Reading What You Know (aka The Great Pet Peeve)
There’s an interesting conversation going on in the review thread to Tillie Cole’s USA Today Bestselling book Sweet Home, which features a British heroine pursuing a master’s degree in Philosophy at the University of Alabama, and an Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback. Cole, who describes herself as “a scary blend of Scottish and English,” has written a book that heavily relies on both American college football and American graduate school programs, both of which have come up short for some readers.
Which, of course, is not unusual – sports Romances, especially, seem to suffer from charges of insufficient research from those who know better. Still, what’s interesting about this discussion is the extent to which it demonstrates that these research problems can quickly translate into cultural misunderstandings.
For those not familiar with American college football, especially in the South, and even more especially in Alabama, what Cole misses may just seem like pesky details. However, for those familiar with the vast array of subcultures in the US, the regionalisms, and the idiomatic use of certain phrases and terms, the errors can magnify into something more substantial, even insulting or disrespectful.
Given the number of American authors who write Romance novels set in Great Britain, this should come as no surprise. After all, how many times do we see someone get titles of address wrong in a Regency Romance. Julie Anne Long is often criticized for her misuse of titles and for breaking some of the class protocols. For those readers who do not know these rules are being broken, the lack of accuracy may have no negative influence on their enjoyment of the story. But for those readers who do, it can be a big deal.
Often, when we talk about some of these details in terms of historical Romance, we pin the mistakes on a lack of historical research more than on a lack of cultural understanding and respect. For example, titling and inheritance are both complex systems, relying on class hierarchies, historical precedents, specifically created rules, and a whole lot of other social, political, and economic factors. To the reader who doesn’t know better, the errors may simply seem to be a matter of detail. But for someone who knows better or who is from the region being portrayed, these lapses can appear to be more significant, a signal that the author is recreating a world without truly understanding it. And if a reader does not feel that an author understands the world s/he has created, it can be much more difficult to extend trust to the risker emotional aspects of the story. In the grand scheme of things, the culture of Alabama college football may not seem so significant to some readers.
However, the fact that it is a cultural issue can make it feel like a substantial lapse in both knowledge and respect for someone who understands or is part of the culture. Just as an American author’s apparent ignorance of who would be likely to drink together at the pub or what the roles of servants on a duke’s estate would entail can translate as insensitivity or disrespect for the rules that structured reality for those in a particular time and place. And when those lapses occur around issues where social power is in play, the detrimental effect on a reader’s trust can be substantial.
We often hear “write what you know,” but I prefer the adage “know what you write,” because innovation is just as important to me as continuity when I read extensively in any given genre. And I want both authors and readers to be willing to stretch in as many ways as possible, so that we’re not all relegated to just writing and reading what we know in the most narrow sense. Not only is there a risk of falsely universalizing circumstantial experiences or observations, but also of reinforcing, rather than challenging, provincialism.
For me, the Crimson Tide reference (both in the book itself and in some responses to it) is a perfect example of how nothing is too trivial to the reader who knows more than the author about the cultural setting of a book. Because we all have those things, those pet peeves, which can so easily throw us out of a book.
I remember really enjoying one of those Jill Shalvis baseball books, until, that is, I read Kristie J’s review – because she understood all the ways in which the book misrepresented the game. I still enjoyed the romance, but I could never quite get past the feeling that I had been slightly bamboozled by the book.
I think we all have a tendency to see issues hierarchically, and some are easier to classify as more significant or important. For some readers, college football is nothing to get worked up about. For others, the idea of a 20-year old Oxford student pursuing an MA in the American South would seem perfectly reasonable. But at what point does something become important enough to require some expectation of accuracy? If a story element is important enough to be chosen and utilized by an author, is it important enough to get as accurate a rendering as possible?
We call this “world building” for a reason – because the author is creating a world in which fictional characters interact and respond and engage in behavior that is (ideally) realistic enough to be convincing to the reader. And in a genre where we tend to punish certain tropes for being too close to “real life” (e.g. forced seduction), at what point does a story element become important enough to “get it right”? To what degree do we, as readers, need to be able to trust in the world building of a novel, especially in a genre where trust and respect are fundamental elements of the happy outcome for the main protagonists.
In a book like Sweet Home, the graduate school issues might be more of an annoyance to me than the football, depending on whether/how some of the more problematic aspects of college athletics are handled. It’s difficult for me to read books set around higher education, the law, and certain types of writing professions, because I can catch errors without even trying.
With historicals, I am much more likely to find fault with American-set Romances, especially Westerns and those books featuring Native Americans. On the other hand, I still don’t know enough about European titles to always know when I’m being snowed, so I pretty much assume I’m not getting the right information, which can kind of dim the appeal of those books for me.
So tell me: what are your pet peeves as a reader when it comes to the details of world building? And if you write, how do you approach your world building, and how does it rate in comparison to
the emotional journey of the characters?