Sunday, March 25, 2007

Post Hock Errant Prompter Hock

I came to editing and teaching by accident.

My early years were filled with the discoveries of myself related to writing; still in my twenties, I had no thought of editing much less any thoughts of what an editor did.

My only association with teaching came late in my undergraduate career when, in pursuit of a stately, ironic woman who hated my neckties, I audited an education class with a professor she greatly admired. Those classroom hours removed any thought of teaching from my agenda. In subsequent years, other professional and commercially oriented possibilities were discarded, leaving me pretty well stuck with the world of writing. By the time a number of my close friends had had their fill of such ephemera as technical writing (Jerry Williams, Guido Montalbano, Len Pruyn, Charles E. Fritch, Lee Cake) or carpentry (Stan Cook) or journalism (Chuck Weisenberg,Jack Matcha) and headed mostly for law school or an M.A. in library science, I lived in the presence of the constant ashes and odor of burned bridges.

Editing and teaching found me, dragged me kicking and screaming away from a series of loud, cranky manual typewriters and one spectacular, fire-engine red Olivetti portable and, incidentally, the best cat I have ever known, and into the world of the office, the suit, the less objectionable necktie.

Editing first. It came when one of my clients, a mail-order purveyor of remaindered books, decided to publish some of his own books, handed me a list of titles he thought to sell, and asked me how many on the list I thought I could write. At first, he seemed content with my response that I could write all of them (and indeed, I could have) but even he knew more about publishing than I did. 

 A publisher doesn't do one book at a time,he insisted. A publisher publishes a list, don't you know? Where do you think books come from? (Solopsist that I was, I thought books came from some hidden place within me that I had found through the yoga of renouncing graduate school.)

I found out, first working alternate weeks as a clerk at Pickwick, a bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard, next to the iconic Musso & Frank Grill. While I was finding out, my employer did the math and realized we would both be considerably into the aging process if he were to wait for me to write all the books on his list.

Besides, in addition to those books, there was my own whimsical-but-insistent list of books to be written, and so one of the first things I learned about editing was how to lure writers away from the books they wanted to write and into the books my employer wanted. Or thought he wanted. In time, I was able to offer a quid pro quo, you write one of "mine" and I'll take one of yours.

This really isn't a memoir, it is a kind of moral quandary or investigation, involving the estimable Mrs. Deane. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I became involved in teaching because of the editing and writing. Irwin Blacker, the rare academic who could write producible screenplays, was the chairman of a new program starting at the University of Southern California. He invited me to give two lectures for one of his instructors, an editor who had serious business back in New York. At Charlie's classes--for Charlie was the instructor's name--I gave my standard pitch to the students: Here's what we want. Here's what we want from you.
In two classes, I'd run through my wisdom about publishing and editing and thought never to set foot on the USC campus again.

That was thirty-two years ago. I am still there, running through what I know about publishing and editing and writing. Hundreds of books have passed through my hands, either as a salaried editor or a freelance. During that process, an undergraduate pal had become first the deputy book editor then the head book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, then moved on to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. One of the things he knew about publishing was that editors had to do analytical reports on in-house projects, and so another accident, the accident of reviewing books for newspapers, journals,magazines, and the like.

Can we get back to Mrs. Deane now?

Yes; I think the time has come. The Mrs.Deane blog site has been posting some photos I think are quite remarkable. They are about individuals, themselves idiosyncratic, living and working in idiosyncratic situations that are made even more interesting by Mrs. Deane's tart, ironic comments. I am already seeing a book in this series of photos and comments. While Mrs. Deane nods at the interest, the psychology of the entire process--my enthusiasm with the Mrs. Deane blog site, my being able to see a book project for Mrs. Deane--opens a moral issue. Should the viewer stop at the mere expression of appreciation and, in effect, watch the process as Mrs. Deane continues to post and comment? Does the viewer have any right to suggest, or does that behavior cross a line? I see blogs in which photographers speak of the ethics of photographing people, say, or animals. I see angry exchanges between critics who accuse one another of beating up on biographical subjects or, indeed, beating up on fictional characters. And I see what I consider to be sophomoric speculations about how the creator's obligation is to some inchoate expression of The Truth.

As it stands now, I think yes, I probably crossed a line when I went beyond expressing my admiration for the postings on her site and suggested a book. It was the editor and teacher in me, speaking out; the writer already knows the mild sting of annoyance when someone suggests, You should write about--

I apologize, Mrs. Deane.

And yet.

Those are lovely posts.

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