A misadventure in pedantry.
One goes to the right, the other to the left; both are wrong, but in different directions.
There is no mistake; there has been no mistake; and there shall be no mistake.
—Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington
For fifteen years, I had scrupulously avoided reading the Novelist’s work, except maybe for a few short pieces in major magazines, which I’d scan for a bit and then set aside. Don’t ask me why I refused to read the Novelist—I had my reasons. I sincerely believed I would not enjoy The Novelist’s work, based on what I’d heard about it. But I was also afraid I might like the Novelist’s work. If it should turn out that The Novelist, who is the same age as me, were truly the voice of his/her generation, that would make it harder for me to claim that mantle at some undisclosed future date. And at our age, that window is rapidly closing, if not already shut, sealed, and winterized.
But finally this past summer, with the Novelist’s name and foibles monopolizing the main channels of every social medium, I could no longer bear to remain the only writer in New York without an opinion about the Novelist. I took the plunge and read one of the Novelist’s most iconic works.
This essay is not about the Novelist, and so I won’t bore you by laying out my newly informed opinion about the Novelist’s work, other than to say that it was more or less what I had always suspected it to be: entertaining, technically sophisticated, minutely and exhaustively observed, magisterially freighted with social messaging, and ultimately a little heartless. Instead, what struck me most forcefully about the book, and made me want to write about my experience of reading it, was that I found seven instances in which the word complimentary was mistakenly used in place of the word complementary.
Now, let’s set aside the fact that this is a pretty egregious error—the kind that most literate people learn to look out for at an early age precisely because it is so easy to make. A novel goes through so many passes before it’s published—consecutive drafts, multiple edits, proofreading and copyediting, typesetting—that it would seem nothing short of miraculous that such a glaring typo could elude so many opportunities to be squelched. And yet it had. My wife, a high-ranking editor at a major publishing house, insisted that the mistake could not have been made by the Novelist and must have somehow been inserted at a later stage in the publishing process, but that seemed improbable to me. Editors, proofreaders, and typesetters do not introduce errors; they expunge them. The Novelist was the guilty party, his publishing team merely his craven enablers.
It wasn’t the fact that a serial mistake had found its way into the book that bothered me. Almost every book harbors a typo or two. No, what nagged at me was how a supposedly serious author had allowed himself/herself to use the same word seven times in one novel when the English language offers so many variants and equivalents. This was, after all, neither a common conjunction or preposition that requires constant repetition, nor a basic, utilitarian noun that can be used again and again without drawing attention to itself. For instance, if you had to find a different synonym every time you wanted to indicate room or head, you would soon be tying yourself into inelegant knots. Yet it’s safe enough to use such words repeatedly in the same work because no one will notice or, if they do, hold it against you. But there are many ways to say complementary—which I would locate at about the halfway mark on a scale from commonplace to esoteric—without repeating yourself. The Novelist deploys complementary at an approximate average of every eighty pages. Could I have used such a word every eighty pages without noticing? Twice, three times maybe—but seven? And all with incorrect usage? I refused to believe that I was capable of such casual negligence. And yet, what really bothered me was that I would never have noticed the recurring usage, and the corresponding laziness or lax attention to detail of which it accused the Novelist, if it hadn’t been misspelled. Say what you will about the Novelist, but he/she is known for nothing if not for his/her attention to detail.
And that got me to thinking about what it means for an author to maintain control over his or her prose. I choose to believe that when I write a book, I have a hundred percent authority over the blank page. My relationship to my writing is roughly that of Dr. Frankenstein’s to his monster—including the expropriation of other people’s body parts. Not one word appears on that page without having been painstakingly sought out, considered, and chosen by me to fit a unique and specific space within a clause, a sentence, a paragraph, and a chapter. As its author, I can and must retain absolute control not only over every word I use to build a text but over the mental processes I bring to bear on the selection process. It is the ability to make the written word do exactly what you want it to do that lies at the very heart of what it means to create a work of art.
But the Novelist’s serial misuse of complimentary suggests we may have less control over our own work than we give ourselves credit for. If the Novelist could stumble so easily into the basic trap of lazy prose, despite the efforts of a vast team of professionals devoted exclusively to preventing that from happening, what did that say for the rest of us, who mostly work alone and unaided and may not be graced with the Novelist’s minute powers of observation to begin with? How many times had I myself unwittingly used the same word in quick succession, or the wrong word when a better one was readily available, or failed to insert a terse clarifying clause where one was required? How many times have I done it in this brief essay? How could I ever hope to claim, over the course of my twenty-five-year career as a professional writer, that I was in complete control of my prose?
But it also occurred to me that there might be an unanticipated upside to the Novelist’s failure. If unforced errors were the result of uncontrolled mental or linguistic impulses, so, too, might be the most felicitous, wayward products of our imagination. Could it be true that we actually perform optimally when we stop trying to monitor every last aspect of our creative process, and allow it to take flight? Maybe it’s the ability to lose control, howsoever fleetingly, at precisely the right moment that distinguishes genius from mere competence—like a brilliant engineer who builds a hang-glider so perfectly balanced and tensile that he can allow it to fly itself when he finally steps off the cliff …
I became agitated as I pondered all these unexpected implications of my reading of the Novelist, and determined to turn them into a thoughtful literary think piece for the benefit of my peers. I really felt that I was onto something enigmatic about the nature of creativity, and happy that it had evolved so spontaneously from a disquisition on typos. As I began to jot down my ideas, I turned first, as I often do, to the dictionary to provide that little jolt of preliminary inspiration. And it was there that I discovered that the Novelist’s use of the word complimentary—to connote something given away free or as a courtesy—was the correct usage, and that it was I who had been wrong all along. The typo was not in the book; it was in my head.
In Aesop’s fable, the ant spends the summer preparing his store of food for the winter, while the grasshopper dances the season away and is then rebuked for his idleness by the ant when the cold weather arrives and he comes around begging for something to eat. This is the version of the story that most of us are familiar with, but there’s another—apparently original but noncanonical—that turns the moral on its head. In this one, the ant is a human farmer who toils tirelessly in his fields yet, not content with harvesting the fruits of his own labor, also steals the crops being raised by his neighbors. In punishment, the gods turn him into an ant, but even as an ant his fundamental nature shines through, and he continues to gather and hoard the wealth produced by other people’s work.
I thought of this story and its reversible moral as I contemplated the ruins of my plan to profit from the Novelist’s hard work by riffing on his/her embarrassing error. The moral being, of course, that I had not even considered that the ultimate shame might be my own. I had wanted to ensnare the Novelist in a web of his/her own smugness, but had instead been caught in one of my own making. In this telling, the Novelist is the ant and I am the grasshopper. It’s a good moral, but not a great moral, in the same way that the dual morals of the ant and grasshopper fable both fail to satisfy. The ant is so dour and unforgiving, the grasshopper so shortsighted and feckless—neither is a fitting or attractive model for any acceptable mode of behavior. They’re both assholes.
I can’t speak for other writers, but there’s a certain opacity to my process of choosing a subject to write about that is often impenetrable even to me. That holds true for fiction and nonfiction alike. I’m often baffled by the topics, plotlines, and characters that suggest themselves for my attention. Why, for instance, at the age of thirty-two, sitting on a bus mired in crosstown traffic, did I suddenly start fantasizing about the small (nonexistent) island in Eastchester Bay that became the locus of my second novel? Why had my mind seized on this one image among the dozens of evanescent thoughts that had arisen and deflated, unnoticed, in my mind over the course of that bus ride? Why do certain stories call to us more than others, luring us from our intended journey?
Could it be that a writer is attracted to a certain story because it seems to suggest something that she does not know about herself, and she is curious enough to learn what it is that she’s willing to invest a great deal of time and effort, not to mention the very real chance of failure, in the inquiry? Maybe the story is an unusual yet vaguely familiar-looking key that she finds in the hallway of the vast mansion of her memory, and she cannot resist the temptation of setting off in search of the corresponding locked door and what may lie behind it. Or maybe it’s the key to a coded language that she once knew by heart and had forgotten long ago. In any case, she will never know unless she picks it up, turns it this way and that, and examines it minutely.
If that is the case, what does it say about my fascination with the Novelist’s error, and my unwillingness to let it go even after the error proved to be my own? What’s the story trying to tell me about myself, in a language I have not yet learned to speak? Maybe it’s that the story reveals something about the Novelist that reminds me of a flaw in my own personality—apathy? resentment? vanity? insecurity?—that I would prefer not to consider but can no longer ignore. Maybe it’s nothing more than petty nit-picking and jealousy of the Novelist’s success since, after all, even if it’s not an error, I still get to point out that the Novelist seems unduly enamored of a rather pedestrian adjective. Maybe it’s nothing at all—just me, another writer in love with the sound of his own voice. Or maybe it’s something altogether different that I will discover long after I finish this essay.
Like many people, but especially like many writers, while I have no trouble making fun of myself, I live in mortal dread of making a fool of myself. That is the chance every writer, including the Novelist, takes every time our work is published and read by strangers, and I find that it doesn’t necessarily abate with age and experience. In this case, I could have mitigated the risk altogether by not finishing the essay. Instead, I chose to push on and see where an exploration of my own foolishness might lead. Error can lead to error, yet occasionally it must, by the laws of probability, open onto an undiscovered landscape. That is the nature of inquiry, artistic or otherwise—to assume that many paths will prove barren in the hope that one will lead somewhere unexpected. That no effort to understand yourself or others is ever a complete waste, because even failure has its own rewards. Admitting that you’ve taken a wrong turn is not the same as accepting that you’ve wasted your time. In fact, it may be exactly the opposite. Our failures are the complements to our successes, in much the same way that cities are built on the ruins of their own earlier incarnations. In that sense—in the sense that everything we discard may in the end form the foundation of everything we choose to keep—our failures cost us nothing. They are, in a word, complimentary.
Jesse Browner’s most recent book is How Did I Get Here?