I was planning on taking a hiatus from writing opinion pieces on Tuesdays until the first of the year. I was getting tired of writing them and I figured you all might be tired of reading them. An interesting issue arose yesterday, however, that I wanted to throw out for discussion amongst the readership. Here’s what happened.
I received an email alerting me to a Publishers’ Weekly review of Courtney Milan’s February release, Unveiled. The reviewer liked the writing but the basic premise of the book appeared false to the reviewer.
Historical goofs mar this otherwise compelling Victorian romance… While the love story is genuinely satisfying and Margaret’s dilemma movingly portrayed, Milan (Proof by Seduction) leaves Ash’s complex relationship with his brothers unresolved–perhaps to be explored further in sequels–and makes the conflict dependent on the false premise that legitimized bastards could inherit, fatally marring an otherwise promising novel. (Feb.)
While not responding directly to the review, Milan did blog about the basis for her premise that a bastard could inherit.
At its heart, Unveiled, my upcoming February release, is about the interaction between two families: the Dalrymples, the children of the current Duke of Parford. They were declared bastards when the marriage that produced them was found to be bigamous. Then there's the Turners, distant cousins who stand to inherit when the duke dies.
The Dalrymples aren't taking this lying down, though: they've asked Parliament to legitimize them and restore their inheritance. This pending bill is a big part of what pits Ash Turner, my hero, against Margaret Dalrymple, the heroine.
The law upon which Milan premises her plot says that an Act of Parliament can legitimize bastards.
That exception-that you can become legitimate and inherit by Act of Parliament-is what Unveiled depends on. The disinherited Dalrymples are not seeking legitimation through ecclesiastical decree. They're not relying on some technicality in canon law. They're going directly to Parliament and saying, "We will not be able to inherit unless you pass a law that says we can."
The general and most commonly accepted understanding of this time period is that bastards cannot inherit. Milan’s book is about the exception. Legitimization of bastards can happen and did but only rarely. To the PW reviewer, this scenario seemed implausible and it ruined the story for her.
A number of people read Courtney Milan’s blog post including Rose Fox, the editor the romance review section for Publishers Weekly. She acted quickly and the PW review was revised and PW issued a retraction:
In the review, “false premise that legitimized bastards could inherit” has been changed to “unlikely scenario of Parliament legitimizing a bigamist’s bastards”. PW regrets the error.
Rose Fox also added to me:
I take accuracy very seriously. My reviewers are experts in their fields, and a lot of my time is devoted to fact-checking. If there are factual errors in a review that appears in one of my sections of PW, I certainly hope that the author or publisher will write to me and let me know. I’m glad I caught a tweet referring to Ms. Milan’s post, as I might have missed it entirely! This isn’t the first time that I’ve been alerted to a potential problem through an author’s blog post, and I strongly urge authors and publishers to email me directly with any concerns about our SF, fantasy, horror, or romance reviews so I can address them as quickly as possible.
I was really impressed with how Publishers’ Weekly via Rose Fox and Courtney Milan handled this. As a reviewer, I hope that I can learn from the graciousness of both parties. I think this is a great lesson for all of us and it gives rise to a couple of disparate points of interest that we can discuss.
First, what kind of responsibility does a reviewer have in checking out the accuracy of her opinions?
Second, how can an author best approach a reviewer about a perceived inaccuracy?
Third, could an author’s note have helped to alleviate the feeling of improbability felt by the reader/reviewer?
Fourth, when an author writes about a lesser known concept, what can she or should she do to make this plausible for the reader or should the reader accept the plausibility regardless?***
Fifth, is a reader’s skepticism about the plausibility of historical scenarios the result of so many historically inaccurate books within the genre?
*** To expand on question four, on Saturday the first page referenced a scenario by a pilot at an airport. The situation seemed implausible to many of the readers until one commenter noted that this setup likely took place at a small city airport. But the small city airport is outside the common experience of many readers and thus their first thoughts turned to commercial flights and what would be deemed normal there.