Years ago, my husband was a huge James Herriot fan. He read every one of Herriot's books and he lived for the weekly installment of PBS's All Creatures Great and Small. So when I, thinking of Arthurian legend and a Wagnerian opera, suggested that we name our first child Tristan, my husband eagerly assented because he admired the irrepressible Tristan Farnon he'd read about in the Herriot books.
I, too, thought Herriot's stories were warm and funny. But I quickly lost interest in the author when I learned he had been writing novels rather than memoirs.
Oh, I love novels. But I'm also a huge nonfiction reader, so I tend to resent it when anyone blurs the line between truth and fiction in a book. Herriot's stories were charming when I thought they were true, but then I learned that the experiences he wrote about were fictionalized to the extent that only a handful of the characters he included in his books were ever able to recognize themselves.
First of all, there was no James Herriot. The guy's name was James Alfred Wight. And he was taken into the veterinary practice of Donald Sinclair, not Siegfried Farnon. The Graham Lord biography I read years ago was entirely sympathetic, but I was dismayed to learn that many of the things I loved about James Herriot had never been true at all.
From Today in Literature:
Wight said that his books were 90% fact and 10% fiction.
Some of the biographers question the ratio, as well as
Wight's claim that he had no ambitions to be a writer
and was pushed into print by his wife, but there is no
debate over the more important facts: that the books
have sold over 60 million copies around the world; that
they have brought unprecedented interest and respect
to veterinarians and to Yorkshire; that Wight was as
sincere, devoted, humble and loved in life as Herriot
was in the books.
Maybe. But I'm not quite as willing to believe in his sincerity as I was before. He didn't simply change names and details to protect people's privacy; he changed them to make better stories. I'm not saying that's unethical; he was a novelist, after all. But people didn't know he was a novelist, and that's what I hate.
Give me the truth or give me a made-up story. Just don't mix the two and leave me to wonder which I'm reading.