.
To get back to Mr. Mandel’s “So what?” question about the effect of inaccuracies in fiction, I can only answer for myself, but I suspect my attitude is shared by many. I don’t choose accuracy over good writing and entertainment. I want accuracy and good writing and an entertaining story. I can find CSI entertaining as is, but I believe it would be more enjoyable if I weren’t rolling my eyes in disbelief every few minutes. I won’t throw a mystery novel against a wall if the author gets a fact wrong, and I can suspend disbelief and enjoy an amateur sleuth story, but the more realistic the novel is, the more I enjoy it. This is probably why I prefer the darker stuff. Murder is evil. Don’t try to make me believe it isn’t.
I’m also put off by inaccuracy in science fiction. I love Star Trek, and because it’s set in the future, I can accept whatever is presented. Who am I to say whether this or that amazing feat will or won’t be possible in a couple hundred years? Did Ben Franklin ever imagine such a thing as a computer, let alone the internet? The distant future no doubt holds technological wonders we can’t even dream of now. But SF stories set in the near future, in a universe that looks pretty much like the current one, have to be plausible or I’ll lose interest. (Egregious example: the new movie Moon. Don’t get me started.)
Returning to crime fiction, the genre in which I read most often, accurate facts don’t intrude on my reading experience or distract me from the story. They provide a solid foundation for the story, they make me trust the author. So my message to other writers is simply this: Get the facts straight while telling me a good story and I will happily follow you deep into your book’s fictional world.
How do you feel about factual errors in novels? Do you think the demand for accuracy is a good thing or a bad thing?