I am reading the first set of Seward page proofs. I am also re-reading, as I often do, P.G. Wodehouse.
I recall once reading that, when he had a set of page proofs, Wodehouse would tack them to the wall around his room. He would tack those which were great higher than those which were good, and those which were good higher than those which were poor. Then he would tackle those which were poor, trying to make them good or even great. My bet is that his page proofs were well marked up, that his publisher often cursed Wodehouse for making the printer’s life difficult.
Wodehouse’s attention to detail, to finding the right word, the right order of words, the right twists and turns, is what makes his work so readable. I read last night “The Crime Wave at Blandings,” a short story narrated from the perspective of the Earl of Emsworth. Emsworth is the nominal lord of the Blandings Castle, but sadly bullied by his sister Constance and harassed by his former private secretary Baxter. After his grandson George uses a popgun to shoot Baxter in the behind, Emsworth confiscates the gun and sits with it in his study.
“Lord Emsworth mused on his boyhood. Happy days, happy days. He could recall the exact uncle who had given him the weapon, so similar to this one, with which Julia had shot her governess. He could recall brave, windswept mornings when he had gone prowling through the stable yard in the hope of getting a rat–and many a fine head he secured. Odd that the passage of time should remove the desire to go and pop at things with an airgun. . . .
“Or did it?”
A few sentences later, the gun goes off accidentally and breaks Emsworth’s bust of Aristotle.
“It was enough. The old killer instinct had reawakened. Reloading with the swift efficiency of some hunter of the woods, Lord Emsworth went to the window. He was a little uncertain as to what he intended to do when he got there, except that he had a very clear determination to loose off at something. There flitted into his mind what his grandson George had said about tickling up cows, and this served to some extent to crystallize his aims. True, cows were not plentiful on the terrace of Blandings Castle. Still, one might have wandered there. You never knew with cows.”
“There were no cows. Only Rupert Baxter. The ex-secretary was in the act of throwing away a cigarette.”
Wodehouse in this passage uses simple words, short sentences, no fancy tricks. Yet it is so perfect. How could one improve on that three-word paragraph: “Or did it?” The moment Rupert Baxter appears in the sights of the Earl of Emsworth, now like some “hunter of the woods,” the reader senses where Wodehouse is going, and Wodehouse delivers. The page should have been marked, in Wodehouse’s page proof process, “great.”
My page proof process with Seward is a little different than that of Wodehouse: it would take a very large room to tack up each of the more than 500 pages of the Seward text. But I am trying, as I read each page, to look not only for the obvious errors. (I was horrified yesterday to find in one Seward quote the word “confirm” when the right word is “conform.”) I am also trying to think a bit like Wodehouse, to listen to the sentences, think about whether there is a better word or word order or indeed a shorter and stronger sentence.
I will not get even close to Wodehouse, but he is one of the models I have in mind as I read the Seward pages.