Thursday, December 11, 2008

The final word

Posting has been light this week, thanks to the five-inch-thick pile of papers that has been lying under the mail table for the past month: page proofs of my two books that are coming out in spring, a novel and a story collection (the latter a U.S. edition of a book already published overseas, a few years ago). Those in the publishing trade will know that page proofs are printouts, on standard letter-sized paper, of the "designed" pages of a book, which represent the way they'll actually appear in the bound, printed edition. When you see a mistake in this context, it looks horrible, like a turd on the Thanksgiving table. You really want to fix it. From the writer's standpoint, page proofs are also the last chance--your final opportunity to make changes before the book hits the stores.

Well--it's not necessarily the end. John Updike apparently has a shelf of every one of his books, with changes marked on the pages, for a projected posthumous omnibus edition. Henry James considered some of his early works little more than first drafts, and completely rewrote them late in his career. James Joyce famously added around 100,000 words to the Ulysses proofs by hand, driving his printers batty.

But for me, it really is the end. I don't think there's a Lennon Library of America edition in the cards, I'm afraid--and even if there was, when I send in the proofs, that's it. It's over. Indeed, I just made, via email, what is pretty certainly the last edit to the novel. And I corrected some mistakes in the other book, as well. (A writer who was sent the stories for a blurb, generously returned one--along with two pages of grammar and usage mistakes she'd found.) Thinking about my older stuff, there's no question in my mind that there's room for improvement. Some of it actually makes me wince to think about. But for some reason, I feel the need to be true to those former versions of myself, the ones who made those mistakes. The mistakes, in the end, are more important to me now than the rest.

Of course I didn't think they were mistakes at the time. I thought the first couple of books were perfect, when I sent the proofs in. I would never think that now, about anything I've written--I've come to accept the inevitability of imperfection (I know, I know--most of you had this epiphany when you were like 12. But cut me some slack). Back when my career was starting out, though, I wrote a book review for a small magazine, and when it was published, I was appalled to find some horrible mistake in it--I can't recall what the mistake was, some formatting error, I think. I actually took the editor gently to task for introducing this mistake into my work, and received a sincere apology.

Then I thought to check my original file on my computer, and, lo and behold, the mistake was mine. I couldn't believe it! It was the kind of mistake I would never make. I groveled to that editor like I'd run his only child down in the street. He was puzzled by the force of my shame, but he didn't realize the breadth of the transformation I was undergoing. The myth of my infallibility, already on shaky ground, had fallen into a crack in the earth. Good riddance!

Indeed, I even kind of like mistakes now. I like to find a typo in a great book, or a bum note in a good song. I like to see a microphone dangling over a movie scene, or a birthday cake with a thumbprint on it. That is, I like the mistakes that other people have made. I still hate my own, but I expect them now. The proofs I sent out yesterday are doubtless full of things that will embarrass me. But a little embarrassment is a good thing. And not just for other people.


rmellis said...

I am not obsessed with grammar or usage, and play it pretty fast and loose most of the time, but I really, really hate to see errors in printed books. It feels like the chilly finger of mortality.

What it really is is the world not caring.

Anonymous said...

I remember the first time, as a kid, that I realized the novel I was reading had an honest-to-God spelling error. It was actually a little unnerving, and shattered the reality of the story for me.

Of course, I also used to proudly show off my "1984" sequel (and prequel!) stories. A lot has changed since then.

Anonymous said...

I was shocked by the number of typos in the 2008 Da Capo Best Music Writing collection. Given that everything in the book aside from the introduction is a reprinted piece, I wondered how difficult it could have been to proofread. (One of the stranger typos- CD is rendered as DC. I had to read the sentence more than once, wondering what Washington had to do with the sentence, before I recognized the error).