A few days ago, news broke that the U.K. edition of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom was riddled with tiny errors, because the printers had inadvertently used the last-but-one version of the text. Instead of the version to which Franzen had added his final amendments, they used the one before. This meant losing a few tweaks affecting characterisation, he says, but mainly he lost thousands of improvements to vocabulary and phrasing.
My sympathy for Franzen is so intense that I feel like weeping. If this happened to me, I would rage, I would moan; I would ask why the gods hated me. Every time I saw a copy of the thing in a bookshop, I would die a small death and wish I'd never written it at all. Better to have no book than to have one still haunted by those flabby adverbs and unnecessary intensifiers that you had eliminated just in time. Franzen spent nine years writing Freedom: I suspect this matters to him.
The good news is that Franzen is probably the only one who notices. The writer cares about every word; readers are less likely to bother, not because they are slapdash people but because they are reading. Just as a canoeist does not notice a pebble out of place on the bottom of a stream, few readers notice itsy-bitsy imperfections in a book. This is so even when the readers are themselves writers. Yesterday's Guardian article quotes Blake Morrison, who reviewed Freedom; he sympathised with Franzen just as I do, but he had spotted nothing wrong.
This is a comforting truth - but it's not quite a full truth. Of course it matters. A finely sanded, polished, cliche-free text tells a better story. It conjures up images more clearly, and its characters breathe more freely. They are easier to love or hate or care about.
So I still weep for Franzen - even if Franzen is the only one who sees the pebbles out of place.
I was reading this news over breakfast yesterday - a fry-up with black pudding in Wigtown, Scotland, where I had gone to talk about Montaigne at the Wigtown Book Festival.
After breakfast, but before my talk, I walked through the town, a place filled with bookshops and cafes. In one cafe window I saw this: a collection of customers' favourite words, contributed, transcribed, and hung up to flutter in the breeze.
Then I bought a book, in one of Wigtown's second-hand shops: Canoe Errant on the Nile, by Major R. Raven-Hart.
Published in 1936, it's the story of his paddle up that river in search of all kinds of things. He writes about crocodiles, temples, folk stories, Islam, and emperors. He talks about rowing in his canoe in the nude ("unless a sun-helmet and sunglasses count as clothes"). And he prefaces it all with an announcement of his main purpose in making the trip. He says: "I wanted to test a pet theory about the way Egyptian sculptors worked, based on the study of museum exhibits. It proved quite false, and there is nothing about it in this book."
How beautiful is that? I bought Major Raven-Hart because of that sentence. I'm planning to give it someone today, as a gift - someone I know would appreciate it - but meanwhile the book is sitting on my desk smiling at me. It seems to want to tell me something. I think it wants to say that error can be a nasty little gremlin, but it can also be a magnificent achievement.