Is the Customer Always Right?

Post by Mattias Bergman

PT Barnum – or somebody a whole lot like him – said “Give the customer what they want.”

More recently, in her book “How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction,” Persia Woolley warns against being too accurate in even the most well-researched historical fiction. Especially if accuracy flies in the face of widely-held misconception. One example used is travel from Scotland to England in King Arthur’s time, across the north of England. Now, of course, the famous Yorkshire Moors are vast expanses of open, largely-treeless hills. In King Arthur’s day, the place was dense woods.

After a lot of give and take, modern-day perceptions won out. The story showed travel across the moors.

This example, and many more examples, are harmless enough. But what of something even more insidious, something we have all (probably) been guilty of in our own writings? Namely, projecting our current cultural environment into the storyline, and often into the narrator’s POV in our stories.

We might do this for all the “right” reasons. Having all of our characters, whether in historical fiction, noir, fantasy or science fiction setting — all of which are far removed from our comfortable 21st-century suburbia/urbia — be social justice warriors of one sort or another. Or, the plot has to move along current culturally-accepted norms (no violence, talk your way out of everything, the bad guy can never be a minority, etc) We may get a warm, comfortable glow from such a slant, feel oh-so-noble in our social gatherings, and perhaps even increase book sales to fellow virtue-signalers.

But is it good writing?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I think it’s a question we must all ask. It begs a few follow-up questions:

      • Is such writing just another form of “cultural imperialism”? If so, should we not avoid it?
      • Will such writing “date” our work, shortening its shelf-life? Read some 40s and 50s noir novels, for instance, and see how the author himself treats certain ethnic groups. It kinda grates.
      • Conversely, will writing “true to form” fiction hamper sales and longevity. Witness, for instance, the current backlash against the language in Huckleberry Finn, even if it was a quite progressive and enlightened book for its time.

What do you think?


One Reply to “Is the Customer Always Right?”

  1. I had a fairly innocuous example in my Guardian of the Opera trilogy where readers’ perceptions were running up against actual history. Electric lights were installed in the Avenue de L’Opera (so, right outside the Opera Garnier, the primary setting of my novels) in 1878. That’s historical fact, but it’s also much earlier than people expect electric lights. I had so many people comment that it seemed too early for electricity that I became concerned readers would assume I was mistaken. I didn’t want to lose the electric lights – they don’t matter to the plot but I did use them in a thematic way I wanted to keep – so I added in extra information about them being installed during the 1878 Paris Exposition, in the hope that readers would then know that I knew what I was writing about!


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