Thursday, August 14, 2008

When the Author Gets It Wrong: The Reader’s View

Elizabeth Zelvin

Last week I talked about what happens when the author makes an error of fact or calculation from my own perspective as a writer. But every writer is a reader too, and none more passionately than mystery lovers. As a reader, I have quite a different attitude toward mistakes. They irritate me profoundly. Furthermore, I never forget and forgive. If an author gets it wrong, I can carry a grudge about it for decades.

The nearest analogy to this dissociative state—not schizophrenic, please! Schizophrenia has not meant “split personality” since the 19th century!—is the difference between the pedestrian and the same person as a driver. When I’m crossing the street, the driver who shoots through the changing traffic light or hurtles around the corner cutting off my right of way is a homicidal maniac. But when I’m behind the wheel, the pedestrian crossing on red or dawdling in the crosswalk eating ice cream or babbling on a cell phone is the moron.

I wouldn’t say that I won’t read more of an author who’s made a mistake in one of my pet peeve areas. But it’s definitely a black mark in, er, their book. Since I’m a mental health professional—a social worker, a psychotherapist, and an addictions professional—the mistakes that make me grind my teeth tend to be in those areas. For example, take the all too common use of “schizophrenic” to mean ambivalent. Last week, writing as an author, I defended the occasional use of literary license. I have no objection to the use of a severe pathological state as a metaphor for a milder frame of mind: in this case, as a metaphor for indecision or difficulty making up one’s mind. But for pete’s sake, authors, use the right pathology! It’s dissociative identity disorder, not schizophrenia, that creates “split personality.” It used to be called multiple personality disorder. It was once considered to be rare. Sadly, some degree of dissociation is now known to be common among survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

I recently came across another wrong committed in the name of schizophrenia in one of Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective books. It was a great read until the gaffe at the end, when the murderer is revealed. To avoid a spoiler, I won’t name the book except to say it’s not the current one. But the setup is that the murderer has committed a series of well planned and well covered murders, using a dominant personality to draw a weaker sidekick into what the narrator (or the writer) not unreasonably calls a folie à deux. But then Pronzini blows it. “Paranoid schizophrenic with a persecution complex—you didn’t need to be Freud to see that.” Wrong. Narcissistic personality disorder, certainly. Sociopathy, probably. But a paranoid schizophrenic would be incapable of the organized thought and planning that went into these murders. I still remember trying to get one of the first paranoid schiz patients I worked with as a social work intern to comment further on something he had said.
“Do you have any thoughts about that?” I asked.
“Oh, very few.” And that was all he had to say.

As an expert on alcoholism who writes about recovery, I hate it when a drunk is played for laughs or when a habitual compulsive drinker (yes, Virginia, that is an alcoholic) stops without effort thanks to the love of a good woman or turns it on and off like a tap, as the otherwise admirable Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon does. I also hate it when somebody donates or bequeaths money to AA, whose traditions state clearly that they “do not accept outside donations.” And I’ve never quite forgiven Dick Francis for the denouement in which the alcoholic brother gets killed saving the protagonist followed by the sadly ironic phone call in which the caller tells the protagonist that he’s returning the brother’s call to AA. It’s not called Alcoholic Anonymous for nothing. An AA member would never, never identify himself to whoever answers the phone.

Those are some of my pet peeves as a reader. What are yours, and why?


Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Thank you for your dedication to making sure that misnomers about psychological disorders are not reinforced through careless writing.

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter 1 is online!

Anonymous said...

Can I assume you don't like Parnell Hall's crossword puzzle series? I found it offensive that he makes someone with a drinking problem "cute."

One major peeve, which I think is related to your point: when a character in a book does something that is completely inconsistent with his or her behavior up to that point, just because the plot requires it. The writer is supposed to create believable people, not puppets.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, I've met Parnell Hall, who's a delightful person, and I love his Stanley Hastings series. I did stop reading his puzzle series, and I didn't know till he mentioned it himself that the puzzle lady stopped drinking several books back (though she still smokes). In other words, uh, yes. ;)

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz, my pet peeves mirror yours -- mislabeling of psychological states and drinking played for laughs. There's nothing funny about alcoholism or the damage it can do. I'm very very VERY tired of cops with a drinking problem, and the suggestion that the work is so stressful it would drive anyone to drink. Please. That's an insult to the hundreds of thousands of police officers who are competent and professional.

I also dislike books in which all the characters are angry and edgy all the time. Patricia Cornwell's books, in particular, have been like this for far too long.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Zelvin, I really appreciate our comments. I also find it amazing how the meanings of words changes through the years. My dad had told me as a child that everytime someone brags that a new dictionary is coming out with 50,000 new words, that means 50,000 old ones have been taken out. So when I write a book set in the 50, for example, I try to get my hands on a 50s dictionary, just to make sure the "meaning" is the same as used in that time. Sometimes the meaning is exactly the opposite of what you could imagine. When I first met my fatherinlaw he called me homely. I was offended but he had meant it as a compliment because he used a definition I didn't know. Elizabeth, I am glad I read your blog. It made my day.

Patti said...

I am surprised (pleased, tho) that a psychotherapist would rant about the misuse of labels. Psychotherapy, itself, is chock full of labels, most of them only a way to describe, not to identify.

But, therein lies the reason I am posting a comment. My hat's off to you for noticing how bad labels can be.

I for one am extremely careful not to misuse labels - they tend to stick. That said -

I have just finished 2 writing workshops. What the presenter stressed above everything else: "Do your homework! Make it as real as you can!" Touche.

Clair D. said...

I hate when characters reflect on the bad choice they're making, but still do it anyway, usually without even flimsy rationalization. It's like the author is kind of explaining the bad choice, but doesn't have a good answer, either. Yech.

And I hate 'easy' facts--like the schizophrenia/DID example, amongst others that could easily have been looked up, even before the days of Google. I think that's why I double check so many thinks I think I know, to make sure I don't do that in my writing. =)

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

You're absolutely wright. Even the simplest misstatements can turn off a reader: saying Sutter Street instead of Avenue, or misusing a colloquial phrase. Great writers not only do their homework but have a great ear. Still, I only carry a grudge for writers who crib from others or mislabel their work. James Frey comes to mind. I don't think I could bring myself to read anything else he writes.

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