Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Proof of the Novel

The first advanced reading copy of a book I was ever given was Tourist by Matt Thorne. It was a flimsy blue thing, thin and the text still had the editor’s annotations in the margins. I liked the fact that a decision had been taken to change a character’s name and it was there for all to see; I liked the fact that I was reading something before anyone else had a chance more, however. It was the beginning of not quite a love affair, not quite an obsession: but still proof copies do something to me that even the most beautiful of books can’t quite muster.

Yesterday, the proofs arrived for Ten Stories About Smoking. A pair of them arriving on a bike from North to South West London. I held the parcel for a while and suppressed the urge to rip open the package right there. This was something that required some reverence, some quality time. So I headed to a bar which I knew would be empty and ordered a beer before opening the jiffy bag.

The proofs came in a red jacket, the usual Picador style of Times New Roman title and author. They were stunning; astonishing. I read one forgetting that I’d actually written the words inside. I thought about my bookshelf at home, the shelf which holds all the Picador proofs I’ve accumulated over the years. The uniform design meant that my book would not look out of place next to Don Delillo or John Banville, Cormac McCarthy or Tim Winton. It would fit right in, part of a strange kind of set.

The best proof copies are the ones that are designed this way. Jonathan Cape has been doing the same thing for years. Jacket images, finishes, unusual fonts are great ways to hook people, but with advance copies you get to see those books naked: there are no clues to be gleaned. The only thing you’re left with is a blurb and the text itself and that is oddly liberating. The decision to read is based therefore only on your reaction to the text itself. It’s a great leveller, and one that has made me read writers I perhaps would ordinarily have dismissed on account of my reaction to the positioning of the book.

Proofs are for geeks: though they are the true first editions most of the time, they don’t have the same kind of value as the finished article. And yet this is the text that the reviewers have read, the text that those early buyers may have skimmed through. They are often poorly made, throw-away items, but that just increases my passion for them – and the thrill of their arrival has not diminished over the years. In fact when I look at the ARCs of the new Jonathan Franzen, the new Will Self and the new Paul Auster it’s hard not to want to wade right in and read them straight away; though if they were the finished versions I would find it easier to wait. It’s still that feeling of reading before everyone else, I guess, that feeling of being there first – and knowing that what you might be reading is the next great novel.