Somehow I suspect that Jonathan Franzen doesn’t need me to feel his pain. But all the same, I do. He has just demanded the shredding of something like 80,000 copies of the UK edition of his book Freedom because the wrong version of the proofs was used for the final printing, containing lots of little typos and omissions of corrections. Several reviewers have admitted that they’d never have noticed the difference, but that’s not the point. It’s not so much about perfectionism as a kind of pride. I have never, like Franzen, taken nine years to write a book, and I don’t have the ability, and probably not the inclination, to choose words as carefully and precisely as he evidently does. But all the same, I know that errors introduced in the production process feel like a two-year-old has just scribbled over your pages – like mindless or wilful destruction. I know this is unfair – no one in the production process is trying to do other than perform their job well – but that’s how it feels. What is particularly galling is that, unless you’re Franzen, one these errors have happened, you’re stuck with them forever. It arouses that childhood feeling of a terrible injustice that you are utterly powerless to rectify. And it happens in the swanky hardback version, the version that is meant (unlike the paperback) to be an object of beauty. There are one or two pages of my previous books that I still mustn’t look at for fear that I’ll start fuming all over again.
There have been times when I have been driven to conclude that, if you leave typesetters the slightest opening for introducing a mistake, they’ll seize it. Many times I have said to myself that I would in future always insist on seeing the final, final version of the proofs before they go off for printing, only to feel, when the time came, that this would seem just too much like the neurotic author – and then to regret not doing so. It does amaze me that typesetters will interpret letters in handwritten proof corrections in such a way as to turn a perfectly obvious and ordinary word into gibberish – sometimes you can’t help feeling they are just having a laugh. And publishers often seem to feel no need to double-check corrections, or so it seems. Oh, I’m sure typesetters must be confronted with some real nightmares sometimes – pages covered in wild scribbles connected by a maze of looping arrows. I have occasionally done them no favours myself. But there just don’t seem to be enough checks built into the publishing process, which seems bizarre given how tough it is to get a book published and how cautious publishers have become about commissioning.
I exempt my current publisher, Bodley Head, from these criticisms – not simply to keep them sweet, but because they are undoubtedly the most careful and conscientious I have ever worked with. Of course, that is inviting trouble, especially with a stack of proof corrections sitting on my desk right now (February 2011, since you ask). And worse: when I read that the typesetter for Franzen’s book was a company called Palimpsest, it rang a bell. So I checked out my own pages… yup.