On editing and being edited
by Sal Robinson
Two recent pieces on editing and editors provide some food for thought for those (like me, and probably anyone currently being edited) who are constantly thinking about the role, duties, responsibilities, sins, virtues, and other attendant qualities of editors, and this whole activity of taking something that someone else has written and making changes to it.
Over at Columbia, John Simon recounts his experiences editing W.H. Auden, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun for the Mid-Century Book Society’s magazine — all of them, if you can believe it, at the same time. Some of them took to it more than others:
Auden, who was jovially insouciant, handed in smart but sloppy stuff that needed a lot of editing, which he readily and gratefully accepted. Trilling was more difficult. Always by telephone, one went over proposed changes, some of which, after some discussion, he accepted, some not.
Barzun, however, one was not allowed to edit. Everything, down to the last comma, had to be left as it was, even where — an admitted rarity — improvement was possible. When we spoke on the phone, I could conjure up my interlocutor. He was undoubtedly smiling his frosty smile, one part convivial and two parts condescending. Since he was tall, the smile, when delivered in person, would literally descend upon you, accompanying an elegant diction that itself had a sort of smile in it.
But age tempered Barzun, Simon says:
A very different Barzun from the one I knew emerges in “Late Years” — more modest and adaptable. Concerning From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun writes to his editor, “I want every opportunity to improve my work through the remarks of choice readers. And I mean comments of every sort: clumsy wording, too much on one topic, risky generality about our own time, dull stuff — the lot.”
Meanwhile, over at the New York Review of Books, Tim Parks takes up the glove he threw down with an earlier post about the Americanization of his newest book during the editing process, in a new piece about linguistic conventions, concluding that:
All this alerts us to the fact that each text and each usage in the text has no absolute existence, content, or meaning, but is always understood in relation to where we are now, what we regularly read and expect to see on the page.
Parks follows this with a theory that contexts are becoming blurred, that eventually we’ll all be using a single standard or at least we’ll be expected to be aware of other standards as if they were our own (instead of just convinced that they’re wrong), but given the ferocious attachment of certain communities to different standards even within national boundaries, this is hard to picture. I think the greater point to hold on to is his first one, and it’s one that editors could remind themselves of every day, to check absolute senses of rightness and wrongness. That’s not enough, though, for we also have to have a compelling sense of the book as a whole, the parts, the part we want to edit, and how those edits would serve the book or the section or the sentence. And on top of that, particularly in the case of a translation or a work that in some sense reflects another culture, language, or way of ordering things, we need a sense of what edits are truly necessary.
There is, indeed, a conservative tendency to editing at times — a worry that the book won’t sell or will be misunderstood, a leariness about putting between covers and into the public record something bizarre or unfamiliar. But I think it’s fair to say that in many of these cases we may be underestimating readers, who read all kinds of things all the time and absorb them willy-nilly, double quotes outside the period or no. And who (often but not always) turn to reading in the first place for linguistic surprise, for daring, for saying what can’t be said elsewhere.
What Parks does convey, as does Simon, is the pure and dizzying level of emotion that the editorial process can provoke on both sides, which makes all these decisions feel like they’re being made on the top of a dormant but smoking volcano. It’s not spitting fire yet. But just wait ‘til you move that comma.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.