Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

Fact Checking Fiction?

Like many writers, I often get caught up in details. While working on my novel, I found myself checking the phases of the moon for a particular night, the temperature and weather for a particular day, whether Post-It Notes had been invented by 1977 (no), and when those annoying fasten-seat-belt warning lights became standard in cars (earlier than you’d think). Yes, fiction is made up—but sometimes, if I find myself setting an event in a particular place at a particular time, I feel obligated to get the facts right.

Now the Canadian literary journal Taddle Creek is taking fact-checking to the next level—even in its fiction. Spot an error, no matter how small, and you’ll get a free two-year subscription. From the magazine’s website:

Some would argue small errors don’t matter that much but, taking things to extremes, as Taddle Creek is wont to do, the magazine disagrees. Maintaining the gold standard of literary-magazine fact-checking means fessing up to even the smallest of mistakes. And so, beginning immediately, the magazine will make note of and correct any erroneous information it discovers in its pages, regardless of its perceived importance. […] For the sake of public record, the on-line corrections page also lists every error that has come to the magazine’s attention since its first issue.

Errors caught so far range from typos (“The word “to” was missing in Taddle Creek’s response to the letter writer Nadia Laham in the summer, 2010, issue”) to issues of consumer correctness (“The magazine’s Halloween, 2008, editorial stated that Original Foods was the only company in Canada still manufacturing molasses kisses. A loyal reader presented Taddle Creek with a bag of Kerr’s kisses shortly thereafter, proving otherwise”) to technical (“Page 24 of the summer, 2003, issue was printed off-centre. The copy should be slightly higher and to the right.”).

Moreover, each error listing tells you exactly whom to blame: “It was the printer’s fault.” “The magazine has no good excuse for this. It was simple sloppiness.” “Taddle Creek caught this error before press and pointed it out to Mike, but he refused to make the change.” “It was Taddle Creek’s fault for not assuming someone would ever make a mural with Heart as its focus. It knows better now.”

Are they joking? Sort of. But not really. Taddle Creek offers a passionate argument for fact-checking fiction, along with the 16-page The Taddle Creek Guidebook to Fact-checking Fiction. And the Columbia Journalism Review suggests that they’re actually serious:

[Taddle Creek editor-in-chief and publisher Conan] Tobias is also dedicated to his goal of accuracy. He started at Canadian Business as a fact checker and worked his way up. He also played a big role in bringing the discipline to Taddle Creek.

“There are facts in fiction as well, and it’s perfectly valid [to check them],” he says. “… If you have a real world name in there you want to have it right. Why have it wrong?” […]

“I’m happy to say that a lot of the errors listed are for absurd stuff … there have not been a lot of errors that I know of in the magazine,” he says. “It is serious business and it is something we will keep up. The corrections are there because it’s the right thing to do … But there’s no reason a correction page has to be boring.”

uwem_bookRemoving our tongues from our cheeks for a moment, though, this brings up a serious question: how important is it to get the facts right in fiction? When a friend from grad school, Uwem Akpan, had a story accepted by the New Yorker, I was surprised to learn that a fact-checker combed through every detail in the piece, from the foods mentioned to the slang the characters speak.

So tell us: what’s your personal rule on this? Does it bother you if, say, a character uses an anachronistic product? Do you care if May 25, 1977, actually had a full moon but is described as having a crescent? Do you check the facts in your own fiction?


Literary Partners