The Vortex of Authorial Avoidance

vortex_artWelcome to the vortex, the tourbillion, where we turn and turn in the widening gyre of authorial avoidance of whatever truly dire error we may have committed in the penning of our novel. Step right into the typeset proofs. There—feel that hot wind blowing at your neck? It’s urging you to seize on something—anything, so long as it is minute, fixable, of no importance to anyone save you and the managing editor, to obsess over until the deadline for returning the galleys. Let it draw you onward, inward, upward or outward, it doesn’t really matter, so long as your eyes keep searching for more of this tiny, irrelevant sort of error and you can keep them away from the glaring hole in your plot or the characters who don‘t really add up or the lame, disappointing ending. Keep them away, in other words, from anything that might require you to miss the deadline for returning the galleys, might even require you to (gasp!) rewrite a page, or three, or 10, and then there would be reflow. Heaven forfend—did someone just say reflow? No, we won’t have any of that, the costly business of laying out the typeset pages anew, worrying anew over widows and orphans and the proper alignment of pages and the need to have chapters begin on a recto. (That’s a right-hand page, but stay with me here; we’re in the thick of it now and have to think in Editorialese.)

You’re with me, right? You’ve found something. And not just one thing! Fortunately—oh, curious coincidence!—you’ve just finished the audio version of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a novel set mostly in Wellington (a.k.a. Cambridge), Mass., featuring both Americans and visiting British academics. The reader for the audio is great, does all the accents, but it’s weird. When he’s narrating from the point of view of the Americans, he still uses expressions like I’ll ring you up and He fetched his rucksack. Wow, you thought when you were listening in the car. Zadie Smith lived in the States for a while; you’d think she’d get those expressions right, or at least her editor would catch her. But now you turn to your galleys, because you’ve got recent Pakistani immigrants in the States, and what are they saying? I’ll call you. She grabbed her knapsack.

Focus. Obsess. Don’t make the mistake Zadie Smith got away with making. (And why did she get away with it? Because she published the book first in England, where they didn’t notice? Because she’s Zadie Smith? Yes, it’s a terrific book, so these little nitpickings don’t matter, but still.) Comb through the manuscript for all the places where people are calling each other on the phone. Where it’s the Pakistani characters, have them ring each other or phone each other. Where it’s a knapsack, make it a rucksack.

But wait. Zadie Smith grew up in England, though her mother was Jamaican. Maybe the English your Pakistani characters speak is different from what these American characters who are speaking Zadie-Smith English are speaking. You’ve spent lots of time with people in and from Pakistan, but you haven’t listened, not carefully enough. Go online. Look up “ring up versus call up” and “rucksack versus knapsack.” Lose yourself in the countless inane debates about these phrasings. Consider ring versus ring up. Think about backpack. Email your South Asian friends. Ask what expressions they use. Sit back and watch as they ping-pong back and forth between themselves over which generation or class uses ring or call and whether satchel or merely bag should be introduced.

Finally, as the deadline draws close, decide that you have discovered a small set of subtle tools to show the reader the various degrees of your characters’ assimilation, and the differing tones they use when speaking to each other or to elders. Deploy ring, phone, call, backpack, and bag accordingly. If the vortex has not quite sucked you in entirely, and you still suspect that there might be larger problems remaining in your precious novel even now, even as it is about to fly into the hands of reviewers, wake in the middle of the night. Remember that one of your Pakistani characters, at some point in the plot, needs to buy rain boots. Rush downstairs. Find the offending page. Cross out the words. In the margin, delighted with yourself, write Wellingtons.


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