Tuesday, March 29, 2005


A week or so ago I picked up a copy of a novel, Mister Posterior and the Genius Child by Emily Jenkins. (It was a trade paperback by Berkley, which doesn't usually publish contemporary non-genre fiction, so that may have caught my eye.) Partly because of a laudatory blurb by Sarah Willis, partly because of an immensely charming cover (you can see it at http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/042518627X/ref=sib_dp_pt/103-6095491-0271812#reader-link), and -- because these had gotten me that far -- an engaging opening page (http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/042518627X/ref=sib_dp_pt/103-6095491-0271812#reader-link) and funny cover copy, I took the book home.

It's a novel set in Cambridge in 1970, told from the point of view of an eight-year-old girl. Since the girl is narrating, but from the vantage of later adulthood, it raises interesting technical issues, which could interact fruitfully with its (interesting) setting.

I began reading, but quickly smacked up against a real problem, at least for me. The story is full of anachronisms. Jenkins was born in 1967 (the copyright page tells us), and her 1970 Cambridge is replete with events, phrases, and attitudes from the mid- and late eighties. The first example was so egregious (an early reference to a woman going out and "drumming in the woods") that, like a sting from the world's biggest bee, I developed an immediate sensitivity to even minor recurrences.

This alerted me to what I might not otherwise have noticed: that there were no references that were actually specific to the era (a woman who wanted to get away from her family and straighten her head out would find an "Encounter Group," not a drumming circle). Cultural references and allusions that were acceptable to 1970 all proved to be examples that were still in use well into the following decade. The author's specific knowledge of her chosen milieu seemed to be zero.

This really bugs me. The author has a Ph.D.; she has published a previous book of non-fiction. Presumably she knows how to conduct basic research. The book was edited, then copyedited, by people trained to look out for exactly this kind of thing. It comes lavishly praised, presumably not only by people younger than the author.

Do most readers shrug this off, or does it bother others as well?


Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

If I knew enough to notice, it'd bug the heck out of me. At least if it was trying to project historical accuracy (as opposed to a romp using the setting as window-dressing, and mixing up several peroids).


8:58 AM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

It seems to me that if you're going to set a book in an era a goodly number of people remember firsthand, you ought to get it right--or at least send up a signal that indicates that you have no intention of getting it right at all, and so there. I don't always catch all such anachronisms, but when I do they drive me a little crazy.

Even more than the sort of details you cite here, my particular irritation is with those books where the emotional/sociological details are anachronistic. Drives me nuts.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Yeah, the answer is, it depends. Lots of times, I don't notice anachronisms, because I just don't know enough. But I think setting a book in the 70's without doing your homework seems risky.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Yes, when I notice anachronisms like that, it annoys the heck out of me. I suspect that it may happen to you a lot more often because you have a more comprehensive knowledge of history. It's more often, with me, that an accumulation of science errors annoys me.

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Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch.

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