Relevant expertise

When you know something, should you point it out? That’s more or less what Monica Edinger asked recently on her Educating Alice blog.

I have complained in the past about people who don’t know their own limitations, but this is the reverse. Do you need to state your credentials? And if so, when?

We’re already having an Aspie kind of week, and as this was prompted by a review of an Aspie book, I thought I’d mention it. I find I sort of agree with the reviewer that I’d like to know if an author has specialist knowledge of the topic of their book. But I’m not sure why. As is frequently pointed out by authors; they are meant to be good at making things up.

I have at least once written to a publisher – I’m almost blushing – asking for information about an unknown author. Despite the relevant novel being really good, there were a few things that made me so uncomfortable that I needed to find out why the author had made what I thought were mistakes.

I frequently set my teenage novels in Los Angeles. That’s the novels I started as a teenager and which usually ran to a couple of pages. Los Angeles must have seemed glamorous, and it’s a certain sign I watched too many American television series. Knowing absolutely nothing about LA, the stories would have been abysmally bad.

Even compiling my list of Aspie books here on Bookwitch I feel a bit of a fraud. It’s as if I should know more, or be able to prove something.

Do people ask Mark Haddon what he knows about Asperger Syndrome, I wonder? For some reason it’s as if books on Aspie subjects need the writer to have close personal experience for the book to count. But do we ever challenge Mary Hoffman about her nighttime stravagating to Talia? I suspect she made most of it up.

8 responses to “Relevant expertise

  1. I think it’s normal to wonder why an author writes about a subject that might be painful to others. All the time I was reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I kept wondering what gave John Boyne ‘permission’ to write it. It’s a shame though that stories get saddled with their authors.

  2. I don’t think it’s just painful or sensitive subjects that make people wonder about credentials of one kind or another. Even when I’m reading a historical novel, I constantly wonder how much is real and how much made up, and people who actually know a bit of the history must hold it to an even higher standard presumably.

    With these Aspie books and those on similar topics, you do want to know that the author ‘got it right’ in some way, as it’s going to affect how you think and deal with people in the real world.

  3. The conversation about this has been fascinating. I actually am more bothered by historical novels getting it wrong than others. I did a second post with a chart showing what I see is the continuum from facts-just-the-facts sort of books (almanacs and such) to way out sci-fi. (

  4. Hence the market for fantasy, because then you can do what you like. Borrow some of the history and then improve it with your own magic, and no one can complain.

  5. “Borrow some of the history and then improve it with your own magic, and no one can complain.”
    (Pause for hollow laugh)
    People still complain like anything. Have you seen Charlie Stross’s latest blog about steampunk, for instance?

    And the same types of issues arise with a lot of fantasy (when did you last read a fantasy novel that was realisitic about living in a pre-industrial, feudal society (if you happen to be anywhere but at the top of the heap)

    I think that we notice when out own areas of interest and expertise are involved, and I think it is fair to point out where it is ‘wrong’ but also to recognise that even where it is wrong, the book can still be very good, and can still be very enjoyable to anyone who doesn’t have that particular specialist knowledge or interest. I think to a degree it is about the ability to suspecd your disbelied in order to immerse yourself in the story. If you *know* one thing is wrong, you can’t believe in that part of the story any more, and even if it is only a minor part, that makes it harder to belive in the rest.
    There is a massive legal error in one of the Brother Cadfael novels, and when I found it I just fell through the massive hole it left in the plot. I can see that the book would be just as entertaining as any of the others for anyone else, but not for me.

  6. I find the whole thing of “owning” a story fascinating. Does personal experience trump someone else telling the story? I admit I cringe (due to family history) at a lot of the Holocaust stories, but is a story that omits most of the reality about Mediaeval England any more than a story that omits most of the reality about 21st century London. I think the Paton Wlash continuation of Sayers is the only detective story I’ve seen that grapples with the existence of sewage.
    And how realistic is The Romance of the Rose?

  7. How realistic is The Romance of the Rose? Well, Eco is a formidable medievalist, so lots of the detail is accurate – but it’s fiction, so lots is made up, too. You always have to change something.

    I have done tons of research for my Renaissance Venetian novel – some of it from original, unedited manuscripts. There is an obligation to readers to make historical fiction as accurate as possible in many regards. I didn’t actually live there/then so there will be things that are wrong. But nor did my readers. There is a big difference writing about things within living memory, or experiences that are real to other people. Even so, it is fiction. Where would you draw the line? Can I not write a book about boys because I’m not one?

    We are really writing about how people feel, respond, interact with each other. If you want a clinical account of Asperger’s read a medical text. If you want to see how it might affect a person in a particular imaginary situation, or impact on those around them, read a novel. If you want to see how people living in the 17th century are the same as us, read a novel. If you want to see how their lives were different, read a history book.

  8. Pingback: Rats with fluff | Bookwitch

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