"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

27 November 2006


Reading Hillary Waugh's history of detective fiction this past week, I found of interest his description of how fanatical a fact-checker he is, even with his fictional works. It reminded me of two most irritating errors I'd encountered earlier in the week, one in a piece of fiction, one in a non-fiction book on writing.

I should have known not to buy a detective novel with a Kansas setting written by a California writer. But in some things I am a slow learner, and I miss Kansas, so I picked it up at the used bookstore. It wasn't that great, but I read it all because it was about Kansas and I have a terrible habit of finishing bad books just because I've started them. (I'm getting a little better, but as I slog on, hope springs eternal; surely the next chapter will take off . . . or the next . . . surely?)

The novel has the typical stereotypes -- "small Midwestern towns are full of rednecks and dysfunctional, immoral people" (everyone who rodeos is a redneck, you know, and in small towns no one can be happily and chastely married but all must be lusting after and chasing each other's spouses, children, and mistresses), but even that was not (quite) fatal. The fatal moment occurred when the writer described a baby quilt at a quilt fair: it had baseball motifs all over it, and the explanation by the stitcher was something like "the only Kansas City Chiefs game he's missed is the day he was delivered."

Now, I am not into professional sports at all; I especially dislike football and only tolerate the idea of baseball. But even I know that the Chiefs are the football team, and the Royals are the baseball team. And any writer who doesn't bother to get right something that easy to check on . . . well, what can I say? No more books by that author for me.

The other error was even more irritating, though I am willing to be corrected on it if I've missed something.

In a book by a professional editor/agent on writing, the author was describing writer's block. To give it some emotional heft, she used a line from a poem, which she attributed to Milton -- "give my roots rain."

Now, I could have missed the line where Milton uses this phrase, but I'm fairly familiar with his poetry and I've never seen it. It's Gerard Manley Hopkins, for cryin' out loud, in one of the Terrible Sonnets, and writer's block was, I'm pretty sure, the least of his concerns at the time. Bad enough to get the wrong poet, but when the context of a poem is entirely ignored in using a line from it, I find it somehow cheapens the poet's work. It's like my students using quote sites to find a "famous" quote that happens to have a word in it that relates to an assigned essay topic. They have no idea who the author is or when the quote was made or in what context; it just sounds like it might impress the teacher.

Fact-checking. It should just be obvious that you do it before you publish, or even before you just converse about a subject. There is so much deception and distortion everywhere we turn (the increased access to all kinds of media makes this that much worse); how can we carry on a debate over truth when we refuse to even check the facts on which truth is based?
(And where on earth were the copy-editors of these books, by the way?)

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