I am finally breaking a silence of four weeks after being snowed under a prodigious mountain of proofreading and being also busy writing indexes, aspects of writing we never discuss. I’m breaking that bad habit here.

            I used my time off the classroom in 2022 to work on four volumes to be published in 2023: a collective book co-edited with Isabel Santaulària (Detoxing Masculinity in Anglophone Literature and Culture: In Search of Good Men, Palgrave); my self-translation into Spanishof Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge) to be issued as De Hitler a Voldemort: retrato del Villano (Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza); my new monograph American Masculinities in Contemporary Documentary Film: Up Close Behind the Mask (Routledge) and my Spanish self-translation (Detrás de la máscara: masculinidades americanas en el documental contemporáneo, Universitat de València). There is actually a fifth volume, which gathers together a selection of posts from this blog focused on educational matters, Passionate Professing: The Context and Practice of English Literature (Universidad de Jaén) but I still haven’t got to the proofreading, index-writing stage.

            I never planned for five books, that was sheer madness. Actually, I worked on eight last year, if I count the three already online: Songs of Empowerment: Women in 21st century Popular Music (collecting my students’ work), Entre muchos mundos: en torno a la ciencia ficción (the collection of my articles on SF, also self-translated) and the twelfth annual volume of this blog. As happens I just had a hyper-productive year, never to be repeated again—nothing like keeping yourself busy to cope with complex personal issues. I had scheduled the proofreading and index writing of the five print volumes over a two-month period, but I finally found myself going through four of the books in just one month while I also started teaching a new semester after an accidental sabbatical of fourteen months. It’s been hectic, to say the least, though also highly unusual. Never again, as I say.

            One thing, as we know, is writing a text and quite another seeing it in print, a process that takes (at least in my experience) a minimum of one year, if not two in some cases. Both journals and book publishers demand that manuscripts be handed in fully edited following scrupulously the rules they prefer, whether these are their own or those of MLA or other conventions. Often, editors and authors are asked to hand in print-ready texts, a work we do for free and that is never compensated in any way. I don’t quite understand, besides, the process through which the Word document we hand in eventually becomes the .pdf we proofread and I understand even less why errors creep in during that process, apart from our own typos and glaring mistakes.

            What I do know is that whereas the proofreading of an article or a chapter is not that problematic given the limited extension of that type of text whole books are another kettle of fish. No matter how many times you go through the text accidents are bound to happen when reading 250 or 300 pages with varying degrees of attention along several days (I marvel at the capacity for concentration professional copy editors possess). Some errors are never discovered, others shame the author whenever s/he needs to read the book again and a third category will inevitably appear no matter how strongly the author demands they are corrected. All authors have the right and the duty to proofread their texts but there is nothing more excruciating than reading your own words: you may miss painful errors out of pure familiarity with your text, which blinds you to mistakes others may spot. Yet, if you trust someone else to proofread your text, from loving spouse to professional copy editor, they are bound to introduce other errors. I marvel whenever I read books with no errors at all, and so should every reader.

            The pains of proofreading are nothing however in comparison to the odious task of writing an index. Word has a function which allows you to select words for the index and links them automatically to the page number. But since page numbering may vary wildly from Word manuscript to the pre-print .pdf version of a book, authors can only hand in a fully finished index (in a separate Word file) when the .pdf proofreading is over. I have myself written the index for the four volumes I have mentioned though in one case I have been spared the tedious task of checking where in the .pdf each item mentioned can be found. This painful process, as I have experienced, can take longer than proofreading.

            For those of you who have never paid attention, the index is that list at the end of the volume where names, titles and concepts dealt with in the book can be found, with the corresponding pages where they appear. You might think that writing an index is quite an automatic task, but it is not. You need to put yourself in the shoes of the person who checks your book rather than read through it to see where you mention something that might interest them. One simple option is to include every author and title discussed (I refer here to literary or film criticism), with the doubt of whether any one will ever be interested in something you mention just in passing.

            The problem begins when you decide to include concepts. The basic rule is that you do not include in the index concepts that occupy a whole chapter and that the reader can locate checking the table of contents. Yet, this is not that simple because you might have, for instance, a chapter on metaphor and then also discuss metaphor in other chapters; your reader needs to know that. In my case what has driven me crazy is the need to specify in, for instance, my book about villainy where exactly the word appears and which adjectives accompany it (patriarchal villainy, female villainy). You might say that the main topic of a book should not appear in the index, but someone might need to check whether I refer in my book to Nazi villainy or to collective villainy.

            The funny thing about the index is that nobody really checks that it works fine. Publishers seem to assume it does, at least I don’t think anyone has double-checked my own indexes. Whenever I myself have used an index it has mostly worked. Nonetheless, we all have the experience of hoping that the presence of a certain item in the index will lead to a substantial comment in the main text only to have those hopes dashed with a cursory remark which is basically useless for our own ends. We are all guilty of that crime when writing indexes as inclusive as possible.

            There has been a certain debate about whether indexes should appear in e-books since e-book readers have a search function. However, all the e-books I read still carry the index of the print versions, possibly because it is easier to keep it than to suppress it. I feel happy when I find myself reading a long book and I realize that the final pages are just an index that can be skipped. At the same time an index tells you a lot about how a book functions and perhaps they should be read before the first page is read. Writing my own indexes I have learned plenty about how I organize my own thinking. This is why it is always a good idea to write your own indexes rather than delegate that task to someone else as many scholars do. It also helps to spot typos and errors (it might well be you misspelled a name or a title in the text which you included in the index).

            I have great admiration for what English author J.G. Ballard (1930-2009) did in his short story “The Index” (1977), published in his collection War Fever. An editor’s note informs readers that “the text printed below is the index to the unpublished and perhaps suppressed autobiography of a man who may well have been one of the most remarkable figures of the twentieth century”, the utterly fictional Henry Rhodes Hamilton. Ballard manages to narrate through the index (which does include an entry for Hamilton himself) a life full of encounters with illustrious persons and of interventions in world-changing events (“Oswald, Lee Harvey, befriended by HRH, 350; inspired by HRH, 354; discusses failure of the Presidency with HRH, 357–61; invites HRH to Dallas, 372”). Happily for him, Ballard did not have to worry whether the pages do check out since the main text is missing. Mike Bonsall did write Hamilton’s autobiography using Ballard’s index (see http://fentonville.co.uk/digital-ballard/), though he cheated plenty by redacting most of it.             Please, appreciate the small miracle that a perfectly proofread text is and enjoy the beauty of a well-built index, both are also part of good