Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Laying Sookie Stackhouse

We're hooked on the HBO series True Blood, based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. I'd never read the books, but because of the TV show, I bought the first book in the series. I've been struck by the confusion in the book between lie and lay. It's written in past tense and first person, and repeatedly Sookie tells us that she lay her hand or head on his shoulder, that he lay her on the bed, and so on. I think the only thing that gets laid is Sookie herself.

I've heard people complain that standards of English usage have deteriorated, and they'll point to errors in recently published books, such the one I just mentioned, as proof of it. I explain to them that what has diminished isn't knowledge of English, which was never high in the general public, but the number of copyeditors in the publishing biz. As costs were cut (a trend that started as a byproduct of publishing companies being absorbed by non-publishing corporate behemoths, long before the current economic crisis), copyeditors were among the first to go. Twenty or thirty years ago, that misuse I mentioned would have been caught and corrected by a poorly paid copyeditor, and readers would never have known that the author didn't know the difference between lie and lay. (Just in case you're confused, see here.)

Even decades ago, you'd read books with grammatical errors. Those were novels by authors of such stature (i.e., earning power) that publishers would accede to their demands that their writing not be edited. Go still further back, to the early days of mass printing, and spelling and grammar varied wildly from one book to another. Did that damage literature? Weren't all those earlier times part of the Golden Age, from whose heavenly standards we've fallen so far?

In other words, should books be copyedited for grammar and spelling at all? If a writer doesn't know the language, should that be hidden from the reader? Of course publishers want the books they publish to sell the largest possible number of copies, but earlier times had bestselling authors whose grammar was a bit wobbly or at least eccentric. Lots of people bought the Sookie Stackhouse books even before the HBO series, and I bet most of them didn't know or care that the author uses an intransitive verb transitively.

Anyway, isn't it dishonest to extensively massage John Smith's original manuscript and still label it a work by John Smith? At the least, shouldn't publishing emulate Hollywood and have a page of credits reading something like

Nuts to Your Guts

(Catchy title by Ima Serf, Editorial)

A Novel

Story: John Smith
First Draft: John Smith
Draft with corrected chronology: Poor Schlub, Editorial
Draft with fixes to absurdly messed-up character references: Harold "Harried" Braindead, Editorial
Grammar, spelling, and usage corrections: Nameless Freelance Copyeditors
Cover design: Etc.


TGirsch said...

This has always confused me, but then, I find that I pretty much never use the verb "lay" anyway ("put" and "place" and "set" seem to do the same job equally well, and these avoid confusion), so it wouldn't hurt my feelings to see "lay" relegated to archaic usage.

Have I just gotten myself banished? And if that didn't do it, did the "have gotten" get me somewhere? :)

David said...

It's probably time for anal-retentives like me -- er, such as I -- to give up on the lie/lay distinction. No one else seems to care about it, in these evil and declining days (which is a phrase one of the great Puritan leaders used in a letter written in the Boston Bay colony in the 17th Century, so I try to repeat it whenever I can, just to remind myself that the world has always been going to the dogs but fortunately never gets there). So I'm fine with you not caring about the distinction, but you're not, you know, an Official Bestselling Fiction Awthah. She should know the difference. And it gave me an opportunity to be snarky about an author whose books probably sell more copies in one month than all of mine have in their lifetimes, combined, not that I'm bitter or resentful or envious at all, he protested as he pounded his head on his desk.

I like "gotten". I've had arguments with purists about it, but I think it's an example of English irregular verbs becoming regular over time.

TGirsch said...

Oh, I never said I don't care about the distinction. Just that I avoid the use of the one because of confusion with the other. And in any case, it's one of those words that always looks and sounds wrong even when used correctly, so I try to avoid it entirely.

David said...

Ah. That's a good policy.