When I read a novel, I am primarily interested in character development and narrative flow and beautiful sentences. Insofar as I read to “learn” it tends to be a non-empirical sort of learning. (I love fiction because it teaches me about otherwise unspoken dimensions of being human, of falling in love, of grappling with pain and joy and the rest of it.)
In other words, when I read a novel, I am seldom reading for “facts” and “accuracy.” If the story resonates and rings emotionally true, I don’t care if a character’s eyes change colour midway through the story or if the author has planted a bougainvillea where one would never grow.
Of course, there are some errors that will pop me right out of a story. Everyone has a personal threshold for what’s plausible. (If a writer describes a character using a smartphone and drinking a frappuccino in 1890, I might grow dubious.)
I recently sat on an arts jury where one woman’s bugbear was factual inaccuracy. She called this the “weight of water problem,” referring to a story she once read in which a character lifted a large fish tank and carried it across a room. The fish tank writer, my fellow jurist pointed out, had failed to recognize the impossibility of such a maneuver. “Water is simply too heavy!”
(This hawkeyed jurist went on to note countless errors in the manuscripts we reviewed, encountering each one as if it were a horrible little rock in her shoe.)
As a writer who has raised her share of editorial queries (“Could a plane in 1960 really have flown directly from London to Saigon? Did video cameras exist back then?) I am the last person to slag off other writers for getting it wrong. But, still, this recent encounter with a fact fetishist did make me stop and think. I am less concerned with what mistakes reveal about the author’s research efforts and commitment (this seems slightly punitive and schoolmarmish to me.) But I am concerned when mistakes break the narrative spell, when they make us aware of the wizard fumbling behind the curtain.
It seems to me that there is a sweet spot somewhere between being utterly untethered from reality and being too tied to the factual realm. I’ve read many books where a literal wrongness can have a figurative rightness (take most of Jeanette Winterson’s oeuvre).
Simply put, there is a time for factual vigilance and a time for a little factual slackerdom.
As Virginia Woolf once noted: “All my facts about lighthouses are wrong.”