Jonathan Franzen's book Freedom suffers UK recall
The American author Jonathan Franzen might justly be called a perfectionist: his latest opus, Freedom, took nine years of painstaking effort to complete inside a spartan writing studio – and is now being widely acclaimed as a modern masterpiece.
So it is particularly unfortunate that, thanks to an apparent mistake by his typesetters, the version published in Britain has been found to be littered with errors.
In a highly embarrassing move, publishers HarperCollins were today forced to offer to exchange thousands of copies after Franzen revealed that the UK edition of a novel dubbed “the book of the century” is based on an early draft manuscript, and contains hundreds of mistakes in spelling, grammar and characterisation.
More than 8,000 copies of the faulty first edition have been sold since it was published last week, with 80,000 hardbacks of the book in print. The mistakes were discovered yesterday.
Franzen told the Guardian that the book, the follow-up to 2001′s Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Corrections, contained “a couple of hundred differences at the level of word and sentence and fact” as well as “small but significant changes to the characterisations of Jessica and Lalitha” – the daughter and the assistant of one of the novel’s central characters.
HarperCollins, who say the errors are mainly typographical, have launched a hurried operation to let purchasers exchange their faulty copy via bookshops or pre-paid post. The new version is being rushed through the printers over the weekend and will be available early next week.
“My main interest is in getting the word out that 4th Estate is starting a free exchange programme,” said Franzen, stressing the error was not the publisher’s.
HarperCollins, which runs the 4th Estate imprint, said the crucial mistake happened when a small Scottish typesetter, Palimpsest, sent “the last but one version” of the book file to the printers. Palimpsest was not available for comment.
“It was just a mistake that happened,” said Siobhan Kenny, director of communications for HarperCollins UK. “It’s too early to say whether action will be taken against the typesetters, but we will still use them. We just want to make sure that all the fans can read the correct version of the books as soon as possible,” she said.
“The US version of the book is fine, so is the audiobook and the ebook. These aren’t errors that affect the plot, they are typographic errors. But obviously Franzen spent 10 years writing this book and he wants everything to be read exactly as he wrote it. He is most concerned about his real fans and he wants to give them the book as he wants it.”
HarperCollins UK has set up a “Freedom recall hotline” for customers who have purchased a copy of the mistake-ridden book. A staff member at the hotline described the situation as “quite frantic”.
HarperCollins is not planning a full scale recall of the 80,000 hardback copies in bookshops for logistical reasons. Such a print run would have cost the publisher around £70,000, estimated fellow publisher John Blake, with distribution and other costs ramping the amount up to around £100,000. “My heart bleeds for them on every level,” he said.
A spokesman for the Waterstone’s chain of bookshops, Jon Howells agreed. “My heart goes out to whoever pressed the wrong button,” he said, adding that the bookseller had not, as yet, received any complaints about faulty copies from its customers. “We’ve not been asked to pull it from the shelves by the publisher, so we won’t,” he said, predicting that interest in the first edition could rocket following the news about its errors.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people start popping in to pick one up because they want to get the sequel to The Corrections without the corrections,” he said. “Maybe it’ll make it an interesting collector’s item.”
But rare book dealer Rick Gekoski said would-be investors would be disappointed. “If it wasn’t such a big print run the rare book trade would love this; it’s a shame because recalled books are a big thing in rare books but with 80,000 copies out there, there will be zero premium,” he said. “I wouldn’t give you 50p extra.”
Poet and author Blake Morrison, who in his review of Freedom for the Guardian called Franzen the best chronicler of the American middle classes following John Updike’s death, said he had not spotted any errors.
“That’s embarrassing to admit – except that I know from my own experience how when you’re correcting a final draft or page proofs you often make changes that are immensely important to you, even if no one else is likely to spot them,” he said.
“So I sympathise with Franzen, despite the fact that the differences between the text I read and the one he approved are probably minuscule.”
Howells agreed. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it – it’s bloody fantastic,” he said.
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