Two weeks ago, I came across a review of a historical novel that was described as "impeccably researched." It was meant as a compliment, and most authors would take it that way, understandably so. I emailed the review to a friend who knows the period well, figuring she'd be interested in hearing about it. It turned out she had already read the novel, and disagreed with the assessment. There were many significant, surprising errors in the book, which she found disappointing.
Of course, readers look for much more in historical fiction than facts that are 100% correct. Nobody wants to read infodumps, and novelists sometimes alter history slightly (or more than that) for the storyline's sake. On the other hand, the problematic review casts doubt not only on the author's credibility, but also the reviewer's.
"Impeccably researched" is one of many phrases that has unfortunately slipped into reviewerese, that special lingo used by book reviewers as a short way of saying how they feel about a work. The terms "emotional rollercoaster," "laugh-out-loud funny," and "unputdownable" all belong to this vocabulary; they're overused to such an extent that they've become signs of cliched writing. There's even a bingo game based around them. (Disclaimer: I know many excellent reviewers who've used words on those scoreboards. So have I!)
Along with a wish that a historical novel be (mostly) accurate, readers want it to provide a sense of authenticity. They want to be made to believe that the historical world an author creates is real, that it could have existed as described.
Yesterday, a friend sent me to a SF/fantasy fiction blog which posted the following quote from writer Saladin Ahmed:
... I wish reviewers/critics would stop using [authenticity] as a criterion. 90% of critical/readerly praise for authenticity amounts to either “this guy imagines this culture in a manner which agrees with my imagining of this culture,” or “I didn’t know anything about Malaysian street culture, but now I do!”That is to say, terms describing a novel's research or authenticity are used all the time by reviewers to indicate something other than what they actually denote.
When you see a novel described as impeccably researched, meticulously researched, or historically accurate (and you'll find this in publicity material, too), what the reviewer may really mean is: "the author includes a lot of historical details that made the setting come alive" or "I didn't notice anything obviously wrong" or "I learned a ton of new info from this book" or even "it has a massively long bibliography." Or it could mean exactly what it says. Without knowing anything about the reviewer's capability to judge such things, it's impossible to know for sure.
Likewise, the word "authentic" often refers to the author's exceptional world-building skills. Are the setting, atmosphere, and characters convincing enough to seem real? This may or may not reflect accuracy -- especially given the preponderance of the phrase in instances where the reviewer admits knowing little about the setting.
I'd cut people some slack for writing that a novel feels authentic rather than outright stating that it is such. It's possible to praise the author's knowledge, efforts, and world-building abilities while still acknowledging his/her limitations in writing about a time that s/he didn't personally experience -- as well as the reviewer's limitations in evaluating that author's work.
These words, like all of reviewerese, should be used judiciously. Careful consideration of the real meaning behind these oft-used phrases makes for stronger, more trustworthy, and (dare I say) more authentic reviews -- and isn't that something worth striving for?