Old Bernard wasn’t so bad after all

Bernard Levin, never my favourite journalist, did once rail against sloppy editing in books. He included some of the major publishing houses in his tirade, which coincided with a decline in the quality of binding, particularly where stitching of pages had given way to cheaper, but patently inferior, glue. I am always buying second-hand books printed in the early decades of the 20th century which look as though they will outlive me. I reach for one at random, my hand obviously and appositely guided by some Levinesque spectre. It is Essays In The Art Of Writing, by Robert Louis Stevenson, published by Chatto & Windus in 1917. I can’t believe I’m only its second owner. It is hermetically sealed against destruction and, for sure, it won’t confuse a defining clause with a non-defining one.
     When I was a daily-newspaper sub-editor, I was appalled at the gaffes of this sort that regularly slipped into print. My astonishment was compounded by the redundant and wasteful character of newspaper production before old-style ‘hot metal’ printers became obsolete. A reporter typed something which was then sub-edited after being ‘tasted’ for its news value and length. (Tasting was a specialised editorial task which, on the basis of professional self-respect alone, should have included a modicum of grammar-checking.) The ‘subbed’ text was then ‘set’ again by a Linotype operator, often a wiseacre who liked nothing better than spotting a split infinitive, or worse, and bringing it physically to the chief sub’s attention after a long journey from below stairs. It was always embarrassing because he was invariably right. Nor did the repetitive checks end there. Linotyped reports were scrutinised by proof-readers (always accompanied by a bored ‘copy-holder’), then, in theory, nit-picked by a ‘stone sub’ when the report was in place on the page and finally checked in the page’s printed form. And still the unrelated participles got through.
     My theory, which applies to Levin’s trawl of book howlers as well as to those pointed out recently by Lynne Truss and his other outraged heirs, is that the rash of illiteracy they reflect – one hopes it is a rash and not a terminal condition – originates with the elevation of the unread to positions of power in publishing and the coincidental triumph of form over content. To my further amazement, few of those newspaper barbarisms were ever commented on by the editor and brought to the perpetrators’ notice. Perhaps there were so many of them (culprits) that the editor couldn’t be bothered. Or, maybe, bad grammar wouldn’t have registered anyway, so exclusive were the claims of page design and other journalistic skills as newspapers battled to halt dwindling readerships.
     As I recall, Levin didn’t get much worked up about the errors he complained of. He was therefore much like those other aloof keepers of the literacy flame, Fowler and Partridge, who commonly refer to them as though they were perpetrated by the lower orders and not to be considered a threat to civilisation. Truss, in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, at least admits to boiling over every time she sees a ‘Pick You’re Own’ sign outside a market garden, but in other respects implies that books, especially her own, are free of improper usage. This one must have been, because its subject-matter demanded that it should be tooth-combed with the tenacity of a fact-checker on the New Yorker. I’m not so sure about others, or about the capacity of the book trade in its printed paper form to escape it. The use of a comma rather than a full-stop to separate two sentences is so rife that it is now on the verge of being acceptable, even though it can never make sense aurally. Mis-spellings are everywhere: miniscule for minuscule is one of he most common.
     While many see the worldwide web as a mountain of illiterate sludge, it is also the place where those concerned about shoddily-edited books are most likely to air their views. In one, there’s a criticism of a prize-winning novel in which leaves on trees in Britain are said to turn first red then yellow. This might not be ungrammatical but it does indicate an editor who is sleeping on the job. My experience was that ‘subs’ who missed simple factual errors never did so because they were too busy ensuring that indirect speech necessitated a change of tense, but because they were uneasy about whether or not the changes – often cuts – they were making were improvements. In other words, a lack of general knowledge was related to a poor grasp of the rules of English in an atmosphere of distraction. Perhaps editing is no longer considered an important task in publishing, beyond the need to make a script saleable to the greatest number of book-buyers. Some magazine publishers are getting rid of sub-editors altogether. Missing or unnecessary commas might seem immaterial in that context, especially when an increasing number of readers and writers seem not to be too bothered about them.
     On the other hand, it’s probably a mistake to think that the creeping illiteracy of the internet, such as Facebook-ese and Twitterspeak, will reflect itself in books, traditional or electronic. Book publishing and the readers and writers who make it possible represent a circumscribed entity, inside which changes in the use of language, for good or ill, will be slow. The internet’s significance, however, lies in the way it has vastly extended the written word as a means of communication almost overnight: the phone is dead; long live the text. The internet, as well as its transforming good, gives us the benefit of people’s inability to write, otherwise confined to the shopping-list. With more and more unmediated (unedited) writing appearing as prolix comment, it won’t be long before individuals will ‘publish’ their books by simply uploading them. Then, all the frightful solecisms picked up by Levin will be sanctioned by the ignorance of a new reading public with no time for the book as we have come to know it. (Have I said that before? I’ve said it before.)

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