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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: Finding Flaws

June 3, 2010

This Thursday’s entry comes courtesy of Ethan Cooper, author of the novels In Control, Smooth in Meetings, and Tom’s Job.  In response to my entry about Convenient Plot Devices, Mr. Cooper wrote:

As I read a book (or especially watch a movie) and I notice something that isn’t true (or persuasive) to character or life as it is experienced, an editorial siren goes on. Flaw! Flaw! Flaw! it wails.

Sometimes, I can overlook these. But if the flaw is necessary for the narrative to take a certain direction, well, then it bugs me and I can’t let it go. Then, I feel like the writer just didn’t, for whatever reason, make the effort to create something plausible.

This got me remembering a couple of instances where I found flaws in books I’ve read.  Not just the usual logical flaws or Convenient Plot Devices or those kind of annoying storytelling flaws.  No, these are factual flaws.  On the surface these kind of things can seem minor, but there’s nothing that pulls me out of a story faster than seeing a factual error because it gets me thinking to myself, “Hey, what’s going on here?  That’s not right!”

You’d probably think this is limited to self-published novels or maybe small presses where there aren’t as many editors.  Nope.  Well-known novels from the big publishing houses somehow manage to slip through with research errors too.  Award winning novels even!  Don’t believe me?  This comes from my review of the Pulitzer-winning novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides:

there are at least two inaccuracies in this novel. First, Cal says they made B-52s in automobile plants during WWII, but the B-52 was not around until the jet engine was perfected in the ’50s. The person who read the book before me actually made a note of this in the book. Second, Cal talks about Al Kaline as a great first baseman and it’s true that he did play 135 games at first during his major league career, but he was far better known as an outfielder for the Tigers (2,488 games in the outfield).

Or check this out from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini:

Other than that I only have a couple of nitpicks.  One is that after Amir gets into his fight and gets his jaw wired shut, he mentions that his voice sounds like Al Pacino in “The Godfather.”  I assume he meant Marlon Brando with the cotton stuffed in his cheeks.  Maybe this was intentional to show Amir’s incomplete grasp of American cinema.  Or it’s an oversight.  Not a big deal, but a little jarring considering “The Godfather” is one of the 10 greatest American films ever so you’d think an author would be able to keep track of who played what character.

These are both pretty well-known books that were published by major houses, and yet apparently no one was really paying enough attention to pick out these mistakes.  I still liked both books, so this didn’t completely ruin things for me.  Still, when you’re trying to present a story, especially a historical one, finding one mistake gets me worried about how many more there are lurking that I might not have seen.  That makes it harder for me to get into the flow of the story, because I keep questioning everything that I’m reading.  So the author loses some amount of credibility with me.

Though I don’t need novels to cite sources and use footnotes and such like nonfiction books, it would be nice if authors took time to make sure the facts in their books are actually facts.  Though I know from experience that it’s pretty difficult to proof every fact in a 400-500 page book.  Sometimes you just rely on your memory and your memory can be wrong–as mine frequently is.  I’m sure there are numerous factual errors in my book, though no one’s really pointed them out in any reviews.  I tried to make sure of some important things, but there’s always the chance that some little things would slip through.  Of course I didn’t go through every single thing, nor could I have. It would be nice with these books by major publishers, though, who have editors and all that, if mistakes didn’t get through.  I mean, isn’t that what they’re being paid for?

While I just focused on factual errors, there are other errors as Mr. Cooper mentioned.  These are more cultural errors.  Like in some places you refer to Coke or Pepsi as “pop” or other places as “soda” or sometimes even “soda pop.”  If you use the wrong term then a lot of people aren’t going to notice, but some people will and again it brings your credibility into question.  Check this out from my review of The Sportswriter by Richard Ford:

One bone I have to pick with Ford in this book are some of the generalizations Frank makes about Michigan, my home, and its people. He’s always talking about Michigan “literalness” and the dull, severity of the midwest, which coming from someone as boring as Frank is a real insult. At one point he compares the sad landscapes of Michigan with New Jersey, something I took great offense with because I have seen most of the state in my life and I think there are many beautiful places. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but he shouldn’t state how sad the state is as though it is a fact. At another point he talks about midwestern accents and how his X says “Gren Repids” instead of “Grand Rapids” and how his son says “watching news” instead of “watching the news”. As someone who’s lived here for a while, I can say I haven’t heard anyone say “Gren Repids” or that they’re “watching news”.

Now a lot of people obviously wouldn’t notice that because they don’t live in Michigan, so there’s no way they’d notice.  Just like I don’t live in New York, so if you write about New York, I just have to trust what you’re saying is true because there’s no way I’d really know.  That’s sort of the unwritten contract between the author and reader and if you as the author start violating that, it makes the reader lose faith in you and as a consequence the rest of the story.  The author can still overcome this, but it can be an uphill climb.

So the point is:  do your homework!  Sure, nobody’s perfect, but these words you write could live on for centuries like Shakespeare or Cervantes or Chaucer or even thousands of years like all those Greek philosophers.  Don’t you think then it’s worth making sure what you’ve written is right?

Sunday Serial continues with Virgin Territory, Chapter 7!

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4 Comments
  1. Hi BJ,

    That’s good advice: Check your work for factual and cultural errors. We all should do this.

    But what drives me nuts are social or psychological errors. To illustrate what I mean, l refer to UNION ATLANTIC, a novel I started recently and couldn’t finish. (Reviewed in THE NEW YORKER, BTW.)

    In UA, the protagonist makes the jump from being a nobody, working as a mere seaman in the U.S. Navy, to the number-two guy in a huge bank in just 14 years, which included four years of college. This character, by the way, is the son of an alcoholic cleaning lady.

    Anyway, the people in life who get to the top of big corporations, especially before 40, have been stars all their lives and excellent at everything they do. Frequently, they have family connections. But to tie a tragic military incident into his story, Haslett had to allow this character to be both a nobody in the navy and a star. But does it pass the sniff test? Nope; the same character wouldn’t be in both places.

    Likewise, this same character, a single man nearing 40 who has an active sexual relationship with his female secretary, experiences surprising homoerotic feelings for a teenage boy who he has discovered breaking into his house. I couldn’t finish the book so I don’t know how this gay element affects the narrative. But I do know many gay people and the men know before they’re 40 about their orientation.

    What am I saying? Once again, the author has written a flaw into the narrative. Since I couldn’t finish, I don’t know why this was necessary… what Haslett accomplished by making this character bisexual. But whatever he was after, he created a turning point that was also an implausibility.

    Actually, I can live with the factual errors. I remember a John Wayne movie from my childhood, in which the Wayne character, a Union cavalry officer in the Civil War, commands that penicillin be given to a wounded man. It’s a ludicrous moment, but doesn’t really harm the narrative, since the order is true psychologically–showing a soldier wounded and Wayne in charge.

    So, little errors are okay: Who really cares if it’s Coke or Pepsi? But when an author uses implausibilities to move his narrative in a certain direction? That’s either authorial carelessness or laziness or contempt for the readers, with the author thinking they won’t notice or care the story has been dumbed-down.

    Coop

  2. You know, that was one of my problems with the “Star Trek” movie that came out last year. At the beginning Kirk is just a trainee but by the end (after less than a week real time) he’s promoted all the way to Captain and given the fleet’s top ship. Granted he just saved their bacon and all, but there’s no way in hell any military organization is going to let you go from trainee to Captain and give you their best ship with almost no real world experience. Come on!

    “But I do know many gay people and the men know before they’re 40 about their orientation. ”

    Hmmm…reminds me of a certain other book. Flaw! Flaw!

  3. Hi Roguemutt,

    It worked okay in WHERE YOU BELONG, because Frost was a very passive character In this case, it’s plausible that he could have been a late bloomer and confused about his orientation.

    Besides, Frost was not 40!

    Coop

  4. Right, he was 33-35. Huge difference! 😉

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