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For the audience or for the authenticity?

August 26, 2008

In the past few weeks, I’ve read two books by British authors set in the US: the Doctor Who adventure Forever Autumn and New Free Chocolate Sex by Keith Lowe.  Well, not “read” exactly because I’m in the middle of the Lowe and having a good time with it, but I had to put it down for a second to talk a little bit about editing.

Many bookworms find that when they read something–be it a novel or even an ad posted at the grocery store–their eyes are drawn to the errors.  I wouldn’t say this is uncommon to anyone really; look, for example, at message boards where people tear apart continuity and editing errors in television shows and movies.  We can’t help but see these things because they don’t fit and, ultimately, they lessen the experience for us.  But we also can’t help but wonder “Who let that happen?”  Who are the people making the mistakes?

I don’t know much about professional editors.  I assume they’re like every other grammar geek in the world, only they get paid for it.  And obviously they are not infallible, perfect creatures who are one part flesh and blood, one part Strunk & White.  Also, I’m not here to say “You bad, bad people, why do you keep making mistakes?!?!” because that would be silly too.  However, I wonder about the PROCESS of editing–that is, what steps does a book take before it goes to press, and at what points do certain people in the business do certain things.

Getting back to the two books I mentioned, I feel like there was a step missing from the process.  In my head, it goes something like this:

1) Author writes the book.

2) Author rewrites the book.

3) Author takes a break.

4) Author goes back and takes another pass at it.

5) Author sends book out. 

6) Book is either

a) rejected by publisher (whereby the author repeats step five until finally book is)

b) accepted by publisher.

7) Book is edited.

8 ) Cover art is chosen.

9) Some idiot who’s related to someone higher up writes a spoileriffic plot summary to go on the back of the book, ruining my enjoyment of it.

10) Book is published.

In my head, there should be a Step 7a or possibly even 1a) Book should be read by someone or someones for authenticity.  That is, do the female characters sound like women or what a guy thinks women sound like?  If you are British and writing about Americans, do your Americans sound like Americans?

The latter question is my issue with these two books.  They’re not BIG issues, but they’re there, and they are taking away from my enjoyment.

Forever Autumn has a fairly keen ear for replicating the way the Doctor’s and Martha’s voices are written on the show.  What it does not have is a keen ear for American dialogue or expression.  Just a decent one.  The book itself is set in possibly-present-time New England (Martha allows that it could be slightly in the past or slightly in the future from her own time; she never checks or asks, which I think is pretty cool).  However, the books have even the characters referring to things by the “British version” of their names.  The question here becomes whether this is, as I say in my post title, an issue of audience or authenticity, especially with a Doctor Who book, which is as likely to be read by children as adults.

A simple example of audience or authenticity is the first Harry Potter novel: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, depending on which country you live in.  This doesn’t bother me, because I get what Scholastic was saying here: American kids were going to see the word “Philosopher” and come up with an entirely different idea of what the book was about.  It’s a marketing issue, but a clear one.  So audience wins out.

So for a book like Forever Autumn, what do you do with all those little words that have different meanings on opposite ends of the pond?  Boot, torch, etc?  Here’s what I think: assume that the reader is smart.  The show is British and the kids over here seem to follow it well enough, so imagine they’re clever enough to say, “Mom, what do they mean by ___?” when they’re confused.  But the dialogue should be authentically American, with the clever British children asking for help when they’re confused.  It makes perfect sense to me.

But you have to know what “authentically American” sounds like, which is where these beta readers, for lack of a better term, come in.  In Forever Autumn, a character says “ain’t” and it jars.  Yes, some people in America say “ain’t,” and I mean no offense here when I say that it’s the kind of slang word that isn’t going to work in every situation.  For a long time, the expression was “Ain’t ain’t a word cuz ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.”  Well, now it’s in the dictionary, but it still has a negative feeling attached to it.  In various books and movies, “ain’t” is the kind of word that will signify someone either poor or Southern or uneducated or some combination of all of the above.  The character in Forever Autumn who uses this word is a mother in a New England family who owns what I believe is the largest and/or oldest house in town.  That is, it’s not a cheap house, and it’s not regionally a place where “ain’t” might be commonly used.  Therefore, it jars.  It sounds like, well, a British writer wrote it because he thought someone in America might say it.

There are similar jarring moments in New Free Chocolate Sex.  The book is set in America, and yet the characters sound as if they all did their schooling overseas.  The example that made me set down the book and come upstairs to my laptop is a male co-worker asking one of the main characters if he would “fancy a drink.”  This is not an expression we use in America that I know of at all.  “Fancy” is pretty much an adjective to us, used for jewelry and the interior of houses.  Grandmas might use it that way, or those irritating kids who write “colour” even though they grew up in New Jersey, but those exceptions show that it’s an expression that has fallen out of use on this side of the pond over the past few decades, especially by men.  

I guess that when it comes down to it, I’m all for authenticity.  And if any British (or male?**) writer needs me, my rates would be super cheap.


** Don’t get me wrong, I think many guys can write women well.  The best example of this is Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, which is one of the best portraits of female adolescence written by ANYONE, man or woman.  But occasionally there will be writers who seem unable to write anything but stereotypes or regurgitated dialogue from old movies or crappy TV shows–and don’t think this is only a gender/sex thing, because it isn’t.  Some of the most painfully wooden, stereotypical female characters I’ve ever read have been written by women.

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