We just had a discussion about a few minor points of fact in Hopkinson’s Titanic. Meanwhile, over at Heavy Medal, there is a small debate going on about the epigraph of Sy Montgomery’s Temple Grandin. Apparently, Montgomery gives credit for a quotation to Plato, when he in all probability did not ever say it. In the course of discussing whether this matters or not, Jonathan Hunt questioned whether the same nitpicking would be applied to a novel, to which commenter Eric replied, in part: “There can always be a reason, knowledgeable character, unreliable narrator, etc for information to be falsely stated. A fiction book even a realistic one has no need to keep every instance as true as possible.”
So my question for today is: how much does accuracy matter in fiction? Two years ago on Heavy Medal there was a somewhat contentious debate over some issues of geography in Rita Garcia-Williams’s One Crazy Summer – she describes a hill in Berkeley where there is no hill. You’ve lived in Berkeley, and you’re on record on this blog as stating “when I read a book that takes place in, for example, San Francisco, I’m hyper-critical of the details of setting and language.” Is this just a pet peeve that many of us share, or is it a real criticism of a novel? Can a novelist simply invent a world in which everything is exactly the same as our world except for an extra hill in Berkeley, or does this somehow break the contract with the reader? Does the genre matter (historical fiction, realistic fiction, fantasy, science fiction)? Does it matter who makes the mistake–that is, if a character in a novel states something wrong, can we simply argue that the character was wrong in the context of the novel, but if the 3rd person omniscient narrator makes the mistake, then we can criticize?
Honestly, I have no idea the answer to this question. For myself (and I would wager for a large number of readers) the answer is something like “it matters if the information in question is something that I know and care about and I notice the mistake, but it doesn’t matter if I didn’t notice it or don’t care about the information.” But obviously, this is a completely untenable argument if we are going to have a discussion about books among numerous people, but I think it’s honestly the way most of us approach the issue. So how do we make a determination which factual inaccuracies matter and which don’t? Is it just anything goes as long as it’s labelled fiction, as Eric seems to be arguing? Or does every inaccuracy count against a novel? Or can we come up with some middle ground?
Since I’ve already used up almost 500 words just asking the question, I’m going to let you have first crack and answering it. Good luck!