by Florence King
Ask any randomly chosen group of writers for a list of their pet peeves and you will get remarkably similar replies. No matter how different we are in literary style and philosophy, we all tend to bear the same crosses in the everyday business of writing and publishing.
My own list of pet peeves begins with fact checkers. These are the people who write source? beside sentences like "Joan Fontaine starred in Letter from an Unknown Woman in 1948." Source? I remember it, dammit. I was twelve when it came out and I saw it. But that's not good enough; fact checkers are frequently sweet young things just out of college and the dew is still on the footnote. They won't believe you until you copy the proper page from Popcorn Venus and fax it to them. You emerge from these frays feeling that your word has been doubted and that you have been suspected of senility - which fact checkers always change to Alzheimer's.
Sometimes their political correctness is downright scary, especially when the don't even bother to consult with the writer and simply go ahead and change something. I recently wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times Magazine in which I referred to Belle Watling, the madam in Gone With The Wind. When I got the galleys, my correct spelling had been changed to "Bell." I called and spoke to one of the editors who rather nervously explained, "They said that was right."
Who was this sinister "they" and what was going on? How could anybody reference GWTW and come up with Bell for Belle? After giving it some thought I was pretty sure I knew what had happened. In Roots Kunte Kinte's wife is named Bell, and currently a black feminist scholar named Bell Hooks is making news. I suspect that some fact checkereither made a fashionable but honest mistake - or worse, decided that Belle "ought" to be Bell in the name of spelling reparations.
I copied a page from GWTW on which Belle is mentioned several times and faxed it to L.A. The name appeared correctly in the published article but the whole needless episode was one of nervewracking alarm for me.
Even when there is no question of ulterior motives or political agendas, the average fact checker is maddeningly literal-minded. They don't catch jokes, particularly puns, so I end up explaining why something is funny. They also tend to ask for surnames of people who don't use surnames ("Anastasia Who?"). Above all, they love to wreck historical anecdotes by inserting needless documentation: "Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821) boasted that she changed her underdrawers once a year whether they were dirty or not."
Even good fact checkers drive writers to distraction. When James M. Cain was asked to write for the New Yorker, where the legendary Mrs. White thought nothing of attaching sixty or seventy flags to the average article, he replied, "On the whole, I'd rather be dead."
The time-honored literary conventions of artistic license and suspension of disbelief are anathema to fact checkers, probably because these conventions contain the seeds of their own unemployment. James M. Cain ran into this mindset when he wrote Galatea, a novel about the love affair between and enormously fat woman and a fight trainer who knows how to get weigh off boxers.
When the trainer goes into the woman's bathroom, he finds two sets of scales. Reflecting that the average bathroom scale goes only up to two hundred pounds, he concludes that she must weigh herself with a foot on each scale, which would put her weigh somewhere between three and four hundred pounds.
The reader accepts this because Cain deftly plays on the universal human fascination with the grotesque to make us suspend our disbelief - we want to believe it, and so we do. We know from the title that the trainer is going to slim the woman down and fall in love with her, so the fatter she is, the better the plot. We don't care about the details; as long as the author gives us a good story we will grant him the right of artistic license.
But fact checkers don't think this way. Cain found himself buried under a blizzard of challenges that could occur only to a mind locked in tunnel vision:
"Possible to get accurate weight using two scales at once?"
"Druggist supply-house catalog lists models up to 250 pounds."
"How does she see dial? Magnified? Pls. specify."
"Suggest change to hospital scale."
The best fact-checker story I ever heard concerns a woman who worked at Harper's twenty years ago. One very minor point in an article about Ralph Nader had eluded her, and she just couldn't stand it. Although they were already late going to press, she did everything short of holding the production staff up at gunpoint while she ransacked the entire country to find out the color of Nader's briefcase.
The author had said it was black but a little voice in her steel-trap mind said brown. Unable to get hold of Nader herself, she called everybody who might know him well, including the FBI, until at last she found an alienated hippie who had been one of the original "Nader's Raiders."
Ralph's briefcase? Sure, he remembered. It was brown.