Book Reviews

Mistakes authors make

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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 an anachronism or a grammatical error to the author.

Such errors in films and tv programmes are known colloquially in the UK as “Routemasters”, after an error in a tv series where a Routemaster bus was spotted in the background – six years before the buses were ever seen on the London streets.

Do we set too great an expectation on our leading authors to get every fact correct?

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 squirm for example, when authors use twentieth century expressions – usually of American origin – in narratives set in a much earlier time 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.

McEwan’s prize-winning novel Amsterdam also came in for close scrutiny. After it was published, the author received a letter from a World War 2 veteran that he’s used the Americanism “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 in a 2012 lecture, summarised in this Harvard Gazette news article.

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 bete noire is the way too many novels get it wrong in their portrayals of journalists or reproduce a news article. Unless the author is, or has been a journalist themselves, they usually get this completely wrong. Fictional journalists never check their sources which is a lesson every trainee reporter learns on day one. Nor do they ask eve basic questions following the mantra of Who, What, Why, When and How.

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.

Error spotting

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?


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

2 thoughts on “Mistakes authors make

  • I’m reading “Wolf Hall” right now and enjoying the historical details. I hope they are accurate! Learning through fiction or “creative nonfiction” is my favorite way, but necessarily somewhat unreliable. Focusing on one or two errors seems overly picky when so many details are correct. That said, incorrect details are really irritating, like someone who writes “gopher turtle” instead of “gopher tortoise.” I can certainly see both sides of this issue.

    • I think Wolf does her own research which cuts down the risk of making big mistakes.


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