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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Howlers

I enjoy reading the Times Literary Supplement, the TLS, and mention it here from time to time. The treat I look forward to in each issue is the letters page, where there is usually some delicious dispute. The most recent one, which went on for week after week, was over a review of a book that argued that Shakespeare was making reference to certain contemporary events in one of his plays. I had no way to judge who was right, but I loved the tone — the withering contempt on both sides that was wrapped in both deep learning and that particularly English style where you appear to show a kind of grace and civility only at the service of painting your foe as ridiculous. One staple of the letters page is the note pointing out a howler — some terrible, and — to the letter writer — obvious flaw in a book. Of course the trick is to pick out a howler that shows you as the true expert and the author as an amateur or a fool. The danger is that the howler-pointer-outer himself will come across as a pedant or an ax-grinder.

I mention all of this because I think we have a case of the howlers in kid’s books, too. What — I would like to ask all of you — is the difference between a typo or misprint, a small error, and a crucial error? What raises an error to the level of lessening the value of a book, and what is something that can be corrected in a reprint and is incidental to the evaluation of the book. What is permissible, and what is unforgivable? 

I am asking about nonfiction, of course. But when the Wednesday Wars were being discussed on CCBC, a great deal of attention was paid to howlers — what precisely was or was not plausible for the time and place in which the book was set. But let us say the book got many things wrong, was that important to evaluating it as literature? Why? And in reverse, in our non-fiction, what is the difference between an easily correctable error of fact and a mistake in interpretation that undermines the whole approach a book takes?

If approach matters more than fact, we are back to the discussion of point of view we had a few weeks ago. So folks, what do you think, what is the spectrum of possible error in non-fiction, and why?

Comments

  1. Herbert Barger says:

    Marc, it seems that “approach” and “political correctness” do drive what is being written today which is the spectrum of possible error and downright lying to indoctonate our children.

    For complete details of the Jefferson-Hemings DNA Study I refer readers to http://www.angelfire.com/va/TJTruth and http://www.tjheritage.org. Here you will see very good examples of those who would seek to “brainwash” the public that Thomas Jefferson fathered slave children.
    The Scholars Commission Report found there DEBUNKS this image.

    Herb Barger
    Jefferson Family Historian