An American Editor

September 9, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Mastering Subjectivity

by Carolyn Haley

An earlier essay on this blog, “The Ethics of Distaste,” focused on the professional aspects of editing distasteful material. The following essay supplements the ethics discussion by focusing on a manuscript editor’s emotional challenge that may occur behind the scenes. Although this essay’s context is fiction, some of its ideas and techniques apply, as well, to nonfiction editing.

The Personal Dilemma of Distaste

What makes a novel distasteful to you personally could be anything: incoherent writing, a repellent subject, plots or characters so ludicrous or undeveloped that the book is painful to read — all or none of the above. Even if you handle the business side of a distasteful novel with impeccable professionalism, there remains the head–heart strife that comes from getting stuck with something you should turn down but can’t afford to, or ethically back out of once committed. That stress, unmanaged, can undermine the quality of your editing, which, in turn, could lead to client payment problems for independent editors, employment repercussions for staff editors, or reputation damage for both. The stress might possibly damage your health, too, from fighting against yourself internally.

What to Do?

When burdened with a distasteful novel, you as editor must make mental and emotional adjustments to deal with it successfully. The first step is to rationalize what the book really is, and the second is to take time for some do-it-yourself training and therapy.

Rationalization

Novel writing is an art form: a literary art, like poetry, scripts, or short stories; a sister art to painting, sculpture, music, dance, and theater. People compelled to create art have different mindsets than those who evaluate their work. Creative compulsion is often inarticulate, driven by emotion. A novel’s purpose is to create an emotional experience for readers through story (as compared to nonfiction, whose purpose is to inform).

A fiction editor’s role is to help authors express their vision as coherently as possible to the audience most inclined to value it. Developmental editors have the best opportunity to untangle gnarly books and make them shine, but line editors and copy editors enter the process after content decisions have been made. They can only address mechanical elements and make a lot of queries. All editing tasks are much easier to embrace when you fathom the subjectivity of art, and remember that a fiction editor’s job is to help actualize art in the form of a novel.

Distasteful novels will keep many of us employed for years to come. Today we are seeing a growing number of authors who don’t write well and never will. Although almost everyone in the industrialized nations can read and write, they’re not all being trained in basic composition or required to study classic literature. Fewer and fewer take courses in creative writing or have workplace mentors disciplining their prose. Yet more and more have the tools and freedom to easily express themselves, adding to the distasteful-novel parade through editors’ hands.

Self-training/-therapy

If your tolerance for distasteful novels has worn thin, or your art appreciation has gone stale, then it’s time to reprogram your emotional response. That starts with physically altering your perspective.

For example, step outside literature and walk through an art museum, a gallery, or an arts-and-crafts fair. Look at every piece and assess how you feel about it, what you’re willing to spend money on. Surely you will pass by most of the offerings then stop when something catches your eye or heart. You’ll note that most pieces are produced with mediocre to extraordinary skill, and reveal an astonishing range of imagination.

You’ll see people cheerfully buying paintings you wouldn’t dream of hanging on your walls, while those you consider masterpieces are left behind. At the same time, you may be tempted by something to blow your budget on and enjoy in your own home for the rest of your life.

Try the same exercise in the other arts. Attend, in any combination, a play, a ballet, a Broadway show, a child’s musical recital, a rock concert, a symphony, a folk festival, an open mic session at a coffee house poetry night. Alternatively, close your eyes and select a DVD off the shelf from three or more categories and periods, then play them back to back. What’s your reaction to each?

Perhaps watch a TV show such as NBC’s The Voice, which is a singing competition that parallels a novelist’s apprenticeship from raw talent to star performer. The show displays what an artist goes through to become competent and accepted, and how helpless they are against other people’s tastes and opinions— or boosted along by them.

Then visit a bookstore. Allow yourself to be amazed by the total number of volumes on the shelves. Wander through each fiction section and peruse a few titles, observing how different each is from the next in subject and style, and how widely they range in quality. Watch what people bring to the cash register, and count how often their choices differ from yours.

Then go back to the distasteful novel on your desk.

New Eyes

The book hasn’t changed; it may still be off-putting gobbledygook. But you’ve been colorfully reminded that it wasn’t written for you, and your job is to help it along its path to reaching others. Now you can see it as a project begging for a stronger application of craft; a story struggling to get free; an object needing refinement. Now you can roll up your sleeves and tackle its language with all your skill. When the process is over, the result will be a better novel. Maybe it will even be great.

Maybe not, but what happens after you deliver the manuscript is outside your control. Although your soul may agonize over the book’s imperfections, your professional duty is to deliver what you were hired to do. As part of that, you’re obliged to establish mutual understanding of expectations with your client or employer so all parties, especially the author, are pleased with your contribution. Bottom line: Your job is to improve the book within employment parameters, not to guarantee its publication or success.

The onus for that falls on other parties. A book’s fate depends on how far an author is willing or able to go in upgrading their work, combined with where and how they choose to expose it. Success or failure depends on the following, singly or in combination:

  • an acquiring editor’s taste in novels or directive to find what the house seeks for publication;
  • an agent’s sense of what is likely to sell within the categories they serve, and who they try to place the work with;
  • a contest judge’s pile of manuscripts, time available to review them, and mood of the day;
  • the self-publishing venue a book is released through;
  • any marketing and promotion done for the book, and reviews it receives;
  • ultimately, readers’ moods, tastes, and where they shop.

These all fall beyond the scope of work for editors who handle manuscripts prior to submission. Ironically, a book’s success may come down to how well an editor managed the project: how enthusiastically she greeted the story, how seriously she took it, how supportive she was to the author, how lightly or heavily she touched the text, how conscious she was of reader viewpoint.

Options

If you can’t unplug your subjectivity, and your desire to influence what enters the marketplace still burns, then reorient your career. Acquisitions and managing editors have the power to accept or reject, as do literary agents. Developmental editors have much more hands-on opportunity to direct a manuscript’s course than do line and copy editors. Alternatively, you can volunteer to judge writing contests in your free time, or become a book reviewer so you can publicly proclaim your opinion.

Regardless, increase your exposure to all the arts so you can better appreciate their variety and impact on other people’s lives. Then support what you think deserves success by spending your own dollars on it. Earn your next dollars by welcoming each manuscript as a challenge to your own creativity; a puzzle, perhaps, to solve within tight rules. Approaching editing distasteful novels this way eases frustration and revives the joy and marvel of being paid to read stories.

Accepting and Moving On

By accepting the editorial bottom line — improving the work within employment parameters — we can free ourselves from the downside of distasteful novels. The upside comes from regarding our job as helping literary artists achieve their dreams and touch other lives through their creative work. Even novels we consider distasteful may go on to great sales and acclaim, win awards, snag lucrative movie deals. They may build the foundation for long and prolific writing careers. We can help that happen by cultivating a pro-author, art-loving attitude.

The key is to remember that all novelists have to start somewhere, and each is at a different point on a journey. Understanding that our personal taste must sometimes be put aside releases us to edit darn near any fiction manuscript and help authors advance toward their goals.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

June 10, 2015

The Ethics of Distaste

It must be the season for distaste. On a couple of forums someone has asked about backing out of an editing job because they discovered that they dislike (choose one or more) the author’s religious views, the subject matter of the project (e.g., erotica, anti-something the editor likes, abortion, devil worship), the political views expressed in the manuscript, and so on. Surprisingly, for the first time in my lengthy career someone applied for an editing position and outlined a list of projects they would not work on as part of their application.

I do not think editors must take on anything that crosses their threshold. If a project offends your sense of morality, saying no is a kindness to both you and the client. Yet there is a but to that blanket statement. I do not think the rules are the same when you have agreed to undertake the project, have started editing, and only as you get into the project discover that the project makes you squeamish.

Let’s begin with endorsements. That you have edited a project does not mean you endorse the author or the author’s point of view. Editing a medical text that includes a chapter on euthanasia does not mean you believe or endorse the view that those who are dying should be helped to speed the process. Similarly, just because you edit a book on investing in Zimbabwe does not mean you support Robert Mugabe or because you edit a book on Catholicism that you endorse the Catholic Church over all other religious institutions.

I am an editor. I am hired because of my skill with language. My clients do not ask — and if they did ask, I would not answer — what my religious or political beliefs are. On the other hand, there is nothing illegitimate in a client saying upfront that he would like an active member of the Catholic Church to edit his book about Catholic ritual because such an editor is likely to better understand the content. In such a case, my answer would simply be that I am not the right editor for that book.

Because I am hired for language skills, I should be able to edit anything. Content is not the king, coherence is the king and that does not mean I need to endorse the views of the author; it does mean that I must have the skill to determine whether since and because can by used synonymously in the particular book.

It seems as if I am ignoring the repugnant and saying that an editor must accept repugnant projects. To the contrary, I am saying that before you agree to edit a project, you should freely turn away any project that impinges your sense of right and wrong, insists that you help someone who you would classify as a societal cockroach, demands that you set aside any sense of civilization and embrace barbarity, requires that you deal with language that you used to get your mouth washed with soap for repeating. The key is before you begin editing, you can reject a project for any reason, including because you are a hater of ______ (fill-in the blank with your own discrimination beliefs).

The difficulty arises after you have accepted the project and started editing, especially if you have spent a significant amount of time editing the project. At this juncture, I think your obligations and options have changed. You can no longer make that unilateral decision to not edit; now you need to discuss the project with the client.

At minimum you owe your client an explanation as to why you want to give up on the project. I do not think it is enough to say that “I find the material morally reprehensible.” I think you owe the client a more detailed and nuanced explanation. You need to detail how your distaste affects your editing and how this does the client a disservice. Whether you are entitled to compensation for the work you have already done is also on the table. (Suppose the project is a $5,000 project and the client has already paid you $3,000. Is the client entitled to a refund? Should you offer one?)

Because you want to terminate a client’s business expectation, you probably should have another, equally capable editor already lined up and willing to takeover. I think it is wrong for editor at this stage to simply bow out and not have found or offered to help find a replacement editor. (Let me add a caveat to this: I am speaking of instances where the subject matter is the problem, not the client. If the problem is the client himself and not the subject matter, I do not think you are obligated to find another editor; if the problem is both the client and the subject matter, you need to try to determine whether your distaste for the client is because of a distaste for the subject matter of whether the distaste for the client stands on its own merits. If it is because of the subject matter, then you should find another editor; if it is the client on the client’s own merits, then you should not help find another editor. By the way, all of this presupposes that the client is amenable to releasing your from your agreement to edit his project.

Assuming the client is willing to free you, then it is my belief that you should refund any monies paid you by the client. As we all know, each editor is like her own island; switching editors midstream often means that the new editor starts from the beginning. Consequently, it strikes me that the ethical thing to do is refund payments you have received.

What if the client is unwilling to release you? Now the pot boils over because we are back to the question of whether the problem is the client or the subject matter or both. If the client is otherwise fine and the problem really lies with the subject matter, then I think the editor is obligated to continue editing as agreed. However, in this instance, I would ask the client to acknowledge that he has been asked to release you because you are repulsed by the subject matter, that as a result of his insistence that you continue you will do so as best you can but that you have advised the client that an editor who is not repulsed by the subject matter is likely to do a better editing job. Editing subject matter that is distasteful is difficult but not impossible. I have done it and I am sure many of you have too.

What is impossible, however, is to continue working with a client who you find offensive, ogreish. In this instance it may be unethical to continue editing the project if there is a chance that your dislike of the client will encourage you to make editorial choices that harm the project. In this instance, I would stand my ground and insist on terminating the agreement (and refund any payments I had received).

The difficult situation is where the client and the subject matter may be distasteful. As noted earlier, it is necessary to decide why the client is distasteful. Is it because the client himself is distasteful or because the subject matter encourages you to view the client as distasteful. If because the client is distasteful, then stand your ground; if it is the subject matter that is influencing your opinion, then continue to edit.

If you have strong views about what you are willing to edit and not willing to edit, state what you will do and won’t do on your website or in your initial contact with a potential client. Make clear, for example, that you will not edit books that approve of _________ or disapprove of ________ (fill in the blanks). Be upfront. But remember that once you have agreed to edit a project, it is unethical to unilaterally decide to stop just because you now find the subject matter or the client’s approach to the subject matter distasteful. With ethics, there is no such thing as no fault divorce.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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