Russell Working alerted me to this article.
“A storm in a teacup” is the British version of the idiom, and it’s hard to imagine a more apt example than the squall that blew up recently over the claim by Oxford professor Kathryn Sutherland that Jane Austen was actually a sloppy writer. Sutherland was publicizing a new website that has put 1000 pages of Austen’s manuscripts online. According to her, the manuscripts are full of faulty spelling, break every rule of English grammar, and give no sign of the polished punctuation we see in the novels. She concluded that Austen’s prose must have been heavily edited for publication, quite possibly by the querulous critic William Gifford.
It’s a measure of Austen’s rock-star status that those claims got international coverage as a major celebrity scandal. The BBC headed its report “Jane Austen’s Elegant Style may not be Hers.” The French media website Actualité led with “Jane Austen massacred the English language,” and the Italian daily Il Giornale used the headline “Austen Revised and Corrected by a Man!”
I must admit that my stomach dropped a little bit when I read the title to this link. But Nunberg helps demystify the process of creating drafts … particularly in regard to a literary icon (hence news headlines that mimic the likes of tabloids, which has a really cool anachronistic effect).
The article reminded me of reading portions of Katherine Mansfield’s notebooks – a poignant text replete with literary scribblings, sloppy drafts, random lists, laments and unseemly punctuation errors. When it comes down to it, the process of writing isn’t all that sexy. Nunberg stated: “But semicolons don’t create a structure; they just point to one. It’s nice to know where a semicolon is supposed to go, but it’s nothing to swell your chest over. The artistry is in being able to write sentences that require one.” Though I think its more than “nice” to know how to use a semicolon, Nunberg’s sentiment is a good reminder that drafting is a time where content (artistry) can take precedence over form.
Much thanks to Russell Working for pointing Numéro Cinq toward this article.