In recent posts, I've taken one book to task for misusing a word, another for its surfeit of dialogue tags, and a third for using a word not coined until the 1960s though its story takes place in 1953.
More recently, I picked up a book that uses a word in a sense it did not acquire until years after the date when the book is set, and last night, a misused homophone/heterograph momentarily marred my enjoyment of one of the most moving, exciting crime novels I have read in years.
Since you're likelier to hear tales of ludicrous copy editing changes than thanks for errors caught before publication, we proofreaders and copy editors must blow our own horns or rely on critics to say what we would say if we thought anyone would listen.
Discovering the Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade, another invaluable book about Dashiell Hammett from the good folks at Vince Emery Productions, offers some delightful examples from Hammett's days as a mystery-fiction reviewer for the Saturday Review of Literature and the New York Evening Post.
Here's Hammett on The Benson Murder Case by S.S. Van Dine:
"This Philo Vance is in the Sherlock Holmes tradition and his conversational manner is that of a high-school girl who has been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary. He is a bore when he discusses art and philosophy, but when he switches to criminal psychology he is delightful. There is a theory that any one who talks enough on any subject must, if only by chance, finally say something not altogether incorrect. Vance disproves this theory: he managed always, and usually ridiculously, to be wrong."Can you imagine caring enough about what you read that you would write something like that?
Here's Hammett on Sydney Horler's 1926 novel False-Face. Besides lampooning Horler's ludicrous plot and his contempt for seemingly every nationality but his own, he makes fun of Horler's sloppy sentences:
"Scotland Yard promises to `safeguard the safety' (page 29, if you think I spoof) of an American inventive genius who has business with the British government."Now, what is a reader to do, especially if that reader happens to be a copy editor in his professional life and, moreover, a copy editor who has heard authors complain that publishers expect authors to pay for editing that publishers would have paid for twenty years ago? Shrug off mistakes with the bland acceptance that nothing is perfect? Bang one's head against the wall and shout that the world is going to hell?
I don't know the proper course, but I sure wish reviewers and critics would follow Hammett and highlight defects in the form as well as the substance of books they write about, because there really is no difference between form and substance when it comes to writing.
© Peter Rozovsky 2011