On Mistakes and Corrections
Updated: Feb 13
Further to the last blog on the trials, and perils, of copy-editing, those of you following me on Twitter might have noticed a recent exchange about an error discovered by a reader in Every Dead Thing. It was relatively minor, relating to jurisdiction in a particular Louisiana locale, but I could understand how distracting it was for the reader in question, given his personal knowledge. Mistakes take us out of the novel. They break the spell of fiction, however briefly. For that reason, as much as any other, they’re best avoided.
I like to think he meant well, but I did remark to him that it’s probably better – or “kinder,” which was the word I used – to let an author know about mistakes in a less public manner. Nobody really wants his or her faults put on display for all to see; to be made aware of an error in a book is mortifying enough without being forced to share one’s discomfiture with all and sundry.
I’ve written an essay for the UK edition of A Book of Bones to mark the 20th anniversary of Every Dead Thing, so I’ve been forced to reflect on that first novel a lot. The essay discusses some of the research I undertook for it back in the nineties, including extended trips to the United States, but the Twitter moment mentioned above subsequently caused me consider just how easy it is to research any subject these days, and how difficult it was when I began writing.
I was engaged as a freelance journalist with The Irish Times when I started work on Every Dead Thing, which would have been around 1994 or early 1995, I think. Back then, the first port of call for any news story requiring research was the newspaper’s library, which held physical cuttings files on people and subjects, as well as a microfiche record of back copies. It was surprisingly comprehensive for the time, thanks to the assiduousness of generations of librarians, but almost laughably limited by today’s standards.
About halfway through my time at the paper—so I’m guessing 1995 or 1996—the first Internet terminal was set up in the newsroom, and we were encouraged to use it. If I remember rightly, most of us were afraid to touch it for fear of breaking either the computer or the Internet itself, given that we weren’t entirely clear on what the Internet was, exactly. It sounded like sorcery. I don’t think I ever used that terminal.
In the summer of 1998, a few months after Every Dead Thing was acquired by publishers, I bought myself a Macintosh PowerBook with part of my advance, and that was the first point at which I had my own Internet access. Even then, it was slow (when it worked at all), and relatively expensive to use, and finding information was trickier than it is now. Every Dead Thing had already gone into production by that stage, and the copy-editing process was well underway. I suppose I was relying on the copy editors to save my blushes when it came to my most egregious errors – and they certainly did their utmost – but some mistakes still crept through, and far more of them than would evade correction today, simply because even the most obscure of details is easily checkable with a click of a mouse.
Also, the copy editors, like me, didn’t always know when, or if, something was wrong. A certain assumption of knowledge was involved. I had tried my best to get my facts right, especially given the constraints under which I was working, but I was attempting to write a novel set in a different country, with a different legal system, a different set of cultural assumptions, and a different use of language. I didn’t have a team of researchers, nor did I have anyone in the U.S. to whom I could turn for help. Looking back, I can’t believe I thought writing Every Dead Thing was a good idea, and it’s pretty clear now why there weren’t a whole lot of European writers attempting anything similar. In a way, I had set myself an impossible task, because there simply was no way that errors could be avoided. At best, one could only hope to limit the damage.
Two decades later, some of that damage is still apparent, as my Twitter correspondent noted. A few years ago, aided by Minion Clair, and those readers who had dropped discreet emails to let me know about errors either factual or grammatical, the Parker novels were given a gentle clean, but I’ve resisted a more significant reexamination of them. That way lies madness, and I have other books to write. But I also feel that, in some ways, the errors are now part of the novels. They are the equivalent of the painter’s fingerprint on the canvas, or the misplaced notes in the symphony. They are evidence of human frailty, but also – strangely – a reminder to me of the lengths to which I went in order to write the best books I could at that particular time, and of how much I managed to get right.
As in life, the consolation is not that I did not make mistakes, but that I did not make more of them.