April 25, 2012

Letters to the editor


Raymond Chandler

There’s a long tradition of scathing notes sent by writers to proofreaders and copy editors. Raymond Chandler, writing to a copy editor at the Atlantic Monthly in 1947, told her that ‘When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.’ And he didn’t stop there; he penned a poem of protest to poor Margaret Mutchposted in its entirety by Letters of Note last week. A sample:

O dear Miss Mutch, don’t raise your crutch
To splinter my new glass eye!

There ain’t no school that can teach a fool
The whom of the me and the I.

There ain’t no grammar that equals a hammer
To nail down a cut-rate wit.

And the verb ‘to be’ as employed by me
Is often and lightly split.

A lot of my style (so-called) is vile
For I learned to write in a bar.

The marriage of thought to words was wrought
With many a strong sidecar.

A lot of my stuff is extremely rough,
For I had no maiden aunts.

O dear Miss Mutch, leave go your clutch
On Noah Webster’s pants!

The grammarian will, when the poet lies still,
Instruct him in how to sing.

The rules are clean: they are right, I ween,
But where do they make the thing?

In the waxy gloam of a Funeral Home
Where the gray morticians bow?

Is it written best on a palimpsest,
Or carved on a whaleboat’s prow?

Is it neatly joined with needlepoint
To the chair that was Grandma’s pride?

Or smeared in blood on the shattered wood
Where the angry rebel died?

Scathing stuff, but perhaps not as scathing as the email critic and novelist Giles Coren sent to his proofreaders at the (London) Times, which was leaked in 2008. Remember that? Irate that the indefinite article ‘a’ had been removed from his closing sentence, Coren wrote:

There is no length issue. This is someone thinking “I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and i know best”.

Well, you fucking don’t.
This was shit, shit sub-editing…

…worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed ‘a’ so that the stress that should have fallen on “nosh” is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.

And it goes on, complete with swearing that would make Armando Iannucci blush. (Apologies for the pruning there, Giles.)

In 2007, Helen DeWitt wrote a more considered if no less ardent defence of her work from the intervention of copy-editors, calling on her doctoral thesis in ancient literary criticism:

The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.

Signs point to a flourishing literary subgenre of letters to, or articles about, the copy-editor. In defence of copy editors the world over, their job is essential to the quality of books, and the relationship rarely becomes this fraught. Still, these are a joy to read. Anyone care to point us to any more — or, indeed, to any ripostes?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.