One of the reader reviews of The Poisoned Pawn that popped up on Goodreads last week was really critical of my portrayal of Aboriginal people. The reader said that they were stereotyped and cliched and that he’d worked with “our natives” and they weren’t all angels.
There are two Ojibway people in The Poisoned Pawn. Charlie Pike is likeable, but far from angelic. He’s a former alcoholic with a youth criminal record for breaking-and-entering. An Aboriginal detective is not exactly a stereotype; there are only a handful of them across Canada. And as for the homeless man in the alley that Pike befriends, I would not describe a character who admits he abused his wives or beat a man to death as an “angel.” Both characters rang true to me, however, and I spent most of my thirty year career as a lawyer working with and for First Nations in treaty litigation, negotiations, and later, in the Indian residential schools process.
But it was the reference to “our natives” that I noticed, coming as it did from someone alleging stereotypes. It’s a vestige of colonialism, and one that always made my First Nation friends and colleagues cringe whenever they heard it. (I can’t imagine an Aboriginal person talking about “our Canadians,” to put it in perspective. It’s one of those words that carries a loaded message, and it isn’t one of equality. )
But setting that aside, what the review pointed out to me is something I’ve discovered as a result of this journey through publication: when a book doesn’t accord with the reader’s subjective interpretation of facts, they don’t like it.
This struck me in another Goodreads review, when a reader took issue with my description of the Cuban characters as getting only two chickens a year under their rations. In 2006, when we were there, even the tourist menus didn’t have chicken on them because of shortages. Cubans had a monthly quota of four ounces of meat on their libretas. So I wasn’t quite sure what the reader was getting at, but obviously he or she had a different recollection of that time period than I do.
I had another reader email me last week to “quibble” with my description of Cuba, pointing out that when he was there in the 1980s, American money wasn’t illegal, as it is in The Beggar’s Opera and he used it without any problems. I emailed him back to say, yes, that was probably the case back then, but it was taken out of circulation in 2002 by government regulation. (I suppose technically, it wasn’t “illegal” in the sense that you would be arrested for having it– but you weren’t legally allowed to spend it and if you had some and wanted to exchange it, you faced a very heavy premium. Anyway, I sent him an article I’d used in my research on that point and he seemed satisfied.)
What surprised me about these comments was the extent to which readers took issue with “facts” presented in a piece of fiction.
But we’re not writing textbooks; we’re telling stories.
As authors, we try to create worlds that are believable. We want to suck the reader into believing that the imaginary characters we’ve created are real; that the lives they live take place in some alternate universe. To do that, when we need to, we make things up. I fictionalized places in Havana; I moved timelines, when the plot called for it, I exaggerated certain facts, too–I don’t know an author that doesn’t.
Like television, reading is supposed to be entertainment. And yet readers seem to hold us to a higher standard. Does anyone know why this might be?
Most television shows that are not documentaries (and even some that are) exaggerate facts. For example, I have yet to see a television show that accurately portrays the timelines involved in a legal action, whether criminal or civil. Criminal trials are held hours after an arrest, when it can actually take months or even years to get to court. I would guess that doctors watching shows like ER roll their eyes at the liberties taken with their profession, too.
But the vast majority of viewers go with the flow and allow themselves to be entertained. They know the difference between entertainment and fact. (Except when it comes to CSI, apparently: I’ve heard that jurors now expect the criminologists who testify in real life to have the same access to cutting edge technology as they see on the show.)
In the same way that television shows are fictional and meant as entertainment, so are novels. As Will Ferguson said to me in our interview on my new TV show about authors, he doesn’t worry about the facts being right in his novels the way he does when he’s writing a travel article– all he can do is his best.
Novels are by definition works of fiction. They are the products of imagination, hopefully rooted in sufficient fact to allow the reader to suspend disbelief. When the reader expects the author to be an expert in every single subject touched on in their stories (or at least an expert in whatever topic the reader feels they know more about than the author, rightly or wrongly), I think they both end up disappointed.