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Michael Crichton, Mr Toad, and the M&Ms
I was reading a forthcoming book recently, because I’m writing a review. It contained a quotation from another work:
Toad at his best and highest, Toad the terror, the traffic-queller, the Lord of the lone trail, before whom all must give way or be smitten into nothingness and everlasting night.
It was attributed to the children’s book Frog and Toad, which jarred. I stopped reading. It wasn’t that toad. It was a toad I knew though, familiar from childhood: Mr Toad, from Wind in the Willows. Renowned for heading out in his open wheeler, wearing goggles, a parody of an Edwardian showoff. (I double-checked and I was right).
This is a familiar awkward situation when you review a book. The galleys I get are often “uncorrected proofs”, but even then I know it is probably too late to make any changes.
One time I did communicate with the publisher, because there were so many errors. I felt terrible for the author, because I thought they had really let her down. But she had made some booboos of her own. Offhand comments such as referring to a child in 1840 “perhaps” having received a coloring book for Christmas. No perhaps about it. This would not have happened because the pigments and commercial creation of colored pencils didn't come in until the 1870s. It's a kind of trivial error that on the one hand means nothing. But on the other, leads you to question the rest of the book.
It’s hardly the first time I’ve encountered obvious blunders in published books. Sarah Vowell, whose work I’ve enjoyed, wrote in Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, about an “Andrew Lloyd Webber musical” based on a Victor Hugo novel. She obviously meant Les Miserables. Which was written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg.
I was listening to the audiobook, to Vowell’s sardonic delivery, familiar from her segments on This American Life. The punchline was “Andrew Lloyd Webber musical”, Webber being a composer so prolific as to be his own genre. A genre that readers would know, and nod along to Vowell’s hipster derision. The joke doesn’t work with “written by two French guys”.
Years ago, Michael Crichton coined the term "Gell-Mann amnesia effect", which describes the situation where you read a news report that is incredibly wrong, about a field or topic you know well. Yet you turn the page of the paper, forget that they’ve just proven their ignorance, and still take their word for it on topics with which you’re not familiar.
What I’m describing is the opposite: a small side error that gives me a creeping feeling. What else in this book is wrong that I didn’t notice? The book referring to Mr Toad is not about children’s literature, it’s not even an important discussion, but shouldn’t someone have checked the quote?
Little errors are like the brown M&Ms that Van Halen famously asked to be removed from their green room snacks before shows. They didn’t care about the candy. But if they saw a brown M&M, they knew the concert organizers had not read their “rider” (list of instructions) carefully, and thus they needed to check if anything else was wrong. They were putting on stadium shows with light displays and other technical elements that can go very wrong: the M&Ms were their warning sign of a potentially sloppy show manager.
I’m not naming the toad quote author here: he’s not famous and I always feel sympathy for the writers whose books I review. Even if I don’t like the result, I recognize they’ve devoted a chunk of their life to writing it. I also know that once the book has gone to print, there's nothing they can do to fix it, and I feel dickish to point out errors.
Like in personal situations, it feels polite to only point out things someone can fix right away (smudged lipstick, loose shoelace), not something they can do nothing about (terrible haircut). I also tend to be fairly kind to writers in general: the Dale Peck hatchet job is not my line.
But I also feel these authors not being well-served by publishers. Too many authors are expected these days to handle things that publishers once did, from copyediting to publicity. The days of a Maxwell Perkins line-editing an author’s work are sadly long gone. And freelance copyeditors will check your spelling and apostrophe placement, not whether you’ve attributed a musical to the wrong composer.
Feel free to point out my typos. I can fix them on here.