Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Devil is in the Details

Well, yeah. In this case it is.
Confession time. I'm a huge bibliophile, and I've got a pretty obsessive personality. This means that every so often I get into an author, really into an author, and then must devour all of their works as fast as I can until my eyes fall out. This happened a couple of years ago when I finally got around to reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book about gay, Jewish comic book artists by Michael Chabon. It was a very good read, so I immediately glommed on to Chabon. This guy is awesome! I must have MORE! So I dug around and found a book called The Mysteries of Pittsburgh which is a book about kids...wait a minute... Anyway, a book about Pittsburgh? A book about a city that may, in fact, be my very favorite city East of the Mississippi ever? Sign me the hell up! So off I went to the library and got big ol' stack of Chabon's books and took them eagerly home. The next day I trooped back to the library and, bitterly disappointed, dumped all those books back into the book drop? Why? Well, the reason lies at the heart of today's post.

I took them all back because I had jumped to the, admittedly unfair, conclusion that Chabon was the most horrible thing I could imagine, a lazy writer. As I was poring through Mysteries, which I enjoyed at first but grew increasingly uncomfortable with as I went along and came to think that the characters here seemed like reskinned characters from Kavalier and Clay dropped into a different setting, I got to a point where I literally yelled out loud and tossed the book across the room. Why? Well, there's a character in there named Cleveland who rides an old BMW motorcycle. The bike is kind of a big deal with that character, and is his major identifying mark. Cleveland rides the Beemer. Here comes an old Beemer, must be Cleveland. He had me at Beemers because I like bikes and I love Beemers from the 70's. At some point Chabon makes an off-hand reference to Cleveland's bike as, and I'm paraphrasing here 'cause it's been probably six years, the big, 1600 BMW. Then there was a shattering glass noise and the part where the camera zoomed in, I shook my fist, screamed KHAAAAAAAN! and was immediately quit with him as a writer. For those of you not in the know, let me break it down for you. The 1600 in that sentence refers to the displacement of the bike's engine in cubic centimeters. What's the big deal you ask? Well, at the time the story took place, BMW had never made a street bike with an engine that big. Never, ever. In fact, it's been only recently that they've started making 1200s. Lazy! Bad! Bad writer! What, I thought in my yammering disgust, he couldn't be arsed to look it up? He couldn't have an intern with a phone book and a notepad call around to some Beemer dealers and do a little research? Khan, indeed.

Now, I know that you all are rolling your eyes at me right now, and with good reason. I realize that it's not a big deal in general. I admit that I'm being reactionary and dramatic. Here's the thing, though. My reaction, while over the top, isn't that different from anyone else who sees something they know about misrepresented in media. Most computer guys I know can't watch wherein computer technology plays a large role. Same thing for gun guys or history guys or military guys and war movies. See, there's creative license, and then there's just laziness. Screwing up details, even little ones like the displacement of a motorcycle's engine (a motorcycle that may as well have been a character, mind you) can break suspension of disbelief. It can absolutely destroy verisimilitude. It also begs the question, for me at least, if this guy can't be arsed to get a little detail like this right, what else can't be be bothered to do? It makes me see the writer's work as, well, a lie. While not as bad as Alice Sebold's magical sock hat that sat out in a field in November in 1972 and was still able to offer up damning DNA evidence (In '72? Come on lady), or a dog recovering an "elbow bone" (whatever that is), the fact of the screwed up engine made me doubt everything else Chabon had to say in that book.

What I'm saying here is this: Writers, do you fucking homework. While verisimilitude is more important than hard fact in a work of fiction, those facts and details are still very important. You can get away with fudging details and blurring lines easier in a sci-fi or fantasy story where verisimilitude matters more than full truth. In a modern/historical/real-world story with no fantastical elements though, your shit better be tight. Those little details, while seemingly not important individually, make for an extremely engrossing and engaging story for a reader. If you want a really good example of this, read Master and Commander. If you want a really good example of egregious writer laziness and shoddy research, read The Lovely Bones, which I alluded to earlier. Seriously, writers. If you want to be taken seriously, if you want to be something more than a low-to-middling vanity press writer who sells his books out of his mom's basement, do your research, be vigilant, tell the truth, hit hard, and you will be greatly rewarded.

PS: Recently, after being an asshole about Chabon's writing for years, on a lark I picked up his very true Manhood for Amateurs, which is a collection of non-fiction essays about modern life, and discovered a few things. First thing is I'm a reactionary idiot, but we knew that. Then I learned that Chabon is insightful, great with words, and that Pittsburgh was his first novel, written as a 22 year old grad-student. This explains, if not forgives, its multitude of sins. Then I read his wonderful Gentlemen of the Road, and am now reading his work again with new appreciation. I should have done so years ago, but eh, live and learn.

PPS: Hilarious old-school advertisement perversion courtesy of the always awesome Anne Taintor.


A.L. said...

As a writer, how much research do you think this entails? I'm getting that you should fact check wherever you are specific (i.e. if I say there's a 67 impala with X engine displacement, make sure that was the case or say it was custom) more curious how much do you think you can get by with glossing the details? I.E. instead of the aforementioned 67 imapala, just saying an old American Muscle car (is the impala american muscle?)

I guess some of the details have never mattered as much to me, but I do note when things are wrong so I could see it irking people. Mostly just curious.

Jason Marker said...

In your example, it's like the difference between a named character and a red shirt. If I'm going to drop on readers the fact that this car is, in fact, a '67 Impala (good choice, by the way) then I'd better be sure about what I'm talking about, because I've gone through the trouble of giving that car a name, essentially making it a character. This is especially true if this car keeps showing up in the story and is a major, well, character.

If I just mention in passing that a nameless extra "cruises by in a menacing looking old muscle car with a rattlecan paint job" that's just a set piece and the reader can do the heavy lifting for me.

With as easy as it is to get information on even the most obscure and arcane subjects these days, there's no excuse for not getting your facts straight.

Anonymous said...

Try reading Steven Baxter, if it's correct detail you want.