Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pulping fiction: Franzen's London nightmare

Novelist Jonathan Franzen has had about the worst trip to Europe of any American artist since Frank Zappa in 1971. Zappa, you might or might not remember, had a nightmare. He lost all his equipment in a fire in Switzerland (although the incident did inspire Deep Purple's Smoke On The Water, which can't be a bad thing); then, when he got to London, an audience member who thought Zappa was eyeing up his girlfriend pushed him off the stage and broke his leg.

Franzen seems to have survived physically unscathed, but he must be wondering what he's done to offend his muse for so much misfortune to have befallen him in just a few days. He was late for a BBC interview because his taxi failed to show up, and then his glasses were stolen from under his very nose – well, actually on his very nose – at a literary party on Monday night. A ransom of $100,000 was demanded (but not paid, because the miscreants were caught), which might have delayed his next novel for longer than the nine years it's taken for the present one, Freedom, to come out. The prankster, caught after the police deployed a helicopter (no, really) quickly confessed all to GQ magazine.

But that wasn't the worst of it. During a reading of Freedom on TV last Thursday for the BBC's Newsnight, Franzen suddenly stopped and said, “Sorry, I'm realising to my horror that there's a mistake here that was corrected early in the galleys and it's still in the fucking hard cover of the book.” Yes, the publisher had printed an early draft of the book instead of the final version. And not just any book. This is possibly the greatest novel of the decade so far. Hands up who would have wanted to be an employee of publisher HarperCollins on Friday morning…

Now, I have to confess that I have some friends who work on the Fulham Palace Road so I can't betray any confidences, except to say that the publisher deserves less blame than you might think (and none of that blame goes to Franzen, in case you're wondering). Using the wrong version of a file is an easy mistake to make and we've all done it, but not in a way that forces a major publisher to pulp tens of thousands of copies of the greatest novel of the decade. I totally sympathise with Franzen, who reportedly will spend months agonising over a comma and the quality of whose work justifies that care, but my heart goes out to the more modestly paid people at the publisher who will carry the can for this.

But there are two wider issues that are worth considering: the difference between digital and print publishing and the nasty little business of marketing.

If physical books were dead, as many predict they soon will be, then this would hardly be a story. Download the updated version on your iPad or Kindle, and away you go. It costs the publisher next to nothing. The Franzen calamity was a big issue because the digital future isn't with us yet, and HarperCollins is now facing a monstrous bill to recall, pulp and re-issue the novel; not to mention the blow to its prestige. But it also raises questions about the permanence of the work itself. Luigi Pirandello famously did about six versions of his classic post-modernist play Six Characters In Search Of An Author (and others have tinkered with it since: I highly recommend Rupert Goold and Ben Power's new version, which even adds a new fourth act). Monet kept painting the same scenes over and over again without any being considered the definitive version. I myself write reviews on Amazon and occasional blogs on Blogger, and I can't resist going back and fiddling with them. But once a novel is published, it is considered definitive. Will this hold true in the digital age if, as many predict, the printed novel becomes extinct?

An interesting side issue is the way that novels don't change from edition to edition even when they should. In the Booker-winning Remains Of The Day, our hero Stevens sits on Weymouth pier and watches the sun set over the sea. As anyone who has been there, or has access to a map of southern England or even Google Earth can soon find out, this is impossible; just as impossible as looking to your left at the sea as you drive into Dover (Birdsong) or taking the M3 from Chichester to Cornwall (One Day). I read The Great Gatsby and The Enchanted April recently and found grammatical mistakes in both texts, and both these books were published in the early 1920s but still haven't been corrected. I'd still recommend all five of these wonderful books, by the way.

But HarperCollins is sitting on a publicity goldmine, it seems to me. Once it accepts that this is the sort of mistake that happens in every organisation from time to time, then it needs to swallow its pride and publicise its mistake to the entire world. Get the footage of Franzen discovering the mistake, add a bit of in-house content (the editors discussing 'how we fouled up", perhaps) and get it going viral. No reader cares about HarperCollins or its reputation. Can you seriously imagine yourself refusing to buy another book from the same publisher, just because you remember this snafu? Will authors remember this calamity and snub HC, or will they follow the example from How To Win Friends And Influence People – the one where a pilot who almost crashed because of a maintenance foul-up appointed the same technician for his next flight, because he of all people would make sure he never made the same mistake again?

There is also the issue of real cost. HarperCollins is offering to replace any book already sold, but how many readers will hold on to what they see as a collectors' item of the greatest novel of the decade? The company might even sell two copies of the same book to the same reader. Franzen's reputation won't be harmed, and, even if the publisher's reputation is bruised, it has a unique opportunity to get Freedom into the public eye.

I can bring it down to the more personal level. I like literary fiction, but I'm not in the business and I don't hear about everything. Hell, it's only because I've now got friends in the business that I finally got round to reading The Remains Of The Day, and that was 20 years after it was published. But now I've heard all about Franzen and about Freedom and The Corrections. I'm going to read them, whereas I might not have done so before. Aren't you?
This blog was first published on 6 October 2010 on literary agent Nathan Bransford's excellent website. Buy the book here ( or and prove my marketing hypothesis.

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