Failing the Wikipedia Test

Writing fiction in the age of the Internet can be fraught for the author who values authenticity–particularly if you write historical or technical fiction. Since the glorious thing about writing fiction is that you essentially make shit up to entertain other people, there are a range of opinions about the technical rigor to which writers should aspire.

I’m one of those poor tortured souls who is a stickler for detail, to the point where I’m rarely able to meet my own standards when I write–but, let’s face it. If anyone wrote like that, they’d either write only in their area of historical specialty or after years of research. The trick with writing is to create a successful illusion, not a master’s thesis. Besides, the vast majority of readers aren’t the kind of obsessive compulsive pain in the ass that I am–a lucky thing!–so there’s a certain amount we authors can count on getting away with.

Still, I can’t help but think there’s some level of rigor that one ought to aspire to. Some minimal standard–particularly since the stories we professional liars tell often form people’s view of the past long after their high school and college history classes are long-forgotten–must surely be in order. Something that we can at least hold up to keep ourselves from being embarrassed at conventions when a fan calls us out on an obvious boneheaded anachronism?

There might just be one. Let’s call it “The Wikipedia Test.” After all, most readers who are confused on a point of history or arcane knowledge (and who are of an intellectual or curious bent) that you employ will go to Wikipedia to catch up with you. It therefore follows that if a point in your story–particularly a major plot point–turns on a bit of arcane knowledge, you damn well better make sure that a cursory glance at Wikipedia won’t make you look lazy.

Not that I have anyone particular in mind, but for the sake of illustration, I’m going to pick on two popular authors (one of whom I really like, the other of whom I admire, but don’t much enjoy).

[Be warned: Spoilers follow]

First, Jeff Lindsay, creator of Dexter. For the book Dexter in the Dark he brings in a serial killer who leaves the device “mlk” at his murder scenes. Dexter, after a considerable amount of Internet research, concludes that this is a reference to the god “Moloch.” So far so good–anytime someone’s got the guts to work some obscure mythology into his storyline, I’m a happy guy.

Unfortunately, Lindsay then goes on to say that “the characters ‘mlk’ were from an ancient language…Aramaic.” And that’s where the book, for about two chapters, descends into the kind of incoherence that only badly-researched mysticism can create.

Moloch, you see, is a Phoenician god, and the Phoenician used an entirely different alphabet from Aramaic (the language of the Canaanites), despite the languages being related. Aramaic doesn’t have any letters that look remotely like an “m” or a “k”– but Phoenician does. There are a dozen other reasons, too, that the idea the Moloch would speak Aramaic is ridiculous, but let’s just stick with these two which–feel free to check for yourself–are easily confirmed by a Wikipedia search.

And, really, if you’re going to go to the trouble to use something as esoteric as Moloch, and you’re going to try to make it cool by dipping deep into Kabbalistic Demonology, you’re going to have to do some research (unless you’re like me who reads stuff like this for fun), so why in the world wouldn’t you do a basic fact check?

A more eggregious example of this kind of thing is Dan Brown, who writes occult history thrillers (so far so good), claims that admitted hoaxes such as Holy Blood, Holy Grail are legitimate true histories (not so good–at least he could rely on hokum that hasn’t been publically acknowledged as a prank by its authors), and then goes that one further:

In The Da Vinci Code, a multinational conspiracy of elite catholics spend gobs of money and kill loads of people in order to save the church from a secret that would destroy it: That Jesus was…married?

Um…come again? Okay, yes, the Vatican is a bastion of sexual repression that has inarguably engaged in a good bit of historical forgery and cover-ups over the centuries. But of all the secrets they could be hiding about the origin of Christianity, this has to be right up there with “Jesus used Crest Toothpaste” in the annals of “inconvenient facts with the fewest possible consequences to Christian doctrine.” If Brown wanted some real dynamite, he could have gone for another fringe theory that’s actually got some scholarly support and would actually give the Catholic Church huge headaches if it were to become commonly believed(such as the fringe scholarly theory that Jesus Never Existed).

Still, sex is sexier than fraud, I suppose. And Brown writes a hell of a page-turner, as evidenced by his amazing sales numbers.

[End of Spoilers]

I humbly submit that if we’re going to be telling stories that present the illusion of reality, that delve into the “what ifs” and “what could have beens,” why not at least put in Wikipedia-level research? Or, if we can’t be bothered, perhaps we should let go of pretense to connect our illusions to reality, and just make up the names as well. Seems to me it would be much less confusing–and present much less of a liability to the coherence of the illusion–than throwing out bogus facts that put us at risk of failing the Wikipedia Test.

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A few great authors that usually pass the Wikipedia test:
Gary Jennings, Ken Follett, Clive Cussler, Clive Barker, Isaac Asimov, Gail Carriger, Leon Uris, Cherie Priest, Thomas Harris, Stephen King (this is what I came up with at 4AM. It’s not an exhaustive list by a long shot).

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5 Comments

  1. Of course, there are some books that are exhaustively wrong on purpose. Also, Asimov was a scientist and historian as well as a writer, so it’s no surprise that his fiction is as accurate as his academic work.

  2. I can’t even begin to count the hours I spent in researching every one of my novels!!!!

    In Sonora Symphony, for which I just signed a contract with a publisher, I did my best to ensure that everything was correct in the setting. While I’ve spent many hours in the desert, I still did not want to make such stupid errors as saying a Horned Toad is a toad when, in fact, it’s a lizard.

    The same holds true with my Father Serra’s Legacy trilogy. There was an amazing amount of information online but it still took direct assistance from the Franciscans themselves!

    I think it behooves a writer of ALL genres to do their best to ensure some degree of accuracy – even in speculative genres.

    • Ah, a writer after my own neuroses! I love it 🙂 What sorts of books are yours–historical epic?
      -Dan

  3. a great essay. There’s an award winning SF writer I stopped reading because a book failed the wikipedia test. His science was 4.0 as far as I could tell, but his political science was wholly ignorant. Obessively researched one part and just waved hands and made up poor BS for the rest, sad.

  4. I have similar problems with King and firearms. He’s admitted he really doesn’t care enough to put in cursory research, and a lot of it ends up being a major wallbanger for me(it doesn’t help that its my profession). He paints great pictures, and I enjoy what I’ve read of him, but some things make me want to put my head through my wall. .300 WinMag in a revolver, for instance(Drawing of The Three, Roland’s guns are mentioned to be in this caliber), does that.

    Incidentally, this also ruins a lot of fiction in general for me. When I find an author who does it “right”(either by being totally general or by employing at least wikipedia-level research, or even going further than that), I tend to end up a fan of the series and the author in general. An example would be Antithesis.

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