I had to smile earlier in the week. I smile quite a lot, you understand, not being a miserable kind of person in general, but this was at something specific.
I was reading a crime novel – no surprise there, then – written by an American author and set in England. The plot held my attention, the characters had plenty going for them and the author seemed to have a better than passing knowledge of the part of the country she’d chosen for the setting.
It was little things that made me smile – nothing that directly affected the storyline. Things like characters handling pound notes, which were taken out of circulation more than a quarter of a century ago; and travelling on British Rail, which was dismembered and sold off as a series of franchises to private companies in the mid 1990s. There were other things too, but I finished the book a few days ago and don’t have it to hand, so forgive me if I don’t present a long list.
Some of the other things were slang and word usage; a couple were characters’ names which were somehow just... wrong. Nothing to justify an irate letter to the publisher; just enough to make me remember that saying: Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. Something like that, anyway. George Bernard Shaw said it first. Or possibly Winston Churchill. Maybe even Oscar Wilde. One of them.
Before I go any further, let me say this, in the interests of balance and fairness, which I strive for in every aspect of my life. I know of several British authors who set their books in the USA, and there are probably many more I don’t know of. And American readers almost certainly smile as they read, much as I did. But since my own experience is the other way round, it makes sense to post about that.
Getting it right in fiction is important. Of course it is; getting a whole lot of background details wrong undermines the entire willing suspension of disbelief thing.
And I’ve read enough fiction which didn’t always get it right to know that it’s pretty well impossible to check every tiny fact, and anyway, you don’t always know you need to check, if you get my drift. I once read a book by no less a literary figure than Carol Shields, in which she described a plane-load of football fans who had been following their team: Nottingham Forest. According to Ms Shields, they all spoke with Cockney accents. Hm. I live about forty miles from Nottingham, and the only Cockney accents I’ve ever heard there have belonged either to visiting Londoners, or to actors playing Cockneys (I think I saw My Fair Lady there once). Let me know if I need to explain further.
Quite a few years ago, a dear friend and brilliant novelist, who, alas, went to the great bookshop in the sky long before his time, happened to mention that he was having a meeting with his American editor. To me, a mere struggling short story writer at the time, that sounded very grand. In fact, my friend told me, it was simply a necessary part of the process. The American editor’s job was to make the tiny alterations which would make his latest book accessible to readers in the US. As with the book that made me smile, there was nothing that affected the storyline. But if I started talking about tanners, bobs and quids, I’m guessing there would be more than a few furrowed brows among any Americans who happened to be reading. (A clue: tanners and bobs hark back to the time before we had decimal currency; quids are in the same ball park, and still exist.) That was the kind of thing the American editor needed to look for.
Of course, as I said earlier, the boot can often be on the other foot. In fact, it’s time I started to brush up on my American; I’ll be there in less than a fortnight. Look forward to it, chums.