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Archive for June 2014

The great contradictator speaks!

Not for the first time, I may have been too clever for my own good.

A couple of reviewers have pointed out an apparent mistake in THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY. In a footnote on page 253 of the book concerning the concept of ‘contradictatoriality’, I attribute the phrase ‘Reader, I married him’ to the novelist Jane Austen. This is obviously incorrect. Famously, these four words appear at the end of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. As Mr Dickon Edwards surmises in his diary here, ‘Mr Miller has got his Janes in a twist’. Yet THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY is a scrupulously correct book. It even contains footnotes about the need to guard against hawk-eyed pedants by never, ever making a single bibliographical or typographical error. Here I seem to have made an obvious and appalling howler. How has this been allowed to happen?

First let me say that both Mr Edwards and Brandon Robshaw in the Independent here have been very kind about the book and I thank them. Their shared impulse to point out this seeming error is entirely understandable. Pointing out errors in books that are otherwise 99.5% correct is something critics do to bolster their authority in the eyes of their readers – I should know, I have done it myself on several occasions. It’s not very fair but it is both easy and quite funny. (Full disclosure: I did it to Sarfraz Manzoor when I covered his sincere and poignant book about growing up as a Bruce Springsteen fan. In retrospect I was probably just jealous I hadn’t thought of it. I love Bruce.)

For the record, then, I am aware that ‘Reader, I married him’ comes from Jane Eyre. I had hoped that by the final chapter of a book about books which, until that point, has both been textually accurate and also rigorous in its acknowledgement of the need for total textual accuracy, the reader would trust me enough to realise that if I made a mistake, it was a deliberate one. Furthermore, it is a deliberate mistake with a humorous point to it. Messrs. Edwards and Robshaw seem to have missed that point; and if clever chaps like them don’t get the joke, perhaps other readers will miss it too.

So let me clarify. The reference occurs in a footnote which is an exploration of something called ‘contradictatoriality’, a term I invented to define a concept I made up. It is a portmanteau word suggesting a style of writing that is both contradictory and dictatorial – where the narrator keeps bumping up against the demands of their own book and gets irritated about it, leading him or her to express this grumpiness in the book itself, via footnotes or even in the main text. I give quite a few examples of contradictatorial books, including Pale Fire by Nabokov, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (note the full, correct title) and even ‘Reader, I married him’, from the pen of Jane Austen (sic.); and I point out that THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY, though it was not my original intention, has turned out to be a rather contradictatorial book itself. Of course, a contradictatorial narrator is inherently an unreliable narrator too; and it was very obviously always my original intention that THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY be full of these amusing tropes, one of which is a bumptious certainty that the narrator is always in the right and cannot help saying so. The joke here was supposed to be the obviousness of the schoolboy error set against the pompous sense of authority with which it was stated, near the end of a book full of increasingly exasperated assertions. In other words, contradictatoriality in action for humorous effect.

No, I’m not sure I get it either.

I should add that the book was proofed by at least twenty people, friends and professionals alike, prior to publication and not a single one remarked on this ‘error’, leading me to assume that the joke was working. But in retrospect, perhaps they just didn’t read that bit. It is a very long footnote near the end of an ever more perplexing book. I cannot fault Messrs. Edwards and Robshaw for their alertness and I concede the cliché has some truth to it: humour is indeed subjective. But I’d also like to say to them both: I’m not a complete idiot, you know.

Contradictatorially yours,