An American Editor

March 22, 2011

What’s Wrong with this Sentence? The Editor’s Eye

I was reading some fiction recently, when I came across this sentence (and it is the complete sentence as it appeared in the story):

“As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial.”

The sentence brought me to a halt. What is wrong with the sentence? Nothing? Something? I’ll wait for your editorial eye to tell me the answer, and how foolish I was to be stopped by a perfectly good sentence.

(Waiting for time to pass and your editorial eye to grapple with the question and come to a resolution.)

Okay, enough time has passed. Either you are ready to tell me how foolish I am or how magnificent an editor I must be. Which is it?

Grammatically, the sentence is fine. It has everything one could hope for in a succinct bit of prose. The problem, if there is one, lies with Beelzebub and Belial. Beelzebub is a name for the Devil, as is Belial. To the average reader, the sentence reads, “As well ask [the Devil] to rein in [the Devil].” To distinguish between Beelzebub and Belial requires a sophistication that the average reader of the type of fiction in which the sentence is found is unlikely to have. To make the distinction requires some familiarity with Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work few of us have mastery of, and perhaps knowledge of Late Latin translations of Biblical Hebrew.

A confused reader is likely to turn to a handy dictionary, such as The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), in which the primary definition of Beelzebub is “The Devil; Satan” and that of Belial is “A personification of wickedness and ungodliness alluded to in the Bible.” It seems to me that the former includes the latter and the latter includes the former; that is, they are one and the same.

But when we get to Paradise Lost, we learn that although both Beelzebub and Belial are evil incarnate, each is a different fallen angel. Milton uses Beelzebub as the name for the fallen angel who is the Devil and Belial as the name of the fallen angel who represents impurity. With Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence becomes clear (or at least clearer); without Paradise Lost in mind, the sentence is muddy. How many of us have Paradise Lost in our hip pocket?

I ask the question because it raises an editorial question. If the book I was reading had been a book about etymology or language or Paradise Lost or any number of nonfiction topics, the sentence should pass without hesitation, assuming there was explanatory context for it or a reader would be expected to know the allusion. But the book was fiction, which means it was addressed to a different audience with a different expected level of literary sophistication. Consequently, the editorial question becomes: Should the editor have flagged this sentence, questioning whether it would be understood by the expected readership?

I view the role of a professional editor as more than just making sure that a book is devoid of homonym and spelling errors. I think a professional editor needs to tackle with the author issues such as allusions that the author’s expected readers are unlikely to grasp without help but that are important to the story. This is particularly the case in fiction, which is intended to be entertaining, not scholarly (in the sense of a nonfiction academic work). Entertainment is rarely having to research the meaning of a sentence in a novel.

I grant that with some of the new electronic reading devices learning the difference between Beelzebub and Belial is pretty easy. On my Sony 950, for example, I can double-tap on the names and the Oxford American Dictionary pops up with definitions/explanations. But as quick and easy as that is, doing so interrupts the flow of the story. Alternatively, I can just ignore the sentence and assume it has some deep meaning that is of little relevance to me or the story, but isn’t that accusing the author of wasting my time with irrelevancies? Is that the reputation an author wants to develop? Being a time-waster?

Presumably an author has chosen words carefully to convey a particular meaning. In fiction, an author wants that meaning conveyed immediately, with as little fuss on the reader’s part as is possible. A good author includes in his or her story only those words and phrases that are relevant for conveying the tale the author wants to tell. Consequently, in the fiction I was reading, the sentence, “As well ask Beelzebub to rein in Belial,” had great importance — it was important to convey in a compact way the difficulty of getting a character to do/not do something. Which means, does it not, that the sentence needs to be understandable so that the meaning is conveyed?

Which brings me back to my original question: What is wrong with this sentence in light of who the expected reader is? Is this the best way to convey the information to be conveyed to the reader? Will using two names that are often identified with the same “thing” be helpful or confusing? What should the professional editor do when faced with this type of sentence?

Although there is no definitive answer to any of the questions, how an editor answers them and what the editor does can speak volumes.

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