thefilthycomma #02

Having written and published my first post (see The origins of the filthy comma), I did a search for 'the filthy comma' to see if my blog came up first (it does). Then, a little further down the list, I spotted the copy-editors' delight that is this article on Nicholson Baker's new book, House Of Holes. Reading about Nicholson Baker's book (which deals mostly with various characters being swept away to a sort of sex-fiend fairground, and where the Guardian claims they then say things like ‘This is an emergency top-level request for dick’), turned out to be a lot more fun than googling myself.

House of Holes follows on from Baker's earlier 'sex' books, Vox (which is about 'phone sex) and The Fermata (in which the protagonist has the ability to stop time, an ability that he uses mainly to take women's clothes off). For a long time I've turned over in my mind the idea of a PhD thesis on transgressive literature, to include my ideas about some of my favourite modern novels, such as American Psycho, Glamorama, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Naked Lunch. I would start with Pauline Réage, Radclyffe Hall and the Marquis de Sade. There would then follow a chapter on The 120 Days of Sodom, which would include a Venn diagram showing the overlap between Nick Hornby and de Sade, concluding that the real fetish here is the list itself. In subsequent chapters, I would move on to the works of Bret Easton Ellis, Hunter S. Thompson, Edgar Burroughs, Chuck Palahniuk (author of, among many other things, Fight Club, Snuff and Guts),  John Updike (who Nicholson Baker admires greatly, as is made apparent in his book U and I. One can only assume that Baker never got round to reading Couples), Catherine Millet, Charlotte Roche, Elfriede Jelinek and of course Nicholson Baker. I know many of these authors and works are notorious rather than famous, because of their chosen subject matter rather than their literary sparkle, but this is deeply unfair. American Psycho in particular is beyond brilliant. I put down books all the time because they make me lose the will to live (The Ambassadors), or because they make me lose faith in literature’s ability to create anything new that isn’t simply a pastiche of something old (Possession), or because they are pointless, banal and unpleasant (The Story of O). American Psycho makes you want to put it down because it's too much and too little. Too much sex; too much violence; way, way too much detail; but also far too little of anything else that might given meaning to the characters’ lives. In other words, it makes you think about things that you don't want to think about, like murder and death and pain. But shouldn't we think about these things? Aren't they happening all the time, all over the world? American Psycho, it seems to me, suggests that reading is not merely a pleasurable activity, but a learning experience, and sometimes a profoundly disturbing and troubling one. In other words, it makes you ask yourself, if I don’t want to read about women being tortured with spark-plugs and rusty butter-knives (and I don’t), what do I want to read about? Calm, well-adjusted people who use butter-knives on crumpets and nail-guns to put up shelves? You will recall Bond putting a nail in the eye of Le Chiffre in Casino Royale and I think a similar thing happened in an episode of CSI (I can't be absolutely sure: it was CSI, for God's sake). Both examples, with pictures and sound, are nowhere near as disturbing as two paragraphs of Ellis. So, this begs the question, if I consider putting down a book for reasons other than its literary merit (and its merits are clear), what does that say about me as a reader? Why did I pick up this book in the first place? Why do I pick up any book? Why do I read?

I haven’t read House of Holes yet and the reviews are mixed (see James Lasdun’s thoughts, where he describes it as a ‘wank book’ devoid of literary ambition). It may turn out to be just the sort of book that I dislike (i.e. those that transgress for transgression’s sake, such as like Philip Roth’s dreadful Sabbath’s Theatre, which bored the arse off me). I mention it really in the context of the copy-editor’s report, which interests me for several other reasons. One, I have a bit of an obsession with naughty words as well as naughty punctuation (I confess: I used to watch Sex And The City just for the swearing). Judging from the report, Baker has larded House of Holes with sexual neologisms, my favourite of which is 'cockbrisket'. Two, I was under the impression that I was writing 'a porny Alice in Wonderland' and am a bit cross that Baker has beaten me to it <shakes fist>. Three, this article is a perfect example of what I love about copy-editing: the juxtaposition of tone. For example, in the list of questionable words you will notice Baker's copy-editor has included the word 'cocky', commenting only that he or she is concerned about it being used to mean 'a bit like a cock' rather than 'arrogant'. Other fun new words to impress your friends with include 'urgie-splurgey', after which the copy-editor has thoughtfully included a page number and the restrained comment 'see query'; 'scrotatiousness' (presumably the quality of being of or like a scrotum, although I think there is also a suggestion in the cadence of the word that the scrotum in question might be slightly itchy); 'wonderloaves' (breasts? Bread shaped like breasts? A bread-based superhero, presumably with fantastic crime-fighting breasts? Or perhaps it is simply amazingly good bread, which unlike practically all the other words on the list is entirely non-sexual); and the marvellously unnecessary 'knocker-jug-bosom-boobs'.

I often laugh out loud when working on a particularly difficult copy-editing job. I feel each time I do so that I am betraying my fellow copy-editors and proofreaders: we are a straight-faced, straight-laced legion, dedicated to mopping up the sloppiness of others. I can’t be the only one, however, who loses her composure now and again. It seems to me that there are many reasons for writing a book like House of Holes, not the least of which is seeing if you can get your copy-editor to crack.


JPD 2012     .


I could have rendered this in the singular ('copy-editor's delight') on the grounds that there was only one copy-editor present i.e. me. I chose to render it in the plural on the grounds that I am an old-fashioned girl who likes to get her news via Radio 4, and therefore I cannot be the first copy-editor to have read and enjoyed this article, and therefore we are plural.

Nicholson Baker isn't as well known in this country as he might be, so anyone not familiar with his work could consult this profile of him by the marvellous Charles McGrath.

When did 'googling' become a verb? It really ought to be used only in a cricketing context and I apologise for using it here; 'googling' always makes me think of Rambling Syd Rumpo ((Kenneth Williams) singing 'The Ash Grove' on Round The Horn, which if memory serves finishes with the lines 'Although I still wander/In yonder green valley/It's not so much fun when you wurdle yourself'.

Andrew O'Hagan wrote the following in the London Review of Books, 10th June 2010, in a review of the HBO series The Pacific: 'When I was small I thought I'd invented the word 'parsley'. The men in The Pacific ... say 'fuck you' as if they'd just invented it.' He then makes an absolutely shocking revelation about The Sound of Music, which actually made me want to watch it. Just as I have never owned a mobile 'phone, freezer or microwave, I have never watched the Queen's speech, Big Brother or any episode of any soap opera. I have also never seen The Sound of Music. However, if (as O'Hagan alleges) it includes nuns misusing the c-word, I shall break out the popcorn.

Had I been Baker's copy-editor, I would have questioned the spelling first ('urgey-splurgey', surely?) and the existence of the word second.

I refer to easy jobs with few errors as ‘clean’, and difficult jobs with multiple phraseological entanglements as ‘dirty’. To contact me regarding a job of either variety, please see my spiffy website at www.duntonia.co.uk.

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© David Scoins 2017