Essay: Proofreading and Narrative Voice

In my review of Siddhartha, I commented on the quality of the eBook copy that I read, which included a number of off-putting typographical errors. In that instance, I would assume that it was due to the quality of the digitisation procedure used by the Gutenberg Project. However, since it’s been in the forefront of my mind, I’ve been noticing misspellings and odd grammar more regularly than I ordinarily would (That’s not to say that I don’t normally notice, it’s just that I often get so immersed in the story that I can’t see the trees for the forest, to invert an expression).

For example, I’m currently reading The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, which features as one of its protagonists, a Hasidic Jew. During a long explanation of the history of Hasidism, (in which the name and its derivative are used many times), at one point “Hasidim” is misspelt as “Jasidim”. It’s just sloppy, and while I’m loving the book, I can’t help but think that it’s a fairly major thing to miss, especially with the technology that is available to a major publishing house such as Penguin.

However, I’d argue that there is another aspect of proofreading that people often overlook: Voice.1
I don’t mean that everything should be written in perfectly regimented academic English, rather that your characters have to speak and think in ways that make sense. Sometimes this can happen when there’s a long gap between books in a series, or if one volume is written by a different author. A particularly good example of this is Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Prose was not Adams’ primary medium, and so over the course of his five books, particularly Mostly Harmless, the last instalment he wrote, the character’s voices vary wildly. This is continued in the posthumous novel And Another Thing, written by Eoin Colfer. Despite Colfer’s engaging personal writing style, he completely failed to grasp either Adams’ own narrative voice (which was at least consistent) or that of his characters, which ultimately ruined the book.

The most egregious example I’ve come across, and perhaps the easiest to have changed was Audrey Niffenegger’s Our Fearful Symmetry, which I’d say is one of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. I really enjoyed The Time-Traveller’s Wife, but there was so much wrong with this book, most of which I’m not going to go into. What’s relevant here is that even though most of the book is set in contemporary London, and most of the characters are Londoners who have lived their entire lives in the Hampstead, a particularly posh area, they all spoke American English. Not so much spellings, that was at least localised, but just using phrases that they as characters would never use, like the septuagenarian woman dealing with her mail rather than her post, taking a cab, not a taxi, and riding the subway, not the underground. Nothing big, but enough to pull me out of the book and to be honest it makes Niffenegger look like a second-rate author.
It would have been so easy to fix as well; just to get a Londoner to proof-read would have solved one major problem. Of course, the weird scene where one of the characters is perving over an episode of Doctor Who, the frankly bizarre plot twists and unlike-able characters would still have made me hate the book, but at least it would have been more technically well-written.

I realise it’s very easy to make mistakes; everyone does, but that’s why publishing houses employ proofreaders, and why I’m still a wary about buying self-published books, because for every author that’s put care and effort into their work, there are ten others with delusions of competence who haven’t put the necessary work in.

1 I guess that technically this isn’t strictly “proofreading”, as it has little to do with the proof of a manuscript, but in common parlance I think it’s covered.

Year of a Hundred books – #2 Siddhartha

I used to volunteer at the Oxfam Bookshop on Byres Road in Glasgow.  Being one of the busiest in the country, there was  quite a high turnover of classic literature (in addition to the hundreds of Dan Brown and the like). As they rely on donations, the consistency of the stock would vary quite a bit, and predictably, would tend towards the famous. For a time, there was a list of Nobel Laureates for Literature taped to the shelf, so that people sorting through the donations could keep an eye out for them. Around the same time, I found  a copy of Haldor Laxness’s Independent People, which I liked the sound of. Somewhat rashly, I decided that I would embark on a quest to read at least one work by every Laureate. Somewhat unsurprisingly, my resolve weakened fairly quickly. I hated Independent People, and as soon as it came to exam season that year, I promptly forgot my pledge.

Fast forward about three years, and when I looking over the list of book’s I’d read this year, there was quite a high proportion of Sci-fi/Fantasy titles. Which is fine, it is the genre(s) I prefer, but it gets a bit dull just reading the same style of book. So, logically, the solution to that is Nobel Laureates… Right? I’m not going to aim to exhaust the list during this year, but it’ll be there to add some variety to my reading.

SiddharthaSiddhartha, by Hermann Hesse


Siddhartha is probably better than I give it credit for, and this rating reflects quite a bit on the  quality of the version I was reading. Being an impoverished graduate, I turned to the Gutenberg Project for the text, which I think was a mistake. I’ve never had a problem with Gutenberg before, but this text was rife with typographical errors that made it quite difficult to really get into it. Coupled with a particularly verbose 1950’s translation from the German, it wasn’t a particularly fun experience to read.

That said, the actual book wasn’t bad. I’m well familiar with the Buddha legend, and (thanks to a first year course in Eastern Religion), have a passable understanding of Buddhism. I had assumed, knowing the subject matter of the book, that the Buddha was the eponymous Siddhartha. However, while the Buddha does appear, he is referred to only by his family name, Gotama. Instead Siddhartha is essentially a Bildungsroman for a young Nepali man with a sort of parallel understanding of early Buddhism. Siddhartha  rejects his heritage first to become an ascetic along with his friend Govinda, then upon meeting the Buddha and being unimpressed, has a crisis of faith and returns to the world, before eventually achieving Enlightenment as a ferryman over a river.

I did find myself wondering, because of the way Hesse refers to the Buddha and to his title character, if the book was intended to be a sort of “parallel origin legend” of Buddhism, in the same way that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was for Christianity. If this is the case, it was certainly done a lot more subtly than Pullman’s effort, although maybe that’s just because I’m less familiar with the topic at hand.

Either way, and interesting as it was, some of the philosophical discussion did get  a little repetitive. On top of this, almost all of the dialogues would take the form of “Quoth Siddhartha…”, “Quoth Govinda…”, “Quoth Siddhartha…” and so on. I don’t know if that’s an artefact of translation or if that’s how the original reads, but it got tedious after a while.

That said, as a fictional demonstration of basic Buddhist theology, Siddhartha is as good as any, and it’s worth reading for that alone. As I said above, I’d recommend to steer clear of the Gutenberg version and try for one of the newer translations.