They’ve done the research; spent hours in libraries or on line checking their facts (or maybe their paid researcher actually did the grunt work); the book is now out – and guess what? Some tweed jacket wearer sporting a handlebar moustache spots an anachronism and can’t wait to point out said defect to the author.
Do we set too great an expectation on our leading authors? Undoubtedly there are some books where the writer has made a fatal flaw that anyone with just a modicum of common sense would recognise (I hate it when authors use twentieth century expressions – usually of American origin – in narratives set in an earlier period). Then there are other novels that contain errors which make no material difference to the narrative. You note them but push them to one side because you’re enjoying the story so much?
Booker Prize Winner Ian McEwan apparently spent two years observing a neurosurgeon for his novel Saturday.The surgeon was less than pleased to find McEwan had his protagonist use a paintbrush to apply antiseptic prior to an operation (not a tool that is common in an operating theatre it seems). I can recall the gruesome details of the surgical procedure in that novel but can’t honestly say that knowing whether the surgeon used a paintbrush or an artist’s brush matters much.
Even his winning novel Amsterdam came in for close scrutiny. After it was published McEwan received a letter from a World War 2 veteran that he’s used the Americansm “on the double” instead of the ‘at the double” term used by British soldiers of his day.
McEwan reflected on such trips and hazards that confront the novelist at a recent lecture – summarised in this news article,http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2012/04/mcewan-recounts-his-missteps/
Maybe I’ ve been fortunate but I’ve not often seen something amiss in a work of fiction published by one of the reputable houses. I imagine the texts go through a pretty rigorous process before the print button is pushed. Self- published works are a completely different matter however since the same protective screen is nowhere near as exhaustive. My frustrations are usually where one or more characters is a journalist or the plot requires some news item to be reproduced in the text – unless the author is, or has been a journalist themselves, they usually get this wrong. The fictional journalist never behaves as any real journalist would (they don’t check their sources for example, dont ask basic questions) and as for the so called news reports, they make me wonder if the author has ever read a newspaper. The worst offender I’ve come across in recent years was in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen byPaul Torday where the so-called newspaper article read more like a government report. Dire.
<td><span style=”color: #000080;”><strong>Error spotting </strong></span>
Have you ever found a mistake in a novel? I don’t mean a spelling error – those are not the fault of the author anyway, but more a problem in typesetting and proofreading. I mean factual errors or anachronisms? If you spot them are you inclined to write to the publisher to point out the mistake or do you just shrug and move on?