I was commenting on Maprilynne's blog today, and I found myself waxing philosophical about the nature of perfection in writing, and I realised as I went on and on, that maybe this would be a good topic for a longer discussion.
And lo and behold a blog post was born!
Basically the thing is, I am seeing books in whole new light now that I have a much more intimate knowledge of how the publishing world works. Books to me have always been very concrete things, unlike something like theatre which is more transient (ooh, transient, good word Adrienne). You can take pictures of a play, write a detailed report of it, even video it, but none of those methods can actually reflect what it feels like to sit in the theatre and watch it. But a book, like a painting, is a thing. A thing that people have been looking at for possibly generations, a thing that hasn't changed since it was first produced (okay so yes there can be newer editions, and subsequent edits, but the To Kill A Mockingbird of today is the same To Kill A Mockingbird of yesterday).
So my point is books are permanent. When we do research papers and use a book, we are diligent to footnote our source. We get into debates over the specific quote from a novel, "No it isn't 'in a house' it's 'within a house'." A book, you see, is like a bible. Which is also a book. And while we may not respect the object itself, my books are always quite tattered, we respect the words within them with an almost religious fervour.
Okay now you are an author. Writing your merry little way and you get an email telling you that your copy edits are due ASAP and you need to go over everything. You get last minute editorial requests where you assumed there was not possibly anything else to change. And it keeps happening. Things keep changing. Up to the very last moment (I'm not at the very last moment yet, but I am pretty darn sure of this statement nonetheless). And it has suddenly occurred to you that books, this work of art, this tangible unchanging thing that you revere so highly, is actually, the best all parties could do at the moment with the time they had.
I don't think there is an author out there who reads over their finished product and doesn't wish for some changes here and there. How could there be when each time I and my friends read over our work, for some new form of edit, we can find a ridiculous number of things to fix. Okay again, sweeping generalisation, possibly there is an author out there who feels there is nothing more they could have done to their book. But I am almost positive that most of them do not.
Oh sure you don't hear them speak about it often. But this is like the movie stars promoting these films that they know suck (Will Smith talked once of how guilty he felt promoting Wild Wild West because he knew how bad it was). It isn't quite that extreme, I mean just because the MS could be fixed, doesn't mean the author still doesn't love it, but you don't go around promoting your work pointing out every typo and inconsistency in your writing. And so we the readers see the confident author, reading aloud from their book. And we the readers pick up the beautiful turned out MS and relish every word as if they were the only possible words that could have been picked. And if there is an error that we stumble across we shake our heads and wonder why the author chose to do that.
In the end, perfection is impossible, everyone knows it. But I have to say I am comforted slightly by the knowledge that most every book out there was subject to a deadline, to pressured edits, and plain human error. It makes the pressure I put on myself a little less daunting, knowing that like most every author before me, I will never fully live up to my own expectations. That that's just the way it is, and how it has always been.
And that while the author of that work you so admire still did everything in his/her power to write the best possible book, and that while often a piece of writing can seem to be so close to flawless there is little point in arguing why it isn't, that that same author is out there somewhere with clenched fists staring at page, 135 let's say, and thinking, "If only I could just fix that one bit, then, then it would be perfect."