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CHARLIE CONNELLY: The greatest literary balls-ups in history

Naomi Wolf, American author, during the 2019 Hay Festival on May 25, 2019 in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

From Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes, howlers have long haunted writers. CHARLIE CONNELLY reports.

Every author will have experienced an icy lurch in their stomach when they read of Naomi Wolf’s recent travails over her new book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love, which explores the ways in which the British establishment during the 19th century sought to stigmatise and punish same-sex relationships.

Last month Wolf appeared on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme where she was interviewed about her book by Dr Matthew Sweet, who has written extensively on the Victorians and our modern perceptions of their morals and culture. Sweet picked up on Wolf’s claims, made during the interview, important to the basis of her argument, that she found records of “several dozen executions” of gay men during the 19th century in the records of the Old Bailey alone, which corrected, she said, “the misapprehension that the last man in Britain executed for sodomy was in 1835”.

“I don’t think you’re right about this,” said Sweet in his interview, pointing out that the term ‘death recorded’ meant that judges had actually abstained from handing down a death sentence. “I don’t think any of the executions you’ve identified here actually happened,” he added.

Despite this juddering blow to Wolf’s central premise the interview remained gracious and polite, with the author thanking Sweet afterwards and saying she would immediately seek to correct the error.

Her US publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt initially supported their chastened writer but on the eve of the book’s publication last week announced they were halting its release even with the initial 35,000-copy print run already shipped to distributors.

“As we have been working with Naomi Wolf to make corrections to Outrages new questions have arisen that require more time to explore,” a spokeswoman for the publishing house said. “We are postponing publication and requesting that all copies be returned from retail accounts while we work to resolve those questions.”

I can’t be the only author to have gone dry of mouth on hearing of Wolf’s predicament. While she isn’t a specialist in 19th century jurisprudence – although the book is based on the doctoral thesis she submitted to Oxford University – and it seems the core of her argument is still essentially supported by the criminal treatment of Victorian homosexuals, it’s a significant enough error for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to recall its print run.

That’s an expensive exercise and one usually undertaken in only the most serious circumstances. It’s every author’s worst nightmare, worse even than excoriating reviews or a book turning out to be a sales flop.

There’s a considerable and detailed process that goes into producing a book before it appears on the shelves. The author submits their manuscript which will then be read and annotated by at least one editor. After that it’s copy-edited then sent to a proofreader, the most up-to-date version of the manuscript being returned to the author at every stage to check and change before the book is finally typeset and printed.

That’s a hefty series of safety nets and any number of errors factual, grammatical and structural can be picked up, queried and, if necessary, altered at each stage of the process. It’s not an infallible procedure, however, and the facts and assertions contained in a book remain entirely the author’s responsibility.

Which is why every author will have sympathised to varying degrees with Wolf, especially as her error was pointed out in a radio interview available globally, when it would be shattering enough coming via email or letter.

A book is, to all intents and purposes, eternal. Once it’s out there there’s no going back, so any mistakes are preserved forever. I still receive occasional e-mails about two relatively small (but no less irritating to readers who spot them) errors in a book I wrote 15 years ago.

Minor alterations can be made when books are reprinted or when a paperback edition follows a hardback, but you have to know a mistake is there in order to amend it. In my case, even though those errors had been put right several editions ago, enough copies of the original are still in circulation to provoke correcting correspondence even today.

As I read about Wolf’s predicament I was just cobbling together a list of corrections to a book of mine that came out earlier this year in hardback ahead of the forthcoming paperback edition. The mistakes were relatively minor – I’d managed to spell one interviewee’s surname two different ways all the way through one chapter (a name that’s only four letters long), and elsewhere described how an Atlantic fishing fleet had apparently sheltered from a storm at a location 50 miles inland – but I only knew about them because readers had pointed them out to me.

If there is any salve for the souls of Naomi Wolf and those of us who live beneath the Damoclean Sword of Catastrophic Error it’s in the fact that it’s happened to the best of them. Some of literature’s biggest names have cocked up so we’re in decent company.

In John Keats’ On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, for example, the poet compares discovering Homer in translation to the experience of “stout Cortez when with eagle eyes, he star’d at the Pacific”. It’s one of the most frequently quoted lines of English poetry and a tremendous image, except Cortez wasn’t the first western explorer to see the Pacific, it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa.

In a key scene of Lord of the Flies William Golding has the children start a fire using Piggy’s glasses to focus the sun’s rays on some dried grass, but with Piggy being short-sighted the light absorbed by his spectacles would have been scattered, not focused on one point.

In another novel of island abandonment, Daniel Defoe has Robinson Crusoe swimming out to the sinking wreck of his ship to secure what supplies he can. Although Crusoe strips naked and plunges in, when he arrives at the wreck he is somehow able to fill his pockets with biscuits.

One of literature’s great sidekicks, Sherlock Holmes’s Dr Watson, was rather ill-served on occasions by his creator Arthur Conan Doyle: the bullet wound he suffered on military service in Afghanistan shifts from his shoulder to his leg in different novels while at one point Watson’s wife addressed him as James when his name is John.

Shakespeare was a serial offender, especially when it came to geography. In The Winter’s Tale he refers to ‘the coast of Bohemia’ when the region was very landlocked indeed while in The Two Gentlemen of Verona Valentine speaks of travelling from the eponymous city to Milan by ship, something that would have been impossible.

Granted there was no Google Maps nor even a Times World Atlas at the end of the 16th century but even so… And that wouldn’t excuse references to chiming clocks in Julius Caesar or billiards in Anthony and Cleopatra.

Even when the book is finished, edited and proofed to everyone’s satisfaction things can still go disastrously wrong. In 2010 for example there was the case of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, whose first UK edition was riddled with typographic errors after the typesetters used an early draft of the manuscript instead of the final one.

Around 80,000 hardback copies had gone out to shops by the time the error was noticed, with more than 8,000 already sold. Publishers HarperCollins were forced to set up a “Freedom exchange hotline” on which aggrieved readers could swap their copy for a correctly produced edition.

Another tremendous production error occurred in America last year, when an recall was required after the cover of a book detailing the history of Super Mario Brothers was accidentally printed around the pages of a volume of poetry called Grabbing Pussy that “lays bare the psychosexual obsessions that have burst to the surface of today’s American politics”. Which would have surprised the Nintendo fans who had bought copies. Or maybe it didn’t, who knows?

So numerous and wide-ranging are these potential pitfalls it’s a wonder any books emerge from the editing and production process unscathed at all. That’s not much consolation to Naomi Wolf, who came out slugging on Twitter last week when she learned the US publication of Outrages was to be postponed.

Objecting strongly to the decision, she claimed that Sweet had consulted unreliable sources and that “the heart of my book is not criminology though but censorship felt by pioneers such as J.A. Symonds who tried to speak about love”.

It’s completely understandable that she’d be defensive. A book like Outrages takes a massive amount of research and work and the very hint of a suggestion that large parts of its argument are based on a misinterpretation of two words in some old documents is absolutely horrifying, more than enough to have any author, particularly of non-fiction, waking up shouting in the middle of the night even when it’s not their book.

Every writer, whether they agree with her politics or not, will feel for Wolf. There but for the grace of deities go all of us. As well as fearing a rug-pulling email, when I do events and the floor is opened to questions I’m certain one of the hands going up will be a “you wrote on page… but I think you’ll find that…” that will destroy any shred of credibility I might have somehow retained. My most bizarre correction came via someone who’d emailed my publisher direct about a novella I’d written set in the late 19th century and structured in the form of a diary over several decades. This man had been through all the dates in the book, every last one, and found that a few had been assigned the wrong days of the week for the year in which they were set. I mean, he was right, but who even thinks of doing that?

Still, you never know, one day my date errors might make that book worth something. A bit like the greatest literary balls-up in history: the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’ of 1631 of which only around 10 copies survive, one of them selling at auction four years ago for £31,250. The reason for its scarcity and value is the rather spectacular error it contains among the Ten Commandments. Everything was going fine until the seventh, which read, “Thou shalt commit adultery”.

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