My book group discussed The Help yesterday. Everyone really enjoyed it, which one of the members said it was one of the best book group choices she’d ever read, and we had a really animated discussion about it which doesn’t always happen with the books we all like. A bit of hearty dislike or indignation seems to sharpen our collective critical acumen especially if there’s someone in the group with diametrically opposing views.
I wrote in a previous post about of the on-line criticism of The Help, some of which is fair comment, I don’t agree with it but that doesn’t matter it’s the writer’s opinion, some of which is ludicrously over the top. Reading some of the blog comments you’d be forgiven for thinking that Katherine Stockett had written a How-To book for the Ku Klux Clan rather than a feel-good novel where both the black and white main characters have achieved things that are important to them by the end of the story.
Among the many things which have raised the ire of the anti-The Help bloggers is that in the hardback edition of the book there is a scene describing the shock and fear of the black community when Medgar Evans, a real-life black activist, is described as being bludgeoned to death in the front garden of his house by whites – in fact he was shot and died in hospital – and this error was “quietly corrected” in later editions without a public apology. I’m neither American nor black so I’m not in a position to judge how upsetting this mistake really was, but I can’t see why a public apology should be made for a mistake that was hardly libellous or damaging to Mr Evans or his family., especially when it’s been corrected. Writers don’t usually write novels with a blatant disregard for the facts, especially if they’re aiming outside genre fiction, as we all know if you write, say, that your hero checked the time on the town hall clock in Melton Mowbray while he was waiting for a bus at the station it won’t be long before you get letters from readers pointing out that a) you can’t see the town hall from the station, b) there isn’t a clock on it anyway and c) the buses don’t go past the station. (I have no idea if any of that is true.) It’s so very easy when writing anything, be it novels, magazine articles or essays to concentrate so hard on making sure the big things are right that you lose sight of some of the smaller details.
In any case I find that I get far more irritated by emotional inaccuracies than factual errors though as one of the world’s greatest pedants I get pretty annoyed by those too. In today’s Daily Mail there is an article about a picture of a shoot in the 1920’s at Downton Abbey and pointing out the many inaccuracies, the men were dressed largely in the clothesof the 1890’s while one of the gun dogs was a yellow
Labrador which weren’t used for another ten years or so. The series isn’t known for its total historical accuracy anyway (the excuse for the clothes was that rich people hoard their clothes so are often out of fashion, which shows quick thinking if nothing else) and though I’d prefer a Georgette Heyer style attention to clothing detail it doesn’t worry me that much. What did stop me from going on with the series was in one of the first episodes when Lady Mary explored the attics and the servants’ bedrooms with a putative suitor which was so wrong in so many ways. For a start no apparently respectable girl would have gone off with a man on her own like that, definitely not to bedrooms and she certainly wouldn’t have gone into the servants’ quarters because that would have been the greatest invasion of privacy, an absolute no no. After that I couldn’t watch any more; naturally no historical drama series or novel can faithfully recreate the times in which it is set but they should at least create the feeling of those times. Minor factual inaccuracies I can cope with (though I draw the line at “historical” novels like the one I gave up on recently where the naval captain hero fought at Trafalgar on his little ship Victory, mysteriously enough the writer never named the flagship Nelson commanded) but I can’t go on with those books where you find that the historical characters have got the attitudes and opinions of someone of today, or where you feel suddenly, ‘No, they just wouldn’t do that.’ And that includes those witless heroine who somehow think it’s OK to follow the trail of blood and dismembered into the attic armed with no more than a hairbrush rather than ringing the police.
Hilary Mantel apparently played pretty fast and loose with some facts in Wolf Hall but the characters felt so right and alive and of their time that even if I’d noticed the fact tweaking I wouldn’t have given a damn. It was still a wonderful book.
I agree with what you’ve said in a couple of posts about The Help, but I do think the Medgar Evans error was pretty egregious. But I don’t think such a mistake is necessarily the result of being white, rather than just being shoddy. After all, Bill O’Reilly has been pilloried in the press for his mistakes in his new book about Lincoln, and I would guess it was more a result of laziness or shall we say, dumbness, rather than because of lack of respect. (Although, being shoddy about historical figures in writing does indicate – to me – some lack of respect, both for the figure and for the reader.) But anyway, I do think Stockett took a lot of misplaced heat for the fact that in America, many Americans know absolutely nothing about Jim Crow except what they might read in a best seller, and so the fact that Jim Crow doesn’t look too awful in this book means that those many Americans will be dismissive of it. But that’s hardly Stockett’s fault, in my opinion.
On the whole though, I personally don’t care about such things as if you can actually see the town hall from the station, but I have seen a surprising number of reviews on blogs in which the blogger was insulted by the sloppiness and is never reading that author again and so on. I think readers want to *trust* historical fiction (without, of course, going to the trouble to read non-fiction), and so they expect some research to be done. And truly, I think that’s why Jennifer Donnelly and Connie Willis are so widely loved and respected, because they thoroughly do their research. down to every detail.
The mistake about Medgar Evens was certainly shoddy, and can be criticised as such, but I still don’t see why anyone thought a public apology was necessary for something that didn’t harm anyone and wasn’t intrinsically insulting.
I don’t mind about minor mistakes in the town call vein if I’m enjoying the book – for instance Alan Bradley in his Flavia de Luce series doesn’t appear to realise that sweet rationing was still going on in 1950 but they’re such terrific reads it doesn’t matter, but of course if I’m struggling with a book any error gets me like a blister on my heel.
I agree with you about Jennifer Donnelly and Connie Willis, I love them.