Disappointed cat is disappointed

26 February 2010

I like revolutions. Reading about them, that is, and more recently trying to figure out how to write about them. Not living through them. I wouldn’t like that one bit. The Russian Revolution was my favourite, as a student when I didn’t have to think about the families whose lives it devastated, and how inappropriate it probably is to have a ‘favourite’ revolution at all.

It started during my A levels when a handsome young journalist from the French Revolution became my year group’s version of R-Pattz. (And when I really wanted to know about the women’s infantry battalion who’d fought for the White Russians. You weren’t going to get as much buy-in for that.) Later, it was about understanding how everything could change, and starting to wonder how on earth a person would make sense of that when changes weren’t all obvious from day to day.

As much as the politics and the upheaval and the iconography, it was about coming to terms with what History meant, the fact that Russians eighty years ago thought differently from you.

When I first heard about Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts, I expected it would do that too. It’s meant to be a satire about Stalin assembling the science fiction writers of the Soviet Union to fabricate a momentous external threat and hold the USSR together from the Great Patriotic War to the Chernobyl disaster. I can go along with that, and Roberts knew what he was doing in the Gulliver’sTravels-meets-Temeraire department.

Luckily, Cat Valente read it before me, so that nobody else has to. The status of writers under Communism? Apparently, no idea. The slightest smidgen of awareness of the Russian language? Nowhere to be found. And what on earth are Scientologists supposed to be doing there?

No. Thrice no, and get thee gone. I complain when fantasy writers inadvertently name a Big Bad after the Italian footballer who headbutted Zinedine Zidane. This book is crying out to be hurled out of a train window at high speed, and the last thing I want to do is make it more famous by assaulting someone with it.

At the moment I’m going over a story where the point-of-view character’s first language is French, so I’m combing through to make sure every sentence of narrative harmonises. We want foyers and troupes and statuettes. We don’t want German loan-words, and when two characters can’t but speak Hungarian, the point-of-view can’t understand. I’ve never published a novel, but I know I need to do this. Someone who’s already published ten? Come on…


9 Responses to “Disappointed cat is disappointed”

  1. This may be a little off topic, but your last bit reminded me of Tom Cruise in Valkyrie. Everyone else in the movie managed some sort of accent other than “American” except him. How can a moviegoer get transported when there’s that disruption each time Tom opens his mouth? Perhaps if you can’t do an accent, you should bow out of the film, Tom Cruise.

    I felt the same way about Brad Pitt in the movie where he did a horrendous Irish accent. Tom and Brad Pitt show that star power isn’t enough. It’s the same with books – there needs to be authenticity or the reader can’t buy into the story.

  2. Not off topic at all… it’s all language!

    Though actually, when the BBC adaptations of the Wallander novels first came out, a lot of the TV columns commented that all the characters (including Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander) were Swedish but spoke with native-speaker English accents. I can see the logic behind that, insofar as the characters don’t sound like they have strange accents *to each other*, so we shouldn’t experience them that way either…

    But everyone *except* the star managing to get an accent right? Yeah, that’s ‘Oh, come on’ territory again… Especially since these guys are getting paid x times as much as anyone else in it. They could at least justify their pay cheque and get something right!

  3. Karen Gowen Says:

    The more awareness one has about the world, the more we demand from the books we read. So YA novels can get by with glossing over background & research, but those writing for adults better not!! I was surprised to discover in a recent book called “Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the women who created her” that the original Carolyn Keene (Mildred Wirt) did extensive research for each of those novels. Research on Nancy Drew serials? I was surprised and impressed.

  4. Old Kitty Says:


    THANK YOU so much for the link to Yuki Onna’s site. I have never been more entertained by a critique of a book I’ve never heard of but now want to read just because it’s seems to be so bad it’s got to be “good”!!!! LOL!

    What a review!

    Oh and who on earth are the R-Patz? Should I google them?

    Take care

  5. AlexJ Says:

    Research is necessary, because you’re right – readers will expect realism. I think language is just as important. Maybe even more. Your dedication to that aspect will really show in a quality piece.
    And sorry, haven’t published ten books. My first doesn’t come out until this fall.

  6. kate m Says:

    Some writers really feel entitled to come up with whatever they want without research. I’ve heard a number of novelists say this: it’s fiction, it’s made up, I can do what the hell I like.

    That’s a position I’m quite uncomfortable with. It suggests the default is *their* perspective, and they never have to think about how things appear to other people. What a luxury!

    Language issues can involve some difficult decisions. Recently I wrote a story where one of the characters was Somali. I sought advice on translating some of her dialogue into Somali, then glossed those phrases at the end of the piece, because writing English phrases followed by “she said in Somali” felt ridiculous. In the future I’ll think very carefully about planning stories where English isn’t the character’s first language, because it is still not clear to me whether I got it right. Getting informed advice is one thing, knowing the language you’re writing in at first hand is quite another.

    I quite liked the Wallander approach to accents. The Reader adaptation really annoyed me. There were so many inconsistencies in their spoken and written language, it got more and more distracting.

    Generally, I read historical fiction as a reflection of modern values – it can be a handy veil for writers to explore current concerns while pretending not to – so my response to inaccuracies depends on what I think their agenda is and how upfront they are. I’m quite forgiving of acknowledged deviations and even superficial errors. I’m less happy to see myths uncritically perpetuated and labelled as authentic.

    If anything, the young adult (and child) readers I know feel especially cheated if they learn aspects of a story aren’t “true.” I would say they are amongst the least forgiving readers when it comes to poor research – particularly if they have taken a special interest in a period and have gone to the bother of looking into it themselves.

    Apologies, very lengthy comment

  7. @ Karen and Kate – there was a really interesting discussion at Bookwitch last month about how far YA authors ought to take liberties with historical truths. I used to see YA authors as teacher-surrogates when I was a YA, so I’d be dreadfully disappointed if I found out one of them had bent the facts rather than inhabiting the spaces *between* the facts – which is what I suppose I think worldbuilding is for.

    @ Kate – at the moment I’m trying to work by a rule of thumb that if I wouldn’t be able to formulate a sentence in the character’s first language they shouldn’t be my POV and certainly not my narrator. Otherwise I don’t think I’d even have a hope of getting it right… there’s still lots I can get wrong, of course, but at least it eliminates one massive source of error. (Although that rule of thumb is probably just a product of the fact that languages fascinate me. I have to remember that all my POVs don’t feel the same way!)

    @ Kitty – R-Pattz is what mmphteens call Robert Pattinson. (Or so I’m told. Luckily, when he started turning up on the radar I was already a long way past mmphteen.) Conceptual equivalents, depending on one’s generation: Cliff Richard, an amorphous mass of Beatles, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, David Cassidy, insert name of favourite Bay City Roller here, Morten Harket, any of Take That bar Gary Barlow, Johnny Depp, Jared Leto, David Beckham, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp again…

    @ Alex – congrats on the first book, and welcome! I actually wonder if Roberts has got complacent precisely *because* he’s imagined so many books…

  8. Bernita Says:

    “This book is crying out to be hurled out of a train window at high speed”
    Made me laugh.
    We have a similar reaction/standard response/set phrase in my family about such items ( if you don’t like this book/sweater/ornament, then…) except we suggest heaving it out a car window on the 401.

  9. I don’t know what the 401 is but I’m picturing it littered with unwanted household junk! 🙂

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