A couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to re-read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, which I hadn’t read since high school. I picked it up and saw the first sentence: “From the outset, let us bring you news of your protagonist.”

He means “At the outset.” “At the outset” represents a single point in time, while “from the outset” refers to an ongoing sequence of events. If you say “At the outset of our trip the weather was miserable” you say something only about that moment. Maybe later on the weather got better, and indeed that’s what the phrase suggests. But if you say “From the outset of our trip the weather was miserable,” you’re indicating that the weather started bad and stayed that way. Mailer is using an ongoing-sequence phrase to refer to a point-in-time experience. 

So Mailer has messed up the first sentence, indeed the very first word, of his book.

One page later:

On a day somewhat early in September, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, 1967, the phone rang one morning and Norman Mailer, operating on his own principle of war games and random play, picked it up. That was not characteristic of Mailer.

So this phone rang on one morning of a day? What happened on the other mornings of that day, I wonder. Also: Hi, I’m Norman Mailer, and my own principle is war games and random play. – What the hell does that mean? I don’t even know if I could turn these sentences into comprehensible and coherent English, but here’s my best effort:

One morning in early September 1967, the year of the first March on the Pentagon, the phone rang and Norman Mailer picked it up. That was uncharacteristic, but on principle Mailer sought out random events and war games.

That’s better, but still doesn’t make much sense. For one thing, if Mailer really did, on “principle,” seek out random events and war games, then wouldn’t he regularly pick up the phone when it rang, in those days when you couldn’t tell who was calling? Wouldn’t picking up the phone in fact be characteristic of him? 

After a few more pages of this, I put the book down. But I left my mark in it, a mark I’ve been using for several years to annotate books: EP. EP is short for “editor, please.”

There are four levels of editing:

  1. Structural
  2. Stylistic
  3. Mechanical (grammar/syntax/spelling)
  4. Factual

That first sentence of The Armies of the Night needed mechanical editing; the second stylistic editing. (Whether it received any structural editing I can’t say, though I suspect that at this stage in his career Mailer wouldn’t have allowed that — hell, he might have considered himself above any kind of editing.) In book publishing, the mechanical editing and at least some of the stylistic editing is usually done by a person called the copy editor – perhaps an employee of the publisher but more often, in my experience, a freelance. The person called simply the editor will rarely comment on mechanical matters, and may or may not get into the weeds of style, but will certainly have things to say about structure: how the book is organized, whether some matters deserve more or less treatment than you’ve given them, whether a given passage needs to be excised, etc. The great Robert Gottlieb was a fastidious, not to say compulsive, line editor, but this kind of attentiveness is by no means universal.

As for factual editing, that would have happened to Mailer when he wrote an earlier version of his experiences for Harper’s, but not when he submitted it to his book publisher. Sometimes people reading a book will ask “Didn’t anyone fact-check this thing?” — not realizing that the answer, typically, is No. In special cases (for instance, books whose claims might result in legal action) lawyers can get involved to demand justification of certain claims. When I wrote The Narnian the HarperCollins lawyers went over the manuscript with the finest-toothed of combs, and asked me, for instance, whether Charles Williams might take offense at some of the things I said about him. Since he had died in 1945, on balance I though it not likely.

So most books aren’t fact-checked, though many magazine pieces are. The fact-checking at Harper’s, at least since I’ve been writing for them, is relentless, and the experience of justifying your claims and statements arduous.

But there’s a fuzzy line between the editing of mechanics and fact-checking: the spelling of names, for instance. Right now I’m reading the first volume of Clinton Heylin’s biography of Bob Dylan, and while I sympathize with a writer who has to deal with as many names as Heylin does, he gets too many of them wrong: It’s Samuel R. Delany (not “Delaney”), Jackie DeShannon (not “Deshannon”), Kenneth Rexroth (not ”Roxreth“), etc. Each of these is faithfully recorded in the index (”Roxreth, Kenneth”) but didn’t get checked by the copy editor.

Heylin is not the most careful of stylists, either. He writes sentences like this, when describing what a guy named Steve Wilson thought about a friend named Paul Clayton, who had become obsessed by Dylan:

In Wilson’s view, ‘Bob was everything [Paul] wanted to be’, save heterosexual.

What Heylin means is that Clayton, who was gay, wanted to be like Dylan in every respect except sexual orientation; what he says is that Dylan is homosexual. Me in margin: “EP.”

Writing about Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” Heylin is critical of Dylan’s condemnation of William Zantzinger as a murderer — Heylin thinks the facts don’t bear out that charge.

What he was, to Dylan’s closed mind, was guilty. And guilty he would remain, the songwriter insisting to Bob Hilburn forty years later, ‘Who wouldn’t be offended by some guy beating an old woman to death?’ Answer: any halfway decent investigative journalist.

What Heylin means is that any halfway decent investigative journalist would be sure to have the facts right before condemning anyone; what he says is that such a journalist wouldn’t be offended by the murder of an old woman, as though sociopathy were a prerequisite for journalistic competence. Me in margin: “EP.”

As I have often lamented, almost every book contains errors on the last three of the levels I’ve identified; it is the blight we writers were born for, to paraphrase Hopkins. (Some books, The Great Gatsby or Gilead for instance, are structurally perfect.) But the more times I have to write “EP” in the margin of a book the more likely it becomes that I will abandon the book. Not in high dudgeon, but because it’s just tiring to have my concentration interrupted by error after error after error, most of which could have been avoided if the responsible parties had taken proper care. I want to keep reading Heylin’s biography of Dylan, because the subject is extremely interesting to me and because Heylin is by far the best-informed biographer of Dylan I have come across, and in many respects — especially the difficult matters of chronology, made more difficult by Dylan’s compulsive lying — the most scrupulous. But I don’t know whether I’m gonna make it through.