Something I read a few days ago has really got me thinking - and got my blood boiling - and I can't help but think that we may have been denied a wonderful novel. Come to think of it, we may have been/are being denied many good novels for what I consider to be very silly reasons.
Did anyone else read a piece on the book blog of the Guardian website titled Le Diable is in the detail ? Maxim Jakubowski - former publisher, author, reviewer of crime fiction - wrote about sloppy attention to detail in fiction. He was actually talking about the latest Hannibal novel, complaining that Thomas Harris often gets the French and setting wrong. (The devil in the detail, when we're talking about Hannibal? Lovely.) But he then goes on to reveal something that I find extraordinary:
"Fifteen years or so ago, when I was still an acquiring editor in publishing, I was offered a very promising manuscript, a first thriller by a Canadian author. I liked the book and felt the author had much talent. But a key sequence of the book was a frantic car chase in which the protagonist was chased along the Boulevard Sebastopol in Paris, from the Grands Boulevards to the Seine. Only one small problem: the Boulevard Sebastopol is one way and traffic runs in the opposite direction. It just spoiled the book for me."
Come again? Did this former acquiring editor just say he turned down a book because the traffic wasn't flowing in the right direction? He liked it, but the chase scene spoiled it for him? I really hope this wasn't the only reason he turned down the book - if that is indeed what happened. It would've been very easy to choose another street, wouldn't it? If he really liked this book and thought there was talent, why couldn't he just ask the writer to change the offending detail? Are there really editors out there who are just as hard? And if there are, how many great books are we being denied just because a writer has not verified all of what could be considered as unimportant detail?
I also really hate to point out to Mr Jakubowski that he himself has failed to take his own advice about paying attention to detail. The name of the Paris road he refers to is actually Boulevard de Sébastopol, with a very important "de" between the two words and an accent on the "e". These are only small details in the wider scheme of things, yes, but they become big elephants in the room when they pop up in a piece by a former acquiring editor who's complaining about writers not paying enough attention to detail! It's true that Boulevard de Sébastopol is shortened to Boulevard Sébastopol on at least one sign in Paris - I used to live on this road, by the way - but the official name, if we're worrying about the fact that the devil is in the detail, is with the "de". Just because a council roading department shortens the name so it can fit on a sign does not mean the name of the road has changed. Surely the accent should also be respected, even in English.
Now, I only point out the missing "de" and the accent because it's a good example of how difficult all of this can become. Can you imagine what life would be like for a writer if they had to check every little thing out, no matter how minor or relevant to the story? You can pay good money to go to Paris and stand under the sign that reads "Boulevard Sébastopol" and think you've got it right, when in fact you need to go down to the city council and actually check that it hasn't been shortened for practical reasons by the man who prints the signs. You then need to check with the government printing office to double-check that the city council has got the correct name, with the correct accent, because there are acquiring editors who may just have a bee in their bonnet about devils and detail! To prove that I have a heart, can I just say that if the blog entry Le diable is in the detail had in fact been a book proposal from Mr Jakubowski, I wouldn't have worried about the missing "de" or accent. I would have offered him a contract.
There is, of course, the whole thing about artistic licence. I personally believe there has to be a certain amount of freedom to let the imagination reach its full potential. I have read many books that seem to be ruined by the author's militant and obsessive approach to detail. I don't want to read encyclopaedia-style novels. I don't want to read something where it's obvious the author has been totally restrained by the details of something. I think even some of our more famous novelists tend to do it; Ian McEwan springs to mind with his recent book Saturday.
The book I'm working on at the moment is set in Dublin. Some of the opening scenes take place in D'Olier Street. I have taken the liberty of booking my protagonist into a little hotel, which doesn't actually exist in reality. It suits my story. I certainly don't expect that an acquiring editor like Mr Jakubowski is going to reject the novel because he happens to know that D'Olier Street is void of any cute little hotels. Should I be reconsidering? Have I totally missed the boat here?
Oh, by the way, the devil at the beginning of this post is an original photograph. It's part of the glorious door that graces the entrance to my building here in the centre of Lyon. Don't forget to click on the photographs to make them bigger!