Mithridates has sent me the link to Cormac McCarthy's interview with Oprah Winfrey, here -- you have to join Oprah's book club, but membership is free.
Oprah asked McCarthy about punctuation. He said at one point he had a job, he was working for someone who was writing a book that included excerpts from 18th-century writers, and he was given an assignment: Go away and fix the punctuation. So he read the texts. The writing was wonderful, he said, but the punctuation, there were semi-colons cluttering up the sentences, so he started on an essay, a piece by, it might be, Swift, and he went through and fixed the punctuation, and he gave it back to the professor who said that's just right. So he realised that punctuation was very important. He doesn't like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things.
Now, I like 18th-century punctuation; I like 17th-century punctuation; I like 16th-century punctuation; one of the things I love about Peter Ackroyd is the way he gets the punctuation right when he writes a text that is from another century. The punctuation is part of the texture of the text, and when I read that a text has been repunctuated for modern readers I go away and find another edition of the text. I like McCarthy's punctuation in McCarthy's texts, but I would rather not have it imported into the work of Jonathan Swift. The assumption that one has the right to repunctuate a writer's texts is in fact a very dangerous one, since it leaves modern writers open to all kinds of abuse.
Winfrey commented on McCarthy's punctuation, and the most interesting thing about this was that McCarthy did not say anything about how that punctuation got into the published text in the first place. A standard publisher's contract gives the publisher the right to conform the text to house style. If this clause is not changed, preservation of the author's punctuation is a matter of chance -- it depends entirely on the discretion of the publisher. If the clause is changed, however, this STILL doesn't guarantee that the author's punctuation will be respected.
When I was given an offer of publication I asked my lawyer to change the clause relating to house style; the book had many different kinds of punctuation, including a small boy's diary, and one could not require it to conform to some arbitrary standard. He changed the clause, so the contract gave me the last word on spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and so on.
The text was quite complicated, so I offered to meet the copy-editor before she started work. I had made a special trip to New York to try to settle possible difficulties in advance. I had five books that were coming up for completion; I was desperate to get back to them before they were gone; I wanted everything to be as simple and clearcut as possible. My editor called the copy-editor, who said she would rather work through the book first and send me her mark-up. The editor, copy-editor and production manager all assured me that the copy-editor's comments were only suggestions; I could change anything I didn't like, and then the book would be sent to the printer. I asked whether there were any points on which the editor felt strongly. If anyone wanted to make a case for some particular point I was happy to discuss it. The editor and copy-editor both said there was no point on which the editor felt strongly; no one wanted to make a case for any particular point. I reminded everyone politely that my contract gave me the last word.
The copy-editor made thousands of gratuitous changes to the book, for which she was, of course, paid an hourly rate. It was then necessary to go through the book thinking about these suggestions -- if someone has "corrected" a grammatical mistake, it is always possible that it is a genuine mistake, so one must consult various works on usage to ensure that one has not been wrong all these years. I went through, anyway, marking up the mark-up, and I again made a special trip to New York to make sure there were no problems.
The production manager looked through the book and she was very very unhappy, because I did not want to italicise titles of books and films, I did not want to use quotation marks around the titles of songs, I had used numerals in many cases instead of spelling out numbers below 100, I had used ALL CAPS WHEN A CHARACTER WAS OUTRAGED and told there was no need to get so excited instead of italics, which is the correct usage, or small caps, which is another possibility, and altogether the production manager was afraid the book would bring shame on Miramax if published with its author's grammar, spelling and punctuation.
The editor came back to the office; I assumed we would now have a discussion involving someone with a wider knowledge of literature. My editor has an undergraduate degree from Oxford in French and Italian; he has an M.Litt. for a thesis on Music and Montale; presumably someone who has read Montale &c. &c. The office was on the 55th floor of a building looking down Manhattan; it was so high you could see the East River and the West River and the end of the island, it was the office of a Master of the Universe.
In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.
I say: LOOK, if perceived norms did not exist it would not be possible to mark a text as departing from norms, it is not possible for the texture of a text to be different, to be perceived as original, without marking itself off from norms by departing from them.
I say: When Gertrude Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas she was not "Gertrude Stein", she was just Gertrude Stein, a writer doing what she thought was right for her text. It's not a question of justifying what's in a text by appealing to precedent; you do what is right for the text.
I say: Look at Frank O'Hara! Look at don marquis! This is America, where there is this idea that playing around with punctuation and usage is part of the vernacular, the AMERICAN way of doing things, when some artists started calling themselves "the New York School" it was a JOKE, this American idea that you can just have your own circus--
I say: Look, we give force to these rules by complying with them for the sake of compliance. The more people comply with them, the harder it is for others not to comply with them, the more non-compliance looks like the prerogative of genius rather than just what any writer can choose in doing what's right for--
They're looking at me in an embarrassed, pitying way, and it's kind of funny, because as it happens I am actually a, perhaps even the, world authority on this subject. I really am. The concept of propriety in ancient literary criticism was the subject of my doctoral thesis. It covered ancient criticism, rhetoric and theories of correctness of language from Homer to St Augustine, it took in sociolinguistics, it looked at the subject of linguistic Atticism, it looked at the whole tradition of Shakespearean scholarship with special attention to 18th-century objections to Shakespeare, it looked at the Homeric scholia, it did groundbreaking work on the conceptual difficulties raised by distinguishing propriety (which was seen as stylistic) from purity of language (which for ideological reason was meant to be neutral, a degree zero) -- not only was it a monster of erudition, it also brought to bear modern theories of language and literature. The problem is not that I am speaking from a position of ignorance. I am speaking from a position of knowledge to people who don't know what knowledge would look like. I am talking to people who are afraid that other people who also don't know what knowledge would look like will read the book and think it is full of mistakes.
I say I should have published the book myself. I leave. I go to Coliseum Books and I buy copies of All the Pretty Horses and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and some others I now forget, and I bring them back, and I say LOOK, and I show them passages in the books and how the punctuation is essential to the character of the books, and I say LOOK, Alice B. Toklas was not just some book that only a few people could get, it was INCREDIBLY POPULAR, and my editor says: But that was a very special book.
My editor says: Well -- I can never really tell until I've seen the typeset pages. Let's see what it looks like and then decide.
What this means is he would like to send the copy-editor's mark-up to the printer and present me with a fait accompli, so that it is then necessary to go through the text again and mark it up all over again. There is a chance that if they make it hard enough I will give up, I will not be willing to spend that much time on it, and also there is a chance that once it is actually typeset it can just stay that way and some unfortunate accident will prevent changes being made in time to affect the published text. And all this time I am desperate to get back to my five other books, so if I have to keep fighting for this one they will all be lost. (The whole time I watch the McCarthy interview I am thinking of this meeting in a room at the top of the world.) And I don't know what to do, because even if I utter more sentences, if I utter sentences about my contract, I can't stop them from sending whatever they want to the printer. I can't control what they do with the physical object. The production manager will do whatever the editor tells her to do.
I go to Washington to visit my mother. I think that perhaps, if I get the editor in a social setting, if I set up a dinner with the friends who first discovered the book, perhaps it will be possible to get him to see that this is ridiculous. The New Yorker has a Brooks Brothers buttoned-down collar approach to prose, but all books don't look like the New Yorker. So I set up the dinner. I go back to New York. The business manager at Miramax, Steve Hutensky, who first showed the book to my editor, is also coming. My editor and I get to the restaurant first. Then my friends Tim and Maude come. And then Tatum O'Neal, Steve's girlfriend, shows up unannounced, and we are all at the table waiting for Steve, and Tatum is talking vivaciously. Steve comes very late. It's loud, and there are too many people, and Tatum is talking about the histrionics of women these days at the Oscars, and it is impossible to talk about the book. This is my last day in New York; I don't have an agent; this is my only chance to make sure this is settled, but Tatum talks and talks and talks.
I have an e-mail exchange with my editor. My editor's boyfriend, Joe Dolce, had said FUCK the Chicago Manual of Style, and this had carried weight in a way that a world authority on propriety vs. purity of language had not. My editor says he thinks I may be right.
I go back to England. A couple of weeks go by. I get the proofs of the book. I start reading through, and I see something on the first page and think: Is that what I wrote? I thought I changed that. So I check the text on my hard drive, and this was not in the text. I don't have a copy of the mark-up I sent in (later other writers would say to me, you should ALWAYS keep a copy). I ask my publishers to send me a copy of the copy-editor's mark-up, and when it comes I can see places where I had written STET where the STET had been whited out, because the whiter-out had been careless and whited out part of the text.
So now I'm insane. All the other books have been driven out of my head. If I kill myself now, though, the book will go out looking like this, so I have to try not to kill myself before it is fixed. I ask my publishers to send me the copy-editor's original. I go through looking for incrustations of white-out. Poor crazy head. There are a couple of places where I wrote a long explanation in the margin of why the copy-editor's suggestion was not right, and in those places she had allowed the author's text to stay, so if I had written a long explanation for every single one of thousands of changes, explaining why the text as marked up was the way it was, this might have been acceptable in a way that merely writing the book was not.
The typesetter had made all the thousands of gratuitous changes, which were sent out in the Advance Reading Copies, and now he had to go through the text making thousands of changes, which meant that time he could have spent concentrating on Greek and Japanese was taken up with undoing copy-editor madness. Technical problems with Greek and Japanese were never resolved, so all the technical problems had to be solved by all the foreign publishers from scratch, so years, in the end, were disrupted cleaning up after all the problems caused by the copy-editor and production manager. McCarthy seems not to have gone through this.
McCarthy is laconic, with a deep voice. He's impressive. This is someone who had no doubt that he had improved on Swift by fixing the punctuation -- and in some cases rewriting sentences to accommodate the improvement. He's been lucky, though, because he never came up against an editor or a production manager or a copy-editor who decided his own texts were not fit to be seen.
Well, well. To say that it would be easy to go on for another 3,000 words is a slight understatement. My thesis was 100,000 words long and could well have been longer. It's hard to be sane. One tries not to write about King Charles' head. It was good to see the interview.