Caveat Author; Caveat Reader

It began innocently enough. I borrowed a hardback copy of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins from one of my daughters, after seeing the movie with my other daughter. And I was engaged. [Spoiler alert for material preceding the line of asterisks.]

I had followed Katniss from her home in District 12 to the arena, where—disobeying Haymitch’s advice—she had grabbed a pack before speeding away from the Cornucopia to seek water. Hours later, hearing the cannons reporting the number of dead in the bloodbath at the opening, she fears for Peeta and finally stops to open the pack for which she risked her life.

The description of what is and is not in the pack should only heighten the mood. But, in fact, it can end up destroying the tension completely because it ends with this description of the last item:

“And a half-gallon plastic bottle with a cap for carrying water that’s bone dry (p. 154).”

Now, me, I figure you can carry water that’s bone dry in your pocket, dispensing with the need for both bottle and cap . . .

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The occurrence of this misplaced modifier destroyed for me the growing sense of alarm at Katniss’s circumstances because it broke my suspension of disbelief, thrusting me out of the terror of the arena in the future, back to a cynical take on the present in which so much of what is published suffers from not enough attention in the editorial process.

My immersion in the world of Panem (aesthetic reading, using Louise Rosenblatt’s term) toggled to critical analysis (efferent reading; Rosenblatt), as I took a moment to decipher what had gone wrong in the sentence and wonder how such a thing had come about.

One hears many complaints these days about the rafts of typos and other errors  in eBooks, but hardcover books are supposed to be premium quality items . . .

I used this particular example because of its potentially dramatic effect on readers, given what the author is trying to do at that moment, not to point the finger at this particular author or publisher, so let’s move on from that to a broader discussion, with a focus on the reader’s experience.

In his essay “Twice-Told Tales,” Edgar Allan Poe discusses the effects of reading on the reader as part of  his high praise of the short story, or brief tale, which he distinguishes from the novel:

“As the novel cannot be read at one sitting, it cannot avail itself of the immense benefit of totality. Worldly interests, intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, counteract and annul the impressions intended. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out his full design without interruption. During the hour of perusal, the soul of the reader is at the writer’s disposal.”

Poe goes on to speak of the “single effect” that is wrought on the reader by the brief tale, but not by the novel. But I’m going to stick with the paragraph quoted and ask what application it might have, if any, to the novel-reading experience.

Clearly, many novels cannot be read in a sitting, both because of the demands of daily life and because of the length of some novels—Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (846 pages) all in one dose? I think we can take it that there will be breaks. Nevertheless, haven’t we all experienced periods of immersion in which we were “lost in a book” and felt that “during the hour of perusal, [our soul was] at the writer’s disposal”? I believe it is possible for the novel to transport the reader, even if the excursion is interrupted.

Poe also discusses ways in which an author may miss the mark in creating the desired effect on the reader. And, of course, there are many authors who—as Poe puts it—”blunder” in achieving what they set out to do (fyi, he focuses on Nathaniel Hawthorne, whence his title).

But Poe did not conceive, and we must, of a book’s effect on the reader being diminished by the failure of the editorial process or the failure of the writer to choose to employ any editorial process and go straight from manuscript to (self-)published book.

Even the most fastidious authors with the most eagle-y eyes that ever graced non-avian creatures may mar the effects of their writing by skipping over the editorial process. Effects may also be diminished by editorial teams who, for one reason or another, fail in their due diligence.

A reader whose suspension of disbelief is interrupted has no recourse. Of course, the reader could write in a correction on the page of a print book, but that may only add to the distraction. No, the reader is, in this regard, at the mercy of the writer and—if there is one—the publisher and its staff, and the time and focus they give, or don’t, to the editorial process.

Of course, I have only discussed works of the imagination here, not informational works, like textbooks, but I think it’s more obvious that factual works need careful checking before being unleashed on the reading public.

Where does this lead us? To this, if nothing else: it seems to me that given the potential impact in both literature and non-fiction, the importance of the editorial process should play a larger role in the discussion of the future of books.

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