When The Devil Isn’t In The Detail

Reading & Writing

The R of B

Poor old Oscar, endlessly quoted, and not always accurately. I wonder what he would have made of the modern Twitterverse? Would he have loved dropping aphorisms onto it or would he have been horrified by its egalitarianism?

I really enjoyed Jon Ronson’s ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’, an exploration of modern-day online witch-hunts which could not have been written five years ago. There’s a sentence in it that interested me, when Mr Ronson says something to the effect that questions of accurate attribution are more important in the US than in the UK.

I’ve always believed this to be true. I once pointed out that all UK authors write as if their mothers were reading over their shoulders, and all US authors write as if their teachers were reading over theirs. Clearly, lives can be ruined, as Jonah Lehrer found out after being fired for recycled content and plagiarism.

I’ve never met a fiction author who hasn’t, either consciously or unconsciously, recycled content, but it’s different in the journalistic world, especially one as competitive as America. And I wonder as much about the made-up Bob Dylan quote that destroyed Lehrer’s career – it seems to me such a tiny thing to have got away with (I’d make a lousy journalist). Fabulous quotes and exaggerated descriptions of meetings tend to accrue around celebrities like barnacles.

Currently there’s a mash-up online in which Freddie Mercury appears horrified by Kanye West’s version of Bohemian Rhapsody (I can’t post it but look it up). Nobody is suggesting it really happened, obviously, but I guess the difference is that if we can’t spot that we’re being lied to it becomes a damaging thing.

In the UK it seems journalists follow the intention of the subject and worry less about the pinpoint accuracy of fine detail. Craig Brown’s book ‘One on One’ outlines 101 true encounters between famous writers, rulers, actors and artists, but how many of them really portray what happened when eyewitness accounts differ so much?

I asked a well-known author about how she researched a very tricky subject in one of her novels – it seemed very thorough – and she told me she made it up because there was no existing research to be had; after all, she argued, our job is to get readers to believe the story.

In Golden Age novels, places are often represented as dashes; ‘I was in the town of C—– in Devon’, it will say, a trick which seems to add veracity. But certain areas of the modern crime novel – police procedurals, in particular – are overloaded with forensic detail that detracts from the story. I research a lot, but at some point you have to stop and concentrate on characterisation, theme and plot.

And there are simpler tricks to making something feel true – the occasional telling detail works better than a wall of research. Writers from Franz Kafka to Magnus Mills have chosen to tell deliberately vague fables that illustrate points or create feelings, so how do they get by without research? There’s a lovely trick Dino Buzzati uses in his novel ‘The Tartar Steppe’. After describing the hero’s feelings of disturbance about being assigned to a remote outpost there’s a chapter completely filled with numbers, showing us that the regiment has a quantifiable structure and solidity that puts the hero’s mind at rest.


It’s also a cultural issue; I find the level of detail in certain American novels exhausting, but it wasn’t always like this; it’s a relatively new phenomenon that seems to have started in the 1980s. Does someone who reads the dense, layered prose of Jonathan Safran Foer get more from the book than someone who reads Magnus Mills?

The interesting part is that less detail doesn’t mean less work. If anything it’s harder to pull off because you’re not bamboozling your reader with lots of facts but relying on them to invest in something purer. To leave readers with a powerful sense on unease is much harder than leaving them with a head full of facts.

3 comments on “When The Devil Isn’t In The Detail”

  1. Roger says:

    ” our job is to get readers to believe the story.”
    Well, that’s the important thing about reality. It needn’t bother with credibility.

  2. Vivienne says:

    Always consult Magnus Mills if you want to build a fence.

  3. Brooke Lynne says:

    Questions of attribution are more important in the US….not for political commentary, Fox News or politicians themselves. Our fiction writers pay more attention to facts and stats to make up the deficit.

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