We all want our books to be, and to seem, authentic – don’t we? – but there is plenty of room for debate about what that really means. Robert Barnard tells a story about an American critic who praised his deep understanding of the backstage world of opera, when in fact Robert had no first hand knowledge of that milieu at all. But he wrote well enough to persuade the critic that he did.
A book or film that makes obvious mistakes of fact will tend to be panned, but a common experience is that people with specialised knowledge recognise that authenticity is lacking when others do not. A good example, I thought, was the comment made by Josephine in relation to my review of Lewis on Monday – she felt that the work of a translator was not convincingly portrayed.
More usually, the complaint is voiced by police officers that crime novels fail to describe their work with sufficient authenticity. Journalists often say the same. So, come to that, do lawyers. I cringe occasionally when I read some of the unrealistic descriptions of legal life, although if the fiction is written well enough, I am certainly prepared to forgive a lot. It’s a mistake to be excessively picky, I think.
Sometimes, an issue arises about authenticity as a result of a deliberate decision by the author, rather than a mistake. The other day I received an interesting email from a reader who enjoyed The Serpent Pool, but was troubled because I’d created a fictional university in Cumbria. She made the point that resources are barely enough to support the one uni that does actually exist in the area. I'm sure that is true, but I tried to explain that I was very well aware I was inventing something. I just didn’t want to libel inadvertently an existing institution, or the people who work there. The whole point about fiction is that, whilst it may seek to cast light on real life, it is not quite the same as real life.