Oh for an editor

Over at Patternings, Ann Darnton points out how her reading of Chesil Beach was spoilt by Ian McEwan’s failure to get a contemporary detail right – he has his protagonist playing Beatles and Rolling Stones covers of Chuck Berry before they were recorded. On one level it’s a minor detail, but on another, as Ann points out, it goes to the heart of the novel, which is, presumably quite deliberately, considering its subject matter, set in the year before, as Larkin has it,

“Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty three/ (which was rather late for me)/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.” The whole atmosphere of the novel depends on its pre-beat group era setting.

I’ve observed a similar problem in the novels of Elizabeth George. This American anglophile gets lots of detail about England wrong. Despite apparently spending half her life over here, she still doesn’t know that we don’t say “candy bar”; she thinks that cricketers all have personal coaches; in a novel set in Lancashire, she consistently refers to the police HQ as being located in “Hutton-Preston”: it’s in Hutton, a suburb of Preston. If you were outside, you’d say Preston. If you were in Preston, you’d say Hutton. No-one would ever say “Hutton-Preston”. Again, you might think, well, does it really matter, and obviously, the answer is probably “not much”. But since Ms George prides herself on the accuracy of her portrayal of English life, you’d think these details would matter to her, or to her English editor, who received lavish praise in the acknowledgments.

In the latest novel I’ve come across, her hero’s somewhat down-to-earth female sidekick has to question a suspect called Barry. She attempts to be matey with him, and addresses him as “Bar”. Has any English person ever used “Bar” as a short form of “Barry”? I think not. He’s Baz, innit?

Of course, the most laughably inaccurate feature of Ms George’s oeuvre is the fact that her hero is a titled member of the nobility with a stately home, who just happens, for entirely altruistic reasons, to be a serving policeman. He’s not exactly Lord Peter Wimsey, but he ain’t Rebus either. I’m reminded that in America, the editors obviously feel that the US readership couldn’t possibly cope with a few culturally specific words, so they edit Rankin to make all his British idioms American ones, thus making Rebus refer to sidewalks and car trunks. Wasn’t it Sam Goldwyn, who, when informed that it would be unwise to film Lilian Hellman’s The Little Foxes because the major characters were lesbians, replied “That’s OK – we’ll make ’em Albanians”!

CC BY-SA 4.0 Oh for an editor by Dr Rob Spence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

8 Responses to “Oh for an editor”

  1. The most hilarious recent blunder was EG’s reference to Kettle Crisps (because we Brits don’t call crisps chips, do we? Unless of course it’s the brand name – DOH!)
    And then there are the ‘panda cars’. Despite Wikipedia’s claim that this term is still widely used, I can’t remember the last time I heard a police car referred to as such. I stand prepared to be shot down in flames ….

  2. I am so glad to hear you say this abot EG — I quite enjoy her books but have always been astonished by the way she makes these painful blunders. Does she have an editor at all? If so it must be one with a tin ear, that’s for sure.

  3. Oh yes, I agree about EG, but have you ever tried Martha Grimes? Even worse! I do still read EG, but have had to abandon Grimes – just too distracting.

  4. She of the tin ear is Hodder and Stoughton’s Sue Fletcher who apparently made ‘numerous helpful suggestions’. Obviously not enough …

  5. I’ve come across some good ones in the world of SF – Connie Willis, in her novel ‘Doomsday Book’ (partly set on Oxford) believes we wear ‘mufflers’ whilst Tim Powers in ‘The Stress of Her Regard’ has characters travelling through the ‘Sussex moors’.

  6. One that I’ve seen in dozens of US books and that gets me every time is references to the London Times. Is it so hard to understand that national papers in the UK don’t have placenames attached to them (since the Manchester Guardian, anyway?) I can see that just calling it The Times may confuse with say the New York Times, but I yearn to see it described as ‘the London Times‘.

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