Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Truth and fiction

Veterinarian and novelist James Herriot died five years ago today, and reading about him this morning has reawakened an old disappointment in me.

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.


tristan coulter said...

Yep, my name is awesome.

And I'm with you, I don't like it when authors blur the line between what happened, and what they would have liked to have happened.

lost said...

James Herriot's books - under what category those books are filed under in your country? Over here, in bookshops and libraries, his books are usually found under 'Fiction'. It's been that way since I was a little girl [I'm 35!].

Secondly - you say, "I tend to resent it when anyone blurs the line between truth and fiction in a book". Here is my question: what defines 'truth'? IMO, all non-fiction books are nothing but authors' perspectives and/or interpretations of what they believe is the 'truth'. Sometimes they will fictionalise some aspects of the truth to protect [themselves, the others or whatnot], support their stance, or flesh out missing bits [e.g. educated guesses]. Is it unethical? I don't think so. I read my cousin's American History textbook and it has some incorrect facts about Europe, but when I put it in American context, it's the truth [or correct]. So, I think it's just a matter of perspective.

Sorry about the length of this response!

tristan coulter said...

I think there's a difference between slightly embellishing events in a story to make things flow better, and writing about events that never even happened. In my opinion, a little light embellishment is a powerful artistic tool, while writing about things that didn't actually happen is by definition, fiction. I suspect that my mom feels that Herriot/Wight did the latter. I think when a reader opens a “non-fiction” book s/he realizes that there may be slight inconsistencies, but for the most part the story is true and intact.

As for the textbook inaccuracies, I wish I could say that I’m surprised. Ask my mom about how in middle school I started and led a committee of students to have the science curriculum changed. We pulled it off and had new science textbooks district-wide the next year. =D The school board wasn’t too fond of me that year. Come to think of it, I don’t know if they’ve ever been too fond of me…

Brenda Coulter said...

Here is my question: what defines 'truth'?

Since you asked, Mali--God does. And He has given us the Bible so that we might begin to understand truth. Any more questions about my stand on moral relativism? ;-)

But to answer your first question, over here the Herriott books have always been marketed as memoirs and not novels. Here's the product description from

Twenty years ago, St. Martin's Press published a volume of memoirs by an unknown Scottish veterinarian named James Herriot. Its title was All Creatures Great and Small.

Within a year, the book had become recognized as a masterpiece. In the two decades that have followed, James Herriot has become one of the most universally loved authors of our time.

Now, as we celebrate the publication of Every Living Thing-- the country vet's fifth book of memoirs-- St. Martin's is proud to reissue the book that started it all

Herriot always maintained that his stories were almost entirely true, but more than one of his biographers has demonstrated that not to be the case, particularly when it came to Herriot's accounts of his wartime activities. Maybe Herriot's memory was fuzzy on certain events or maybe he believed he was telling true lessons if not true events; I don't know.

I could have enjoyed the books either way; as novels or as memoirs. What I didn't like was the hybridization. I never suggested that it was an unethical way to write, merely that this particular reader has no taste for that kind of book.

And please don't apologize for the length of your response, Mali. I was very interested in your comments.

Small Blue Thing said...

Sorry for the interruption _as I don't know Herriot's work, but I've met lots of artists here in Spain making their own fictions and fictional characters on their own, only to promote theirselves as artists. Surely it's the same in the U.S.

I wonder if people does it only for a question of become special or important in an insane way...

Blue Thing

Kate said...

not disputing your point about Herriot -- it is annoying that it was marketed as autobiography -- but to go back to the definition of truth (aside from God's) the older I get the more I see the ambiguity of events, as in how they can be interpreted so many ways. Big events obviously can be told from all points of views. History (for instance of Indians/Native Americans) is always being written and rewritten.

That's true of every life. One child's vision of his parents can be dramatically different from a child in the same family. One brother sees his family as happy and secure, the other says the tensions were unbearable growing up.

Who's right? Both, neither. Filters are what matter almost more than events. Rashamon. But not that movie because there are outright lies . . . Wait. What does it have to do with Herriot? Ummm Well. Maybe that it'll be impossible to ever know the amount of truth in any of his stories even if we knew the facts? Or, then again, maybe this is another case of Tangent Girl striking a blog?

You decide.

Brenda Coulter said...

Oh, don't sweat it, Tangent Girl. ;-) This has been an interesting conversation.

Blue Thing, Herriot was an engaging storyteller. You don't see a big ego in his books.

Note to Maili: Sorry I keep getting your name wrong. I don't know what my problem is.


lost said...

*laugh* It's not a problem. If using the English version 'Molly' would make it easier, please do feel free to call me that. It'd *certainly* make my life easier if I had that name in the first place! :D

Thank you for your take [and everyone else's]. Although I'm with Kate here, I'm glad that there are viewpoints to make me think, reassessing my own. Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

In actual fact the events described in Herriots books are almost all completely true. Having said that, it IS also true that he changed things, for example "Miss Harbottle" was actually a man! and the story where James/Alf drives back over the pennines on a road that has been blocked by snow, didn't happen to him, it happened to one of his colleagues. However, it did happen. As for Lord's book, that frankly is full of vitriol and nonsense.