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?