I’ve been reading Ken MacLeod’s 1996 novel The Stone Canal, in its 2000 U.S. edition (actually its 2001 mass-market paperback edition, published by Tor). The book’s enjoyable and well written, but what struck me was the editing. Ken MacLeod is a Scottish writer, and his books have been published first in the United Kingdom, then republished in the United States. I know that the U.S. editions have been given an editorial once-over to “Americanize” the language; it’s a common practice, at least in popular-genre writing, though it’s one that I dislike and that I feel shows a fundamental lack of respect for our shared language. (Do American publishers “Americanize” the prose of Kingsley Amis, Doris Lessing, Patrick White, Rebecca West, Evelyn Waugh?)
There was one point where the prose of Ken MacLeod’s novel had not been Americanized, and I suspect it was a slip on the part of the copyeditor: a reference to a husband getting someone’s address out of his wife’s “diary.” In the UK, a diary might be nothing more personal than an appointment calendar – my own annual calendar is a hardbound datebook called A4 architects & designers diary – but in the US a diary is something a great deal more personal: one’s intimate daily thoughts, recorded privately in a handwritten book for no one’s eyes but our own. (Or published far and wide on Livejournal; it depends on the diarist’s sense of privacy.) The American sense of “diary” gave that brief sentence an emotional weight that it was clear MacLeod didn’t intend; figuring that out took me out of the story and broke my concentration for a moment, which was not what was called for at that point in the novel. Tinkering with a writer’s prose is risky; but smoothing it out and then missing something gives whatever you’ve missed more importance than it warrants.
Whoever copyedited this book also had a habit of combining “on” and “to” into “onto” profligately, without apparently stopping to think about whether they really did belong together. They don’t always; and the same may be said of “in” and “to” vs. “into.” If you drive down the street and turn in to the police station, you haven’t suddenly metamorphosed into a police station; you’ve simply entered its parking lot. By the same token, moving on to the next subject is not the same as moving onto the next subject. (Ouch!) I have no idea whether this thoughtless glitch was introduced in the U.S. edition or the original British edition, but either way, its results were distracting. Editing can never be done automatically.
I enjoyed the book, though.