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?