Monday, February 06, 2006

To Err is Human...

Every once in a while, a concerned reader takes it upon himself (or herself, because women are not immune to this either) to point out some mistake that I've made in a book. Naturally, this is very irksome because I go to great lengths to try to get my facts right and it is frustrating to realize that no matter how hard I, my editors and my two copy editors try, mistakes still creep through. Wherever possible I try to correct these errors, although by the time the paperback appears it's usually a little too late to do much about them so they tend to be left in place in all of their shamefaced glory.

So I don't object to having these mistakes pointed out to me. In fact, it's nice to be told so that I can, circumstances permitting, correct them. No, what I object to is the manner in which they're sometimes pointed out, and for this the Internet is largely to blame. It allows us to instantaneously, and publicly, take issue with another in a way that we would not in our daily, person-to-person encounters. It tends to erode the ordinary niceties, the little touches that are necessary to ensure that we deal with one another in a respectful way. (It's not merely in the forum of criticism that this occurs either. How many of us have sent e-mail messages that we've ultimately regretted, communicating feelings or responses that we might otherwise have kept to ourselves had we been forced to take the time to write them by hand and mail them in a letter, or to pick up a phone and make a call, or even to deal with the person in question face to face? The attraction of the instant seems to incapacitate our filters and sidestep our inhibitions, as well as blinding us to the potential consequences for the recipient. Used in this way it's less a form of communication than a means of attack.)

It is, I think, exceptionally rude to post a message on a public site pointing out another's errors, whether this be the writer's own site or It smacks of both a lack of humility and an absence of sensitivity: a lack of humility in that even a moment's reflection would allow us to identify a great many errors that most of us make in the average day, and therefore alert us to the possibility that we should perhaps be a little more circumspect in drawing attention to the flaws of others; and an absence of sensitivity in that having attention drawn to one's faults in front of hundreds, or indeed thousands, of people is not an experience that is generally conducive to feeling good about oneself.

Like a great many people, I have certain areas in which my knowledge is probably wider and deeper than the average. For example, I tend to be pretty good on popular culture and occasionally I will read a book, sometimes a novel but sometimes also a non-fiction book, and come across an error in a reference to film or music. "Hmmm," I'll think, "that's not right." Yet it would never, ever strike me to sit down at my computer and publicly point out that error to anyone who might happen to be browsing a particular site, just as I would never embarrass a person at a party by informing all and sundry that the individual in question has toilet paper stuck to his shoe or has inadvertently left his flies undone. Neither would I go to your place of business if, say, you sold me a car with a scratch on it or a flashlight that didn't work, then sit outside with a loudhailer informing everyone within earshot of my scratched car or my busted flashlight. A quiet word in the ear would usually be enough, and thus the problem would be solved and blushes would be spared.

From talking with other crime writers, it seems that those most likely to point out errors are readers who are interested in, or fond of, guns. I have to say here that I am not fond of guns. My characters use them, and there is gun-related violence in my books, but I have no great liking for guns themselves, particularly handguns. I've fired them, and I can see some of the appeal in wielding an instrument capable of such force and accuracy, but it's a disturbing appeal and not one that I want to indulge. Like any weapon, it's hard to distance oneself from their ultimate function, which is to cause harm. You can dress it up any way you like, arguing that it's for security, or you just like popping off a few rounds in the woods with your buddies on weekends, or it's the craftsmanship that you admire, but it does not render its ultimate purpose any less destructive, whether that purpose is realized or not. Nevertheless, I still try to get the details of their use right, although it may be that my distaste for them has meant that I have been guilty of minor errors regarding them on two or three occasions. At least one of these errors—in Every Dead Thing, my first book—prompted an email so poisonous that its sender probably has scales for skin.

Now, let's put this into perspective. Over the course of seven books I have published close to one million words. My novels have dealt with, among other topics, the religious history of the state of Maine; metaphysical poetry; early medical research; the rice trade is South Carolina; the roots of the Cistercian order in Bohemia in the eleventh century; religious conflict in Europe prior to the Reformation; medieval burial practices; coastal defences on the eastern U.S. seaboard during World War II; murder and the narcotics trade in Mexico; the flora, fauna and physical geography of at least four U.S. states; the restoration of paintings; the venom of assorted spiders and insects; church architecture; uniforms of the U.S. military in post-D-Day France; the ingredients for a good gumbo; and the correct placement of slates on a new roof.

And that's just off the top of my head. Were I to go back through my books I would be able to add considerably to that list. On none of those topics was I an expert before I began, and I am still not an expert now. In most cases I had to start my research from scratch, gradually assembling a small body of knowledge based on books, trips to the areas in question, interviews, and kind assistance from people whose knowledge of these matters greatly exceeded mine. At the end of every book I make humble acknowledgement of the fact that mistakes will have crept through, and those mistakes are mine and mine alone. The surprise is not that I've made occasional mistakes, but that I haven't made more mistakes. What I have learned from writing these books is the ultimate impossibility of achieving perfection in any human endeavor. No matter how hard we try, no matter what efforts we make to minimize our errors, mistakes will still creep through. That's the nature of the beast.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I make every effort to get my facts right, but I am sufficiently aware of my failings as a writer and a human being to recognize that those efforts will never be enough. The same is probably true of 99.9 per cent of the writers out there, whether working in fiction or non-fiction. So when you find a mistake in a writer's book, take a deep breath before you sit down to fire off your concerned missive. Where possible, be discreet. Send it to the writer's personal message box, if there is one, or if not send it to the person who deals with the site to be forwarded to the writer. Generally speaking, writers prefer to know about a mistake than not to know about it, however painful it may be to have an error revealed, but there are decent ways to do it and there are less decent ways to do it. Try to imagine how you'd like your mistakes to be dealt with, and then pick the decent way, huh?

1 comment:

teach said...

This was a nice reminder.