Friday, August 21, 2015

Editor's Note: Bring Home Milk and Eggs

Over the course of your experiences as an editor and a teacher of publishing-related topics (the short story, the novel, memoir, essay) you've had the opportunity to edit a considerable range of material.  

The writers you've dealt with in consequence have expressed as broad a range of responses as you imagine there to be within the human condition. These responses have ranged from such positive-based attitudes as gratitude, agreement, and your favored of all, the sense of cooperation that comes when both the editor and the writer understand the satisfaction of the author's intent being made clear and resonant.

To be sure, there have been opposite responses, ranging from defensiveness to combativeness, ending with accusations that you have set out with deliberation to somehow subvert and repudiate the very material you as editor sought to acquire for publication or that you, as teacher, have suggested in connection with an assignment designed to help the writer understand his or her feelings and thoughts about the subject at hand.

You've seen the results of your own work after it has been reviewed and commented upon by an editor, on occasion leaving you with notes and questions which cause you, against your attempts to think this way, to question the overall intelligence of the editor.  An exaggerated example of this last aspect might be a note in the margin of a manuscript in which you'd made reference to Mahatma Gandhi.  The note will say, "Who he?"

There have been occasions when editors have asked if you could dumb something down, eschew your use of the semicolon, add more background, write shorter sentences, avoid using the word "and" to connect independent clauses, explain what you meant, remove explanation, become more conversational in your narrative voice, stop making puns, stop making jokes, and stop using Moby-Dick or Bleak House as examples of narrative conflict.

In fairness, you've made similar requests or suggestions when you were the editor of someone else's work.  This sense you have of a necessity to fairness compels you to recognize the times when all is going well between a writer and an editor; as well you recognize the feelings of exasperation felt by each at the hands of the other.

Writing and editing are two different things.  The writer is engaging a pretense of being one or more characters, claiming to understand the attitudes and visions of each character.  The writer may also be a filter for a line of thought or a procession of information, presented as an argument that may betray attitude but not lapses in logical progression.

The editor wants to remove distractions and equivocation.  This reminds you of an argument you saw yourself close to being swallowed up by when, as an editor of an English writer who taught at a university in Scotland persisted in the use of a figure of speech known as litote, whereby a character may, for instance not be kind, nor would she be unkind, thus the character may be said to have been not unkind.  

She smiled at me in a not unkind way.  American. literal, and impatient you wanted to get on with it.  The character was either kind or unkind.  We do not, you wrote, go about, talking about things that are absent.  You would not say "There was no honey in the larder"  Not unless a character had made a specific search for honey.  Then, you could either say "There was no honey to be found, after all the searching," or "There was no honey in the larder."

You could not say a person was not unkind, you said.  With the certainty of a person who had used such memes all his life, the author replied to you, "One most certainly can."  He insisted that the individual of whom he spoke was neither kind nor unkind, rather a third degree on the scale, not unkind.

Sooner or later, you reminded yourself that you were this individual's editor, not his teacher, not his judge, not his critic.  You were publishing him because he had something to say about a subject your publishing house wished to publish, something that had survived two peer reviews, neither of which said the work was not invaluable or not unpromising, rather that it was valuable and promising.  

Even though the peer reviewers were Brits, who might well have said the work was not without promise, they chose a more direct, American, by your view, means of description.  He's the author.  You're the editor.  Your job is to support him, not to rail about an aspect of speech you would not think to use, even though he uses the aspect of speech you rail about when the opportunity presents itself.

Sometimes, when you look at the suggestions an editor has made to you about something you've written, you have to ask yourself if following the editor's suggestion will make you sound more like yourself or more like the aspects of your communication that have come from your early days of wanting to affect the urbanity or wit or irony of an admired author.  If you don't have the urbanity or wit or irony, you've learned in the process that you need to get it.  You have you, which was your ticket into this situation in the first place.

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