Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How much reality do you need?

by Sandra Parshall

A hot discussion on DorothyL has taught me – or maybe I should say re-taught me – a couple of things.

One: If an author is going to write about religion, he/she should get the details exactly right. Even lapsed practitioners of a faith are ultra-sensitive to the smallest errors in the portrayal of their religion.

Two: Devout fans of an author do not want to hear that the writer has made a mistake in his or her presentation of any aspect of a religion. The fans may  accept the author’s version, a product of research, over that of someone who lives the faith.

This type of argument quickly bores me, and I’m not interested in reviving the DL kerfuffle here. But it brought to mind several questions that I think are worth the attention of writers and readers.

Why is religion different from other subjects? Why is the need for accuracy greater when an author ventures into the territory of any faith?

After all, readers routinely shrug off fictionalized, inaccurate details of criminal behavior and crime investigation. We all know that in the real world autopsies aren’t normally performed within 24 hours of a murder, but we accept that kind of speed because it’s necessary to maintain the pacing of a crime novel. We all know that in the real world most serial killers are sad and weird and revolting, and they don’t play clever games with the police, but we allow writers to glamorize these sick people for the sake of their stories. We all know that most thieves aren’t terribly bright, don’t look like George Clooney or Brad Pitt, and don’t pull off brilliantly planned and executed heists involving a gazillion dollars, but we prefer the Hollywood version. And we all know that in real life private investigators don’t go around solving all the murders that baffle the police, yet we love reading about fictional private eyes who do exactly that.

Sure, writers try to get the tiny details of police work right. We know that the same readers who will accept a 24-hour turnaround on autopsies will complain loudly if we get a minuscule forensic detail wrong. Someone on DorothyL quoted the old adage of writing teachers: “Readers will swallow a camel and choke on a gnat.” So true. If we get the gnats right, maybe we can slip in a whopping camel or two and get away with it.

A disclaimer from the author can go a long way toward buying reader acceptance: “This is a work of fiction. I have taken liberties with geography, police procedure, the drying time of plaster, whatever, for dramatic purposes.” If such a disclaimer appears in the book, up front, I’m not sure purists who go ahead and read the book anyway have a right to complain about inaccuracies afterward. They’ve been warned: this is not a true story.

But would that work with books featuring religious life as a major element? Must the author have the credentials of a follower of the faith in order to avoid criticism? Faye Kellerman has written a long string of popular mysteries that have Orthodox Judaism as a strong theme, and as far as I know she has never been criticized for the way she portrays the religion and its people. On the contrary, because she is a devout Orthodox Jew herself, she is credited with offering a window into that world. We can’t always be what we write about, though, and we won’t necessarily learn enough through research to present the situation realistically.

How do you feel about it? How much realism do you demand in crime fiction? Do factual errors ruin a book for you, or can you overlook them?

Is religion a hot button for you? What else is, if anything? What kind of mistake would make you stop reading?

Do disclaimers work for you? Can you forgive mistakes if the writer states up front that he/she has taken liberties with reality?


Patrick said...

The biggest factor for me is what the author is trying to accomplish. If the author is just trying to tell a good story with plenty of twists and turns (a la John Dickson Carr), I couldn't care less about police procedure. If, on the other hand, the author is trying to tell an ultra-realistic tale (right down to the last cup of coffee consumed) of police trying to solve an ordinary crime, those details become important.

It also depends with religion, but here I can't give a specific "rule" -- it's more of a case-by-case basis. Harry Kemelman's series about Rabbi David Small are excellent for providing you with a glimpse at Jewish culture and traditions, and the author is careful to explain just why the community of Barnard's Crossing is unlike a typical Christian parish many people are more familiar with. On the other hand, my problem with Penny's book is that it relies so much on its religious characters and the atmosphere in the monastery, and yet the portrayal is so inauthentic that the whole structure crumbles very quickly.

Sheila Connolly said...

The drying time of plaster depends on a number of factors...

Religion in a mystery aimed to entertain is a hot-button issue. You risk alienating anyone who follows a different religion or none at all. Yet leaving it out altogether seems false too. One issue I'm wrestling with is, if two characters are going to get married, should it be in a church? Or with a religious representatitve officiating? Will people be concerned if it's a civil ceremony?

I think Katherine Hall Page handles it well--her sleuth's husband is a minister, but that allows her access to the community, without too much emphasis on the religious aspects.

Anonymous said...

Religion is often a hot button for many people! It is important to accept the fact that the religion a person knows or has known is constantly changing - in Roman Catholicism there are many avenues - and few people know all about all of them! Like a huge tree, each branch is constantly shooting forth new little twigs - and some are so new and different the population cannot possibly know all of them! I have not read Louise's book - but it would appear that perhaps she encountered a different branch on the vast RC tree! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Sandra Parshall said...

I don't want to turn this into a discussion of a particular book, especially one I haven't even read, but I agree that religion is a touchy topic for many people. It plays a role in a lot of southern novels. Writing about, say, an independent fundamentalist Christian church, which may have unique practices, gives a writer far more leeway than portraying a highly organized/structured church like the Episcopalian or Catholic. You're certainly right about changes -- who would have dreamed 100 years ago of female Episcopal priests or that church's current attitude toward gays? The Catholic Church, though, has allowed some religious orders, especially the cloistered orders, to maintain traditional practices. Not everybody has been dragged into the 21st century against their will.

LD Masterson said...

Errors in logic will bother me more than errors in procedure - i.e. a person is thrown into a lake and a few minutes later is completely dry without ever having the opportunity to change clothes.

I think I'd only be bothered about errors regarding religion if the author seemed to be deliberately casting that faith into a bad light. You shouldn't slam someone else's faith.

Sandra Parshall said...

One thing that bugs me is the magical disappearing injury. I can't count the number of novels I've read in which a character is knocked out cold for however long it takes the bad guys to get something vital done, then wakes up and is instantly ready to go running around again. And I've read books in which people who get shot seem to forget all about their wounds after a page or two.

Lev Raphael said...

Isn't there a difference between glamorizing art thieves, say, and speeding up an autopsy--and getting facts wrong?

I'd be less annoyed about speeding up a procedure than seeing it described incorrectly.

As for religion, and Dorothyl, I don't know how good a sampling of mystery readers that crowd is. :-)

Sally Carpenter said...

If an author presents a charicature or stereotype of an ethnic group or GLBT, readers complain. Yet writers fail to give the same respect to persons of faith. I'm annoyed when Christians are portrayed only as angry Bible-thumping fundamentalists or as pre-Vatican II Catholics who protest at abortion clinics. And why do authors continue to put priests in cassocks and nuns in full habits? Please take the time to get things right--call a house of worship and they'll be happy to answer your questions regarding faith practices. A little research and awareness will make your readers happy.