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Monday, July 12, 2010

On the (un)importance of getting everything right

I have a tendency sometimes to research myself into a corner. I don't want to get something wrong, so I come up with all the flaws in my story ideas and try to torture my stories into working around these flaws. And I've certainly had the experience as a reader of getting annoyed at a story that touched on something that I am knowledgeable about and Got It Wrong.

But I'm starting to think you can make a fetish of accuracy and take it too far. Recently I read a couple of stories that touched on areas I am knowledgeable about and got things wrong . . . and worked anyway.

I think many of us are passionate about the things we're "experts" in--that's why we're experts in the first place, sometimes. Maybe it's a musical instrument you play or your ethnic background or your religion or your occupation. Maybe it's a language you speak. With me these areas include (but are probably not limited to) my culture and first language, the religion I grew up in, teaching, the geography of places I've lived . . .

When I was a kid my parents used to watch a lot of cooking shows on PBS. We were a one television family for much of my childhood--and I never had a TV in my room--so I either watched what they watched or I watched nothing at all. So I grew up with more than my share of Julia Child and Yan Can Cook and the Galloping Gourmet. My favorite among these shows--pretty much the only one I could stand, actually, was Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet. I didn't give much of a damn about cooking--though maybe these shows laid the groundwork for my cooking as an adult--but Jeff Smith didn't just give recipes. He gave stories and history and bits of folklore about every recipe and about the people who ate whatever dish he was presenting. I loved the stories.

Until he did an episode on Cuban Cooking! Oh my goodness he got everything so wrong! He explained how Cubans and Mexicans pronounce "tamales" differently--um no, USians pronounce it differently, and incorrectly surmise their pronunciation is how Mexicans actually pronounce it. Then he showed how to make a Cuban Sandwich--with mayonnaise and salami! Ugh! (Yes, some restaurants make Cuban Sandwiches like this. They are wrong.) Along with my sense of outrage of seeing him get my culture and my food wrong was this thought: what else had he been getting wrong over the years? How could I trust now that any of his other stories were more authentic than the ones he told about Cubans?

I never looked at the show quite the same way again.

But here's the thing--if I had wanted to cook authentic food, I could see how that mattered. But when it came to enjoying his stories, did it make them any less enjoyable if they weren't totally accurate or well-researched?

Getting back to food, when I eat at a restaurant that is not Cuban, I really don't care how authentic the food is--I care if I like how it tastes. I know most of the Asian and Mexican food I eat is inauthentic, and I'm okay with that. For some reason, though, it drives me nuts when an allegedly Cuban restaurant serves a bunch of spicy dishes or makes a dish wrong.

And okay, if you get a detail wrong in your story, experts in that field will howl. But will most people care?

I suppose they will if it's something so fundamental that lots of non-experts know you blew it. And why tick off even the experts if you don't have to? There's nothing wrong with getting things as right as you can. Sure, that's a virtue.

But maybe it's good to remember sometimes that telling a good story is what it's really about.


Erik Slaine said...

Note to self: don't get Cuban food when entertaining Icarus.

That might make a fine title too.

Joe Iriarte said...