Ron Charles, the editor of the Washington Post Book World and a sharp critic, is often comedic in his approach to books. He recently queried readers of his book club newsletter to report what annoyed them most in books. He writes, “Apparently, book lovers have been storing up their pet peeves in the cellar for years, just waiting for someone to ask. Hundreds and hundreds of people responded, exceeding my wildest dreams.”
As the queen of pet peeves, I was eager to curl up and read other people’s complaints. It turns out that I am not the only cranky, picky, bitchy reader.
Many readers were indignant about dream sequences in books. Though I agree that few writers are up to the task , I must recommend Emily Bronte’s excellent dream sequences in Wuthering Heights. Mr. Lockwood’s nightmare of the long-dead Catherine’s attempt to claw her way back into her old room at Wuthering Heights is chillingly Gothic.
The Washington Post readers wince over typos and grammatical errors. I, too, am a traditionalist. I was briefly a target of cancel culture for attacking a pronoun error now defended as “the singular they.” These days it is apparently a matter of sexual politics.
One avid reader, Jane Ratteree, said “If those who write and publish the book won’t make the effort to get it right, the book doesn’t deserve my time and attention.”
I thoroughly agree!
And I was chuffed to see that many of these readers are infuriated by foreign language typos and errors.
I have a long history of fussing over Latin errors in novels. In 2009, A. S. Byatt deserved the Booker Prize for her novel,The Children’s Book (it went to Wolf Hall), but that did not prevent my irritation over a Latin error in a quotation in the British edition. In 2016, The Booker Prize winner and National Book Critics Circle Award winner, Paul Beatty, made so many Latin errors in the first few pages that I put his comic novel aside. Let me stress that it was the editors’ responsibility to check the Latin. They should have consulted a freelance Latinist.
Such errors are common in literary fiction, and it is distressing. But here is some good news: science fiction and fantasy writers are more diligent, or possibly more attuned to ancient languages. Some SF/fantasy writers majored in classics, among them Ann Leckie, C. J. Cherryh, and Jo Walton.
And let me cite two brilliant fantasy writers who get their Latin right. In the Acknowledgments of her best-selling novel, Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo, a Yale graduate, thanked the classicists she consulted for double-checking her Latin. In the Acknowledgements to the recent critically- cclaimed novel, Babel, R.F. Kuang also thanked classicists for proofreading.
Let us hope that literary fiction writers and editors will copy their diligence.