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No "Corrections": Franzen's "Freedom" recalled in the U.K.

Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom is already the most talked about and fiercely debated book release of the year here in the United States.  As of this past week, it has also become the most talked about book in the U.K., but for entirely different reasons.

On Friday, two of London's leading newspapers, The Telegraph and The Guardian reported that the UK division of the book's publisher HarperCollins had mistakenly sent to press an uncorrected, draft version of the novel containing hundreds of editorial and typesetting mistakes.  Over 80,000 copies of the book were produced in its first printing, of which approximately 8,000 of which have already been sold to readers.

Curiously, the book has also already been extensively reviewed in the U.K. as well, although none of the reviewers noted the unusual number of errors.  Uncorrected page proofs are not unusual in review copies of many books, but errors in these drafts typically number in the dozens, not the hundreds.

HarperCollins UK has recalled the entire first edition of the book, and will replace those copies that have already been sold with a corrected edition that it has rushed to press and promised to have available as early as next week.  The balance of unsold and returned copies of the first printing will reportedly be "pulped."

Siobhan Kelley, a spokesperson for HarperCollins' 4th Estate literary imprint, claimed that the uncorrected edition was not the fault of anyone employed by the publisher, but rather occurred when a small Scottish typesetter, Palimpsest--a subcontractor on the project--accidentally downloaded an early draft version of the novel from the publisher. "The US version of the book is fine, so is the audiobook and the ebook," said Ms. Kelly.

"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."  She refused to comment on whether HarperCollins would seek damages from the typesetter, or whether there would be a market for the uncorrected edition of the novel among rare book collectors.  No one at Palimpsest was available for comment.

It was Franzen himself who broke the news that Freedom would be recalled in a Thursday interview with The Guardian.  "My main interest is in getting the word out that 4th Estate is starting a free exchange program," he told the newspaper.  He also contradicted what Kelley told both the Telegraph and the Guardian, describing the earlier draft of the novel that was mistakenly published as containing "a couple of hundred differences at the level of word and sentence and fact" in addition to "small but significant changes to the characterizations of Jessica and Lalitha"  (the daughter and the assistant of one of the novel's central characters).

For those who've read Freedom as a kind of sequel to Franzen's National Book Award winning 2001 novel The Corrections, ironies abound in this embarrassing episode.  Talk of "Schadenfranzen"--a term coined after the German "Schadenfreude" (i.e.,  pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others) by some critics this summer to describe the paradoxical mixture of admiration, resentment and irritation many readers and fellow writers feel towards Franzen's Tolstoyan ambitions and witheringly self-important narrative voice--appears to have found it's epiphany here.

Readers of Freedom may also note that Walter Berglund--the carping, environmentalist lawyer, husband of Patty Berglund, and the male protagonist of the novel (whose voice many will associate with Franzen's own world view)--would doubtless be horrified by the prospect of 80,000 copies of a hardcover book in which he was the protagonist being rendered as post-consumer waste.  A second press run of 80,000 will mean, by one highly unscientific estimate, that as many as 10,000 of the British Commonwealth's trees were sacrificed in order to bring Freedom to the U.K.

Whether you happen to agree that Franzen is a "Great American Novelist" with his finger on the pulse of American Zeitgeist as Time magazine and the New York Times Book Review have proclaimed, or you're among those who think he's been canonized and over-praised for producing sweeping, self-important novels about the contemporary American family that essentially recapitulate what several fine woman authors--Sue Miller, Marilynne Robinson, Mona Simpson, and Anne Tyler to name just four--have accomplished without similar acclaim, you must admit he has a rather uncanny ability to generate headlines, even inadvertently. 

--R.D. Pohl 
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