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A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy
Inside A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy

How Much Does a Reviewer Really Know?

Over at Fuse #8, Betsy asked “How much is an author obligated to say?” and there was quite the healthy discussion. In a nutshell, for the small handful of you who don’t read Betsy and don’t click over to her post or clicked over and thought tl;dr, Betsy ponders those who read Mockingbird by Erskine, had questions about the authenticity of the narrators voice in terms of Asperger’s Syndrome, and how those questions may (or may not) have been answered had the author said in a note in the book what she has said in interviews: she is a parent of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome and did research, etc., as well.

Betsy explained, “My point was that finding out the author’s connection to the source material was important because the material itself felt inauthentic.”

In classic blogger fashion, I will ignore Betsy’s points and instead use her post to ask my own question. No, really, this happens all the time in blogland. Blogger A says “the sun is up” and Blogger B’s post is about the time when they went camping when they were six.

My question is,  how can we truly “know” when something in a book is “right” or “wrong”?

Who are we to know that we are right when calling something “inauthentic”? In K.T. Horning’s From Cover to Cover, she says “We have all had the experience of reading a work of fiction in which certain historical, regional, or cultural details just don’t ring true. . . . [I]t would be important for you to do some background research to answer the question.”

While we like to think we know things, we don’t. And that can be tricky with a book, especially when the initial response is “um, no, author is wrong.” For example, I can confidently state that in New Jersey, we do not pump our own gas and a book that says someone pumps their own gas is wrong. I do not need to do background research on that.

But what if the book is about, oh, say, the experience of Italian Americans at the Jersey Shore? I live at the Jersey Shore. Since the age of ten, I have been step-Italian. A certain TV show which shall be nameless reeks of inauthenticity (and insults beyond the telling.) However, this is the truth for the people on the show. Others I have talked with say they know people like on that show. So, really, what do I know about this “truth”? If it was in a book and I dismissed it in a review for playing on old stereotypes and fears…. who would be right? Me as the reviewer, or the book that just happens to capture a reality I don’t know? I use this as an example because some would say that good writing wins and always makes one think something is authentic, so I wanted to use a situation (pun intended) where no, really, even if my Favoritest Writer in the World wrote it, I’d still cry “NO.” (No, I’m not telling you who my FWitW is.) And I’d be wrong.

And don’t even get me started on the armchair historians (myself included!) whose initial response to something in a work of historical fiction is “I don’t remember that from my college/high school history classes so it’s wrong” and at best the background research they do to resolve the question is Wikipedia.

What is the answer?

My answer, in a nutshell, is to be careful what I think is right and what the author gets “wrong.” If I read and dismiss the book as inauthentic based on my personal knowledge and experience, I owe it to the book, the author, and other readers to make sure my view of what is authentic is right. So it’s up to me to look for more, not for the author to assume I’m going to doubt him or her and provide the information. The tricky part is that sometimes it is hard to identify that one is doing this; it is hard to emotionally get beyond the first “doing it wrong” response; and issues of authenticity sometimes merge with other issues, such as consistent narrative voice.

So, what’s your answer? Is it something you think about as you write reviews for blogs? And should this type of conversation be the focus of panels at the next kidlitosphere conference?

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About Elizabeth Burns

Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is lizzy.burns@gmail.com.

Comments

  1. Charlotte says:

    I’ve been thinking about this lots too… it’s hard not to call on one’s own experieince, especially in areas of expertise,when reading a book, and often I think it’s done unconsciously. Probably I am, at some level, hold up every fictional boy to my own kids….and certainly, when ever there’s a book set in Rhode Island, I am all over over it with a magnifying glass, checking to make sure that driving times bewteen places are accuratly stated. Which, of course, isn’t really the point in a work of fiction. But on the other hand, I do think, because of my background, that I am better equiped than some to discuss, for instance, books that involve growing up in the foriegn service, archaeology, and the Anglo-Saxons. And Rhode Island. And I’m wondering if bloggers might want, in general, expand their “about me” sections in order to highlight these areas in which they know sometihng….or possibily include it in their reviews.

    But of course there’s the chance it would get sticky–”I know more about it than you.” So, as is the case for so much else in life, balance is probably the key.

    I think this would be a great panel!

  2. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Charlotte, it’s not easy! Our experiences and knowledge can be a strength. And it changes whether its personal. Someone getting upset over NYC subway locations and I think “oh, chill, what does it matter if that makes the story smoother?” Get the locations of the NJ Turnpike and Garden State Parkway wrong and now it’s serious! If you can’t get that right, what else can I trust? Especially if in the reading, it could have been right and changed nothing.

  3. I did a couple of posts in response to Betsy’s too. The first, “Whadya (Need) to Know?” (http://medinger.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/whadya-need-to-know/) had me reflecting on fictional books based on real people and unfamiliar places. And then I kept thinking and did a second post, “Telling the Reality Behind the Fiction” (http://medinger.wordpress.com/2010/10/29/telling-the-reality-behind-fiction/). In that one I mulled over the, to me, artificial line between fiction and nonfiction. I give my own book as an example as it began as nonfiction and then turned into nonfiction with all the same facts in both versions. Why should one need tons of citations and back matter and the other none? I would want to know what was real and wasn’t? My feeling is that fiction isn’t one-size-fits-all nor is nonfiction, for that matter.

  4. In terms of reviewing I think it is great to read one on a particular topic by someone who is also an expert in it. So, for example, I totally would trust Charlotte if she complained about something ringing false in terms of archaeology. And I do feel my experience experience living in Sierra Leone equips me to review books also set in that area and I like to celebrate those authors who get it right. Or kids today — I did comment strongly about John Grishman’s out-of-touchness in his recent book for kids — and that came from my knowing kids today a lot better than I think he does.

  5. Beth says:

    issues of authenticity sometimes merge with other issues, such as consistent narrative voice

    This, I think, sums up my thoughts on the matter. I think that a good author should have a voice so strong and consistent that you never doubt the writing. I think, once you entertain a doubt – even if the author has experience in the field, and even if he/she has done research – it’s a failure in terms of writing because it ruins my trust in the world created by the book.

    It’s helpful to know where someone’s coming from when he/she writes a review, because if you’re trying to determine whether the book would be a good read, you need to remember that you’re getting the information second-hand, from someone whose reading of the book is shaped by past experiences which are probably different than yours. But I don’t think it’s necessary – because readers should know that reviews are shaped by individuals’ experiences. I know that I’ve never wondered who the reviewers are for Kirkus or PW or SLJ because I know that their reviews will tell me about the book’s merit on its own, its writing strengths, which is what I care about.

    Authenticity is definitely important, because good writing can take an outrageous or morally wrong premise and make it seem plausible – but that’s good writing. That can even be the goal of writing. Who are we to say what authenticity is to anyone? Who’s to say what’s real or not for the author or the reviewer? Books can open readers to new ideas and worlds, to things that previously seemed impossible – so long as their voices are authentic.

    There definitely are lines that can be drawn, but the lines are probably unique to every individual, and I don’t think there can be one rule applied to anything.

    I’m – not even sure if that’s on topic, but that’s the whole jumble of what I think.

  6. Beth says:

    One more thing: an author getting basic details wrong is sloppy research and world building, but if it’s written well enough that the mistake seems real, and doesn’t stand out as being grossly wrong, I’ll mind it less. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, it’s just the way I am.

  7. Ilsa J. Bick says:

    I’m probably not going to explain this well–which is kind of a kicker, considering that I’m both a writer AND a child psychiatrist–but your post brings up something great points, ones that got me thinking about what engenders a reader’s *trust*–because that’s what feelings of authenticity are. Do I, the reader, trust you, the writer, in our unspoken contract to deliver a narrative I feel is true? What is authentic is not necessarily the *same* as what is true, but if truths (read: facts) are used in a narrative then they must work to foster a reader’s trust in the story.

    Honestly, it seems to me that feelings of authenticity are directly related to how much the book grabbed you. Period. As with your example about New Jersey and gas (thanks for that, btw; I’ll remember that if I ever set a contemporary YA in NJ–although my husband’s from NJ and I married him anyway): you know about NJ gas stations. You would know that this is a factual error. The question is whether or not the error is enough to kick you out of the story or influence your judgment as to how good the story is. In other words, do you lost trust in the narrative?

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read books that feature child psychiatrists or doctors or scientists or hikers or survivalists or climbers or, for that matter, divers . . . and there’s almost always something that rises up from the page and smacks me a good one because I KNOW when the facts aren’t quite up to snuff. Sometimes, that’s enough to destroy the story; I’ll pitch that sucker across the room because I’ll be darned if I waste my time. (Psychotic, incompetent, cross-dressing, and/or homicidal shrinks almost always make me cringe. Really, most of us have gotten *so* much better . . .)

    At other times, though, I’ll re-read the passage to make sure I really read what I read and then, usually, one of two things happen: either I’ll kind of shrug and move on because the story’s pretty darned good, or I’ll roll my eyes and continue on but with a heightened sense of okay-prove-to-me-that-I-should-keep-putting-effort-into-this. If the author makes a couple more boo-boos, then I give up because, really, if you don’t care to get your facts straight, bub, I don’t care to waste my time. I don’t *trust* you any more. In those instances, my doubts about a writer’s trustworthiness color everything I read.

    But writers do make stuff up for a living, and I think readers have to bear that in mind. By definition, there’s only so much research you can really do and I guarantee you that if I wrote a book centered on a women’s prison or juvenile detention facility, someone will think I musta made that up. (Uh . . . that would be no; I’ve had a ton of personal experience working in those arenas. Remind me to tell you the one about a certain toe tag . . .) But I might not craft a story well enough to make you trust me, and so you’ll feel my work is inauthentic when, no, no, that really happened.

    Further, feelings of inauthenticity are also directly related to expectation: what people *think* that, say, autism ought to be like . . . but how are those perceptions built? Through experience? Exposure through various media? Another book that you think “did it” particularly well? Or, as Charlotte wrote, something unconscious (even fantasies of what something “should” be like)?

    The other thing is that authenticity in some branches of fiction is easier to create and sustain than others. I’m thinking of, for example, historicals. I once read a book–a bestseller, by the way–where Cleopatra used a fork. Uh . . . what? WHAT? At the time I didn’t know diddly about forks, but that was enough to throw me because I had a dim-enough understanding of utensils to figure, whoa, that’s not right. So I looked it up and found that forks weren’t invented until the 11th century or thereabouts–and that gave me pause in terms of the rest of the book. I mean, honestly, if *I* can figure this out with a few minutes’ effort, why can’t the writer? The story wasn’t bad–it was actually quite good–but I began to doubt the rest of the historical detail. I think I even got a little pissed–like, do your homework, bub–and this from a woman who grew up devouring science fiction where all bets are off. I no longer trusted the writer.

    So, in the end, you know . . . a story is fiction; fiction isn’t necessarily about what is true (that’s why it’s fiction); but facts in fiction generally *are* supposed to be true and truth is directly related to a reader’s sense of a fiction’s authenticity: the degree to which you abandon yourself and trust in the writer. Me, I think that’s mostly about story and how well a narrative is crafted: have you grabbed me; have you held me; and can I stay buckled in regardless of the speed bumps? Will I forgive you a couple of mistakes? If I can, then the story is true enough to and for me, and I will trust the writer. If inaccuracies foster enough doubt, well, then . . . you broke our contract, and them’s the breaks.

    If that’s clear . . .

  8. I think there’s a big difference between raising genuine concerns and making vague statements without citing concrete examples or playing “Gotcha!” as some try to do. I hope that sentence was clear – I was up late watching baseball last night!

  9. Ilsa J. Bick says:

    And so, of course, that was supposed to be “some ” in the second line, not “something.” See what you did? You got me so excited, I totally lost my grammar-grip.

  10. Ilsa J. Bick says:

    And “lose” in the last line of the second paragraph, not “lost.”

    Oy. I need another cup of coffee.

  11. this is a great topic for conversation. Sometimes I think the same thing, or someone will say they don’t find certain actions of characters believable but it’s based in fact. We do judge authenticity and believability based on our own experiences, but our experiences are not the world. A great thing to keep in mind.

  12. I read a book two years ago that did not have the facts right on a specific event, which I knew much about. The book was not necessarily about said event, but it irked me that the facts were wrong. It soured me on the rest of the book – why? It was sloppy. If the facts were changed for creative or contextual purposes, I may have overlooked the error. But it was just that…an error. A big one.

    All that being said, writers of fiction are given a certain amount of freedom with the truth as it stands. Many authors, especially those who write historical fiction (or merely works of fiction set in the past) will state where they took creative license with times, places, dates, events, etc. As a reader, and as a reviewer, I like it when an author is upfront with me about their bending of the truth.

    When I read something that doesn’t jive with me, yes, I will call it out. If a character was driving in New Jersey in a book that takes place in 2010 and they stopped to pump their own gas and then went on to smoke a cigarette in a restaurant, it would irk me and I probably wouldn’t be able to keep it out of a review.

    And, while we’re on the topic of New Jersey – don’t even get me started on these awful “reality” shows. I’m horrified!!! They are making a mockery of the Garden State. I have to hand it to Chris Christie when he told Matt Lauer on the Today Show that New York can take the Situation back. Amen!

  13. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Monica, thanks for the links. As a historical fiction reader, from the time I was a kid — I did rely on the history mentioned being “true.” I want to know what is or isn’t real.

    Beth, on the one hand… absolutely, a good writer can make you believe in anything. Trust is important: I’m trusting you to tell me a good story. Yet… sometimes, somethings do pull us out and it’s not always because of the author. It can be our own notions. Sometimes, when I read a critical review of a book, I learn more about the reviewer than the book because of what it is that causes them to lose trust, as it were.

    Ilsa, excellent points. Trust, again, and authenticity and writing and how even “knowing” a subject and doing research doesn’t automatically make something feel authentic.

    Lauren, oh, the Gotcha game. I KNOW. I’ve seen that, too.

    Pass Ilsa two cups of coffee.

    Amy, our experiences aren’t the world but wow it is easy to sometimes think they are. Or how we imagine things. I remember when LIVING DEAD GIRL came out with the whole “is she or isn’t she dead” ending, some people argued she “had” to be dead because anyone who had lived thru what she did would be better off dead. Yet then we see girls held much longer than that character, in real life — not better off dead, not at all. Which ties into the truth can be things we wouldn’t believe, unless told otherwise.

  14. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Oh! and Forks. My historical knowledge about when forks were introduced is because of Morgan Llywelyn’s THE WIND FROM HASTINGS, about Edith of Mercia.

    Alison, in the “to note or not to note” debate, I think notes are important, especially when its the author saying “here are the facts and here is what I changed.” So we know it’s not errors but deliberate. It’s why I sometimes read the notes first.

  15. Liz–You quoted Betsy as saying, “My point was that finding out the author’s connection to the source material was important because the material itself felt inauthentic.” This raises a big question for me that another blogger also raised to Betsy and that she, herself, quoted: “if a book feels inauthentic when you read it, but you find out the author has done research and/or has a personal connection, does that change things for you?”

    However, I don’t think she ever answered it.

    A piece of fiction is a completed work. If a reader finds it lacking in some way, then it is just lacking in some way. The author doesn’t get a chance to explain herself or argue the matter in a note at the end of the book. If the piece of fiction involves some “subject,” the author’s knowledge of it is supposed to enhance her development of character, setting, plot, voice, etc. If she’s unable to use her knowledge in that way, it really doesn’t matter how much she knows.

    Readers shouldn’t feel they have to deny their own response to a piece of fiction because the author has some kind of expertise apart from his/her writing skill.

  16. Alison Hendon says:

    I have some expertise in knitting, and when we got a bright, beautifully colored picture book with illustrations showing the main character knitting UPSIDE DOWN – EVERY TIME – I was really annoyed. Let’s not even discuss the penguins living at the North Pole with the Polar Bears – I could dismiss that as whimsy, but the knitting!!!

  17. Alison Hendon says:

    PS, the character wasn’t upside down – the knitting needles were upside down – points down!

  18. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Gail, I think that knowledge can help for the better. It may not be fair, but it’s human nature. I think this is particularly true for areas we may not know ourselves, or that we know are sensitive issues in terms of “getting it right.” To twist it back at the reviewer, though — if I want the author to say “x research is why this issue was done right,” shouldn’t I have some “y research/experience is why I wonder if it was done right”? If my reader response is based on faulty knowledge, is it fair to the author or the book to be negative about it? Correct knowledge can change my response.

    Alison, I had such a picture in my head of the upside down knitter!

  19. Liz, If a reviewer/reader/critic happens to have knowledge of an issue that appears in a work of fiction, that’s one thing. Certainly it will have an impact on their perception of the book and their enjoyment of it. But on the other hand, readers shouldn’t have to be authorities in all kinds of fields in order to read fiction.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about since reading Betsy’s posts last night is that we may be having a problem these days with the line between fiction and nonfiction. There should be one. But with the rise of creative nonfiction (nonfiction that reads like fiction) and problem/issue books that often seem like fiction that reads like nonfiction the reading public may be struggling to recognize what is made up and what isn’t and when it is acceptable to make things up and when it isn’t.

  20. hope says:

    Alison, some people knit upside down. No, really. It’s a British style, I think.

  21. Lazygal says:

    I think there’s a huge difference between a fact (like pumping gas in NJ) and an experience (like That Show set in NJ or Grisham’s latest). In the former, it’s either right or wrong (like the mystery I read that placed Mark Twain in 821 – WRONG). In the latter, it’s far more difficult to talk about in those terms.

    For example, I’d agree with Monica about the Grisham YA novel except I know many middle school students who don’t have cell phones and who are so wrapped up in their thing that they don’t notice girl/boy pairings. So that part of the book didn’t ring false to me, whereas it did to her. That’s not a question of “right” or “wrong” though.

    That’s what I think about when I’m reading a book: the author needs to get the facts right, but the rest is something the author and I can argue about.

  22. Richard says:

    This is a question of the flavor of the story.

    If JK Rowling identified the flying car in The Camber of Secrets as a fire-engine red 1940 Huppmobile convertible, and it turned out that Huppmobile didn’t offer either red as a 1940 color choice, or any convertible model in 1940…who should give a damn.

    The combatants in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan are loosely based on the warring factions in WWI. But it’s doubtful anyone will quibble if the origins of the conflict in the war between the Clankers and Darwinists don’t strictly comply with what actually happened historically to spark WWI. By the same token, the cloning of animals into weapons shouldn’t bother even those who know the intimate details of biology. However, readers can make the claim that the author over-reached with the whole cloning idea…taking the story way too far over the top.

    This is akin to the complaint by some reviewers that the author of Mockingbird may have overreached with including three big themes…school shootings, loss of a family member, and redemption of a whole community.

    It’s hard to quibble with the world building of such classics as The Golden Compass, Narnia, Lord of the Rings. But even here in the realms of high fantasy (where there are seemingly no bounds) we can get into moral and religious arguments. Plenty of fodder has been written considering the religious beliefs being supposedly pushed by Tolkien, Pullman, and Lewis.

    Back to Leviathan, some readers can make the claim that on religious grounds their deep seated beliefs don’t allow for the possibility of Darwinian evolution, and that the cloning of anything is an abomination. We all remember the pushback against Harry Potter on the grounds of the promotion of witchcraft.

    But besides religion and moral values, the problems arising in this specific instance seem to be attempts to judge fiction books under the rules applied to non-fiction. If the book can pass as non-fiction (ala James Frye), as the author delves into real-life verifiable topics, including but not limited to clinically diagnosable diseases (Aspersers, OCD, ADD, anorexia, bohemia, bipolar, schizophrenia, traumatic stress syndrome)…or topics of the day (substance abuse, child abuse, school shootings, bullying, sexting, rape, the penal system)…the author is opening themselves up to the non-fiction smell test.

  23. Doret says:

    One of my favorite YA novels this year was Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. The story is influenced by Maori Mythology.

    I loved Guardian of the Dead as well as the care the Healey took writing as an outsider. The author even included a Maori glossary at the end. As much as what Healey did writing as an outsider worked for me, I have no right to deem her usage of Maori mythology authenitc. I can say I loved what Healey did with it (I did) but I have no right to say it was autthenitc since I don’t know any Maori people and have never studied their culture.

    Also I agree with your answer. If a author creates a character or writes a scene, I think is inauthenitc, I will only say so if I can explain why. If something seems just a little off, but I can’t put my finger on it or verbalize it, I won’t mention it.

  24. Michelle says:

    Interesting thoughts! I tend to stay away from adding comments that call a book out for being “wrong” or “right” due to my utter lack of knowledge or experience with a subject. I stick with “good” or “bad” which is entirely subjective. Reviews are opinions not fact (for anyone other than that reviewer, that is), it’s a snapshot of the feelings the writer has about a book. Granted that opinion is hoped to provide some influence over others as well so being sure to present information truthfully is important so unless you are a subject matter expert or have sources (not Wikipedia) to back up your comments it’s likely best to avoid going down the route of right/wrong.

  25. Gail, I agree with you that “we may be having a problem these days with the line between fiction and nonfiction.” but disagree with you that there needs to be a line. I gave the example of my own book above as it started out as nonfiction and now will be (someday way off:) be fiction yet the same facts are in both versions and so I think readers are going to want to know what is real and what is made-up. Laurie Halse Anderson spoke about this too at Bank Street’s Bookfest on Saturday. As I wrote above, I did a chart suggesting this is all on a continuum as it was easier for me to describe visually than in pure text.

    And getting back to reviewers, I feel that we each bring personal experience to our readings. Lazygal (hi:) and I both work in middle schools and so know that age of kid pretty well, but whereas I felt their portrayal in Theodore Bone rang false she did not. That is why it is great to read many reviews. When I was on Newbery I found it incredibly helpful to read reviews of all sorts — some affirmed my viewpoint of a book, some didn’t, and some made me look at the book in a way I hadn’t before. All good I think. I mean, seems to me a good thing that Betsy gave a point of view that some my dispute, but got everyone thinking all the harder about that book and the issue in general.

  26. Monica, After having thought about your comment while out raking leaves, I’ve decided I’ll make a stand and say that there does, indeed, need to be a line between fiction and nonfiction. Readers may very well want to know what is real and what is made-up in a piece of fiction. But that should be just an added enjoyment issue. It’s quite separate from making assessments of the quality of the fiction writing. It’s a huge part of assessing nonfiction, but fiction has to be judged in terms of the author’s ability to work with fiction’s elements–character, setting, plot…we all know the lineup. If an author struggles with that or is weak in one area, those are the breaks. The fiction reviewer/critic needs to address those points. Learning, especially after the fact, that the author who is writing about having been kidnapped by aliens truly was kidnapped by aliens just cannot change the voice the author used in the book that is already published. A fiction writer shouldn’t be given a pass relating to the quality of her fiction writing simply because she was writing about some particular subject and knew a lot about it.

    Now with nonfiction, it’s just the opposite. It doesn’t matter if the author uses excellent topic sentences and stays on the subject and is truly an elegant writer. If she is claiming to be writing a true account of alien abduction and is found to have made up large amounts of her material, the quality of her writing doesn’t matter.

  27. Regarding the need to keep a line between fiction and nonfiction–I’ve read a number of nonfiction books over the past few years that didn’t use footnotes and sometimes didn’t list sources, either. It was never even mentioned in reviews I saw of the books. The reviewers didn’t address the quality of the author’s research.

    If we don’t maintain a line between fiction and nonfiction, they will cease to exist. Those two types of writing will merge and evolve into something else. Now, perhaps that’s not a bad thing. But until that’s a done deal, fiction should be judged as fiction.

  28. Gail, I totally get where you are coming from, but I think the line is porous whether we want it to be or not. I think of Oliver Stone’s films on historical events and people that are fiction, but people use as fact. I think that is often the case with books that are about real times and people and places. I also wonder about series like The Magic Schoolbus or the Ology books — they have a fictional premise, but are the facts accurate? I guess I do want to know when it is books like that. Can’t there be some books that are not straight one or the other?

  29. Monica, Well, though I know I tend to be a little “linear” and black and white, I do think that this is a situation where either something is nonfiction or it’s fiction. And each type of writing has its own standards that the writer must meet.

    Yes, I know there is “faction,” but that’s not what Betsy was talking about in her original post about Mockingbird. Mockingbird (which I haven’t read, btw) appears to be fiction, is being classified as fiction, and should be judged as such.

    I would argue that an author’s purpose would determine how seriously readers/reviewers need to address her base of knowledge. I think the Magic Schoolbus books are supposed to be instructive, so, yes, if the author has set up an expectation that the books will be used to teach, the quality of the science fact behind them is important. If, on the other hand, an author is writing a novel about a schoolbus full of kids’ traveling through space, her work should be judged by how well she created her story rather than her knowledge of the science behind schoolbuses traveling through space.

  30. As Laurel Snyder noted in a comment to Betsy’s post, “I find it interesting that we’re discussing this about disability, specifically. The topic extends to cultural/ethnic/religious/historical contexts too.” That’s what I thought too and where I took it in my posts and here. No doubt because of my own struggles in telling a real story I’m particularly interested in writing that is right at that line between fiction and nonfiction.

    As for MOCKINGBIRD I agree with those who feel it should be judged on the text alone.

  31. Oh, I should say the above is based on my reading of MOCKINGBIRD and is not meant to be suggest I think all works of fiction should be judged by the text alone. In fact, I’m arguing that there are way too many kinds of fiction (and even faction) to make a set statement like that.

  32. I just went back and looked at Laurel’s comment. I liked what she said just before the line you quoted: “I’d be most concerned that an author’s note about a mediocre text might talk readers into believing in the book. Because, “Well, I didn’t love the book when I first read it, but maybe I just didn’t understand.” Or something like that.”

    For me, Betsy’s post definitely raised that concern. Not that I think authors would write an Author’s Note with that intent, but when a book appears to be about an issue–be it disability/religion/ethnic/etc.–it’s not hard for readers to feel overwhelmed by the importance of said issue. The importance of the issue can become more important than the writing/story/book itself. And thus I can imagine readers reading about the author’s background and feeling that their impressions of the book were wrong because the author knows more facts, no matter how good a job she did or didn’t do with the writing.

    If there were a nice little rule stating that all works of fiction should be judged by text alone, there could always be books that break that rule.

  33. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Gail, I think ninety percent of the time, good writing trumps all. Maybe even ninety five percent of the time. That other five, ten percent is the risk that for reasons outside the book, it won’t work for that reader. It could be for any reason — one being questioning the authenticity. It’s why award committees are so valuable.

    Lazygal, great point about fact v experience. One thing I remember from library school is being taught that, along with “don’t mistake your childhood memories as fact.” So just because I don’t remember x happening in 73, doesn’t mean it didn’t. Or didn’t for you.

    Richard, good points. It makes me think, also, of people who write fiction based on current views of facts that may change — perhaps science, psychology, history. I read something written about 100 or so years ago, fiction, where assumptions were made about the intellect of Deaf children and it was clearly the current “fact” of the day. Which adds not much to the convo, except despite that, I enjoyed the book because the writing & story was good so I forgave it.

    Doret, right now I’m working on a review of a book where i loved 80 percent and 20 percent just didn’t work for me. I’m revising and revising, to be clear about what didn’t work and why, and this conversation is helping me, I think, to be focused and clear for that review.

    Generally: for fiction versus nonfiction, I don’t know. I’m sure I believe, still, that everything I read in PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET & MINIVER was factually true. But, then, I also realized quickly without scarring that “childhoods of famous americans” made up a lot of stuff.

  34. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    Michelle, this is the type of convo I love! Do you think that blog reviews have more leeway for that personal response than professional reviews? I’m thinking this may be another example of why blogs won’t replace professional journals.

    Monica, what I find myself doing with some reviews is: I read the book. Write my review. And then go read the reviews from a handful of bloggers, either bloggers I respect or, if I have questions/obsession with one area of the book, go looking for others who wrote about that. I’m using them, in a way, to engage in dialouge about the book, and then I’ll go polish my review if those other reviews jarred something in my memory, or made me want to strengthen something, or perhaps realize I “read it wrong”.

  35. MotherReader says:

    This is a great discussion topic. As a parent, I sometimes will find the portrayals of a certain age very off-base. Often I find that in a secondary character. As if the author spent a lot of time getting into the headspace of a ten year old girl, but then has her four year old brother talk like a toddler. There are many times I react with disbelief about things that may be regional. My area would never have a Christmas play at school, but maybe some places would. I have to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

    The one thing that does bother me is when I feel that the author is taking something from their youth and trying to make it current, but leaving in elements that date the story. Hey, if the story is taking place in the 1970′s – just say so. Don’t try to pass it off as “America, anytime” and then talk about long phone cords.

  36. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    MR, I can remember reading (as a kid) and being shocked, shocked I tell you that a book would have something so silly as school starting in August. Silly authors.

  37. SK says:

    This is a big question for me as a librarian, a writer, and a reviewer. I can tell you right now that anything that flubs organ transplants gets bared teeth and tossed, sometimes with considerable force. (I managed about the first twenty minutes of The Island before I was too disgusted and offended to continue. I passionately hate that movie.) Anything that uses “y’all” as a singular just gets laughed at and disregarded entirely.

    There’s a problem that hasn’t been brought up yet, though, about writing marginalized cultures. I’m specifically thinking of American Indian cultures, and the many valid points that Debbie Reese makes over on her blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. Most people don’t know what a kiva is, for example. In Gerald McDermott’s “Arrow to the Sun,” they’re places of trial and testing. There’s nothing in there that would make you question such a concept, even though the fictional work gets a little ‘mystical’ about it. This book got a Caldecott, for heaven’s sake! Presumably he knows what he’s talking about.

    Yeah, so, that’s not what a kiva is at all. They’re more like churches, “places of ceremony and instruction” as Reese puts it. Despite McDermott’s book being entirely fictional, he has nonetheless emphatically and undoubtedly spread misinformation about Pueblo culture. I weeded it hard, and I wasn’t sorry. The thing is that *I* didn’t know that about the kiva either, until I read that informed reviewer’s criticism. Nor did the people in charge of giving it a Caldecott, hopefully.

  38. Angela Carstensen Liz B says:

    SK, there are definatelly some complex areas out there. And theoretically, what can also happen is that different members of the culture being written about will have different reactions to what has been written. (I’m not talking about ARROW or any particular title). What then?

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