I've been musing over the tribulations of Kamol Kamoltrakul, the business writer who's been threatened with a massive libel suit for his criticism of Tesco's operations in Thailand. While I have every sympathy for Kamol, his article did contain one pretty horrendous error: thanks to a misreading of figures, he calculated that the Thai operation contributes 37% of Tesco's global income; he now acknowledges that the figure is more like 3.7%.
I can imagine the combination of lurching stomach and sweating palms that occurred when he realised what he'd done. I've made mistakes, although fortunately none that had such potential for financial misfortune. (I say 'potential' because Thai libel actions are a bit like those damages cases in the States, when someone called BillyBob sues a fast food company because the hot filling in his hot fruit pie was too, uh, hot; the sum that eventually gets handed over is usually a small fraction of the headline demand.)
Anyway, I've gone into print saying 'My Life Story' when I meant the Divine Comedy; attributed a quote of Schopenhauer's to Nietzsche; confused one Asian cabinet minister with another (I mean, they all look the same, don't they?). And, yes, my ankles did go a bit wobbly when I got the product back from the printers, usually on a day when I'd vowed to give up alcohol, or coffee, or pointless self-recrimination.
But you know, that's not the worst feeling. The worst feeling is a slow, creeping sensation over the next few days and weeks and months, after the error goes onto the shelves. It's when the fear of sarcastic letters to the editor, even the fear of legal action, is replaced by a total silence: the realisation that nobody's noticed; nobody cares; for all you know, nobody's read it. It's the worst thing for a writer, or for anyone who does anything for any purpose other than personal gratification. It's the knowledge that what you've created has cast no shadow, created no echo. It's as if you've thrown a stone into a perfectly flat lake, and it's made not a single ripple.