Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Importance of Editing

Let the Right One In is a novel -- originally published in Sweden -- which was made into a well-received movie released in 2008. I'd seen the movie and, when I came across the book in a bookstore one day, read the first few pages. I really wanted to read the rest, but wasn't "shopping" that day, so set it down and planned to see about reading it later.

Recently, I splurged on that book and one other (for the free shipping) from Amazon. I started reading the book eagerly. Only about 20 or so pages in, though, I was briefly distracted from the story. The book opens in Sweden in 1981. One part reads: "[he] studied the contents of his bookcase. An almost complete collection of the series Goosebumps..." Huh? Goosebumps books were around that long ago? I didn't remember them being around when I was that young. Well, OK, maybe they started out being written/printed in foreign countries and only made it to the US later?

It bugged me enough that I had to look it up. And, as far as I can tell, the Goosebumps books weren't in print in 1981 and there doesn't seem to be any other sort of book, comic, etc. which I've been able to track down and which was in print at that time. I even considered the possibility that this was just a replacement series name for a series which would be known in Sweden but foreign to English-language readers. Given that, later in the book, some magazines are referred to by Swedish titles rather than having American/English analogs substituted in, though, this seems unlikely.

So, unless there's something I've missed (entirely possible), someone made a mistake here. Either the author or the translator created an anachronistic reference in the story. Whoever made the mistake, the editor(s) didn't catch it either. And, it's not like this is some esoteric topic that you'd never expect a literary editor to know anything about. It's, you know, books.

So what? Well, the confusion it created distracted me from what the author was really trying to do -- tell his story. It seems like book editing in general is less robust than it used to be. It seems as if most recently-published novels which I read have one or more obvious spelling errors in them. With older books, this seems to have been less common, though perhaps not as much among cheap paperback houses. When I come across these errors, it has the same effect, though usually less dramatic, as this Goosebumps issue. For a moment or two I'm thinking about the mechanics of reading rather than being tuned into solely to the story.

And while this may be only a nuisance in fiction, it can be downright credibility-wrecking in non-fiction. Consider the recent kerfuffle over Investor's Business Daily choosing Stephen Hawking as their example of someone who "wouldn't have a chance in the U. K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless." Now, one can discuss the merits and truthfulness of their overall point, but there's a big problem which -- if they'd wanted to be convincing -- should have been caught in editing. Stephen Hawking's, well, British. When such a basic fact as that has been totally botched, it can lead many readers to question the validity of the entire rest of the piece their reading.

Note that this isn't a screed against casual writing in blogs, tweets, etc. There's nothing that says every word written down has to be edited to death and fact-checked by an independent party. But when you're trying to get people to pay money for your books or believe your ideas, it makes sense to put some extra effort into not having glaring mistakes in your writing.

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