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Accuracy, authenticity, consistency

Andrew Steeds

‘Consistency is all I ask!’ is what Rosencrantz cries out in exasperation in Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (ungrammatically, surely – isn’t it ‘Consistency is all I ask for’?). I often think that this should be the collective motto of editors, although technically, I suppose, it should come after ‘accuracy’ and something like ‘authenticity’, ‘energy’, ‘entertainment’, ‘authority’. The truth is, however, that people may worry about a text’s accuracy and ability to engage them, but much less about its consistency. And writers and others involved in the process of producing texts for publication don’t necessarily share the same editorial obsession with consistency. (The production manager in the first company I worked in monitored proof corrections so closely that he would allow only those through that corrected an obvious mistake or factual error. I can still remember trying to get him to let me change a comma that didn’t match with the punctuation style we’d established for the book: his killing argument was to say that he would change the comma if I could persuade him that doing so would result in one extra sale of the book … )
Maybe all professions and trades have these obsessions, things that they worry about but which their customers and clients don’t give a second thought to. And maybe those slightly cynical editors and publishers (particularly those who have decided that money can be more profitably spent on marketing or packaging the publication than in sorting out its wayward text) are right when they say that consistency is something that editors worry about but nobody else does.
But it’s strange, isn’t it, that knowing where you are with someone is generally considered to be a positive comment on that person, and that politicians and others who stick to what they believe in are admired, but that people should be less worried about consistency in writing. I know a number of writers who have always humoured my concern with consistency (though I wonder whether they would have been quite so unconcerned if the proofs of their text had presented themselves in a state of complete inconsistency) and I worry at times that this concern might be borderline pathological.
And yet it all seems to me to be tied up with respect, trust and belief. Respect, because you feel that the reader and writer deserve to communicate with each other without the distraction of worrying why a word is spelt one way on one page and then spelled a different way on the next. (Yes, yes, I know … ) The editor’s role is to remove distractions of that kind, so that the reader’s focus can be 100% on the writer’s message. And trust and belief, because consistency is a way of showing that you care about both what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, because writing is establishing a relationship between reader and writer, and relationships are based on trust, and how can a reader believe what you are saying if you are not paying the same attention and respect to what you are writing? You want the reader to know where they are with you, except in those circumstances where you deliberately want to unsettle the reader and keep them guessing about the narrator or the writer – and, even then, would you choose inconsistency as the best way of achieving that end?
Consistency, accuracy and authenticity walk hand in hand, I feel, and their effect is brilliantly conveyed in this extract from Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree, where he talks about his experience of reading Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal:
Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, about a fortysomething pottery teacher who has an affair with a fifteen-year-old pupil, was moving along nicely until a character starts talking about football. He tells a teaching colleague that he’s been to see Arsenal, and that ‘Arsenal won Liverpool 3–0’. Readers of this column will have realized by now that I know almost nothing about anything, but if I were forced to declare one area of expertise, it would be what people say to each other after football matches. It’s not much, I know, but it’s mine. And I am positive that no one has ever said ‘Arsenal won Liverpool 3–0’ in the entire history of either Arsenal Football Club or the English language. ‘Beat’, ‘thrashed’, ‘did’ or ‘done’, ‘trounced’, ‘thumped’, ‘shat all over’, ‘walloped’, etc., yes; ‘won’, emphatically, no. And I think that my dismay and disbelief then led me to question other things, and the fabric of the novel started to unravel a little. Can you really find full-time pottery teachers in modern English state schools? Would a contemporary teenager really complain about being treated as ‘the Kunta Kinte round here’ when asked to do some housework? I like Zoë Heller’s writing, and this book has a terrific narrative voice that recalls Alan Bennett’s work; I just wish I wasn’t so picky. This is how picky I am. You know the Arsenal bit? It wasn’t just the unconvincing demotic I objected to; it was the score. Arsenal haven’t beaten Liverpool 3–0 at Highbury since 1991. What chance did the poor woman have?
I love that ‘and the fabric of the novel started to unravel a little’. It panders to my sense of editorial self-importance, that feeling that the wrong choice of word can threaten the whole foundations of a piece of writing. Maybe it’s an absurd case of delusion or arrogance (take your pick) and yet … and yet … and yet, when you next put down a book in exasperation, scroll back through the aspects of the book that led to your loss of patience and see whether there wasn’t something about its language, about its choice of words that led you to suspend your belief. Even if the word misused, as in Heller’s case, was a simple three-lettered word like ‘won’.