Friday, August 13, 2004

Don't mess with my prose, man

By pure coincidence, yesterday brought two reminders that writers are, in some areas at least, sensitive souls.

First, I was reading (still) the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, and came across an item on Wilkie Collins. In 1875 The Graphic was serialising his novel The Law and the Lady, and the editor saw fit to delete a few lines from one paragraph. The paragraph in question described an incident in which -- steady now, steady -- a young woman was kissed on the hand. Worse yet, the dastardly fellow who had pressed his lips to her flesh also put his arm round her waist, and she was forced to cry out for help.

Well, I think you will agree that the editor had little choice but to curtail this paragraph, on the obvious grounds that it was objectionable.

Unfortunately, Wilkie Collins found the amended paragraph to be more than objectionable: he considered it actionable. He sent in the heavy mob, in the shape of his lawyers, who reminded the editor that the terms of The Graphic's contract with Collins required that the great man's prose had to be printed as it stood. And not as the editor thought it ought to stand.

In the next edition of The Graphic, therefore, the editor was obliged to print a grovelling statement in which he drew the readers' attention to what he had done, and what he was now forced to do, namely print the paragraph, all on its own, as the author had originally written it.

This had the effect, of course, of highlighting in the public eye something which otherwise would probably have passed unnoticed in 99% of households. As is usually the way with attempted censorship, sales of the book almost certainly went up as a result.

And here is another such incident, from more or less the present day.

Following the recent death of the once-famous newspaper columnist Bernard Levin, yesterday's Times carried a letter describing how Levin too had once objected to even a tiny alteration in his copy. Somebody on the staff of The Times, it seems, had had the temerity to change the phrase 'giants in the earth' to 'giants on the earth.' A small change but one which, I am sure you will agree, entirely distorted the sense of what Mr Levin had to say.

Levin wrote a note to the management of The Times, outlining this hideous crime, and saying that he had three comments to make to the person responsible:
  1. I would rather he didn't.
  2. He has involved me in the greatest crime in my calendar, to wit, misquotation (the phrase is from Genesis, generally attributed to God, who should know).
  3. Same as 1, above.

Yep, like I say, writers are sensitive souls, at least in some areas. You may, possibly, seduce their wives, embezzle their money, and steal their parking space, without so much as a murmur of reproof. But start tinkering with their punctuation, man, and you better watch out. They may just come looking for you with a sawn-off shotgun and blow your goddamn head off.

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