Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is e-publishing hastening the demise of editing?

Elizabeth Zelvin

No, I’m not talking about the debate on whether authors who self-publish do so to avoid professional gatekeeping. I’m talking about the untouched-by-human-eyes formatting of traditionally published books. I’ve been shocked to find that the purveyors of e-books don’t hesitate to sell the reading public text that would disgrace a high school student handing in a term paper in its inattention not only to spelling and grammar, but to accuracy and meaning.

I’m not talking only about free or 99-cent works in the public domain e-formatted by who-knows-whom. I paid $3.99 for the Kindle version of a favorite from my youth, Dawn’s Early Light, the first in Elswyth Thane’s series of historical novels set in Williamsburg, VA, this one just before and during the Revolutionary War. My paperback edition was crumbling to dust, and I wanted to be able to return to this perennial comfort read.

To tell the truth, I learned much of what I know about American history from these novels. (My husband, who learns his history from nonfiction written by historians, may laugh at me, but the truth is we have ended up with similar funds of information about the past. And let no reader whose knowledge of the Battle of Waterloo derives from Georgette Heyer cast the first stone.) The point is that I’ve read this book innumerable times in the course of a lifetime, and I remember big chunks of what it said.

Small but irritating errors were constantly throwing me out of my story trance as I reread the book on my Kindle. For example, the Prussian general Von Steuben, one of the Continental Army’s most helpful allies, was repeatedly referred to simply as Steuben.

(I suspect that xenophobic formatting software simply dismisses any word or particle that sounds “foreign.” I may have mentioned in another post how, in novels written in a gentler age when the use of the occasional French term was taken for granted, I’ve seen Kindle render habitué as “habitu” and congé (in the phrase “given his congé,” ie “dismissed”) as “cong,” not once but throughout a text. “Von”? Damned foreign bit of a word. Take it out!

In one section of the book, the protagonist, wounded, is rescued from the British and taken to the hidden headquarters of the Swamp Fox, the Continental guerilla leader Francis Marion. One of Marion’s officers, a Captain Horry, appears as a minor character. (The historical Horry, who was eventually promoted to general, wrote a book about the Swamp Fox. Like any celebrity author, he had a ghostwriter: Parson Weems, the same guy who invented the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.) Anyhow, Captain Horry’s name evidently inspired a painstaking copy-editing computer to make sure no Continental force harried the enemy but “Horried” it for a hundred pages before and after the captain’s appearance. It also conscientiously referred to George Washington’s cousin in the cavalry, of whom I’m sure you’ve heard, as Light Horse Horry Lee.

Does this matter to tomorrow’s readers? Probably not. They’re the kids who start thumbing on Mommy’s iPhone at the age of two and by their teens are texting their peers in a language that reminds me of Speedwriting, an abbreviated notation method that was heavily advertised on the New York subways in the 1950s as an easier kind of shorthand. (“If u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb.”) But if the next generation sees only butchered vocabulary and gaping holes in grammar, fact, and meaning, what will that eventually do to their capacity for coherent and critical thought?


Sandra Parshall said...

It's unforgivable that e-publishers are letting machines do the digital conversions of classics! Untouched by human hands indeed.

I hear a lot of complaints about typos, misspellings, etc., in self-published books, but I also know writers who pay to have their work edited before they upload it. I paid for one self-published book, though, and couldn't read it because the text was one long paragraph from beginning to end!

The few electronic ARCs I've downloaded from NetGalley (because I was going to interview the author or review the book) have really been a mess. No paragraph indents half the time, broken lines, etc. Regardless of the quality of the prose, this makes a book chore to read.

lil Gluckstern said...

I worry as much about the expectation of quality, and the speed with which we do things. I'm biased, but I worry about the "soul," if you will, trying to keep up with the texting, I want it now mentality. It seems to me that deep feelings take time to develop, and the grabbiness of the culture does not allow for this. Also there is the issue of respect for the consumer, and the laziness and dumbing down of what happens. I'm think I'm OT, but it's what I was thinning about.

Julia Buckley said...

Interesting--and distressing. Liz, it makes sense to me that you would learn history well within the context of a story, because it's the story's framework that gives you a way to remember.

Sandra and Liz, I agree and have seen similarly formatted text--so I wonder if one way to lessen the problem is for the e-publishers to make it not so difficult to format books for the web? I think that some people who start out with clean formats have them utterly scrambled by transferring them (mainly because they don't know enough about web publishing).

Lil, I agree with you, and when I see the extremely shallow lives held up as role models on reality tv, I can't help but think that all of these people will end up feeling, or feel now, a deep despair.

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