An American Editor

April 30, 2014

Editing for the Message or the Language?

I was reading a review of a book about Stefan Zweig, an author who is obscure today but was quite famous in Central Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s when this question occurred to me: Do professional editors edit for the message or for the structure and language of a manuscript?

I realize that in the abstract the answer can be “both,” but the reason this question came to mind was because of Zweig’s history. Zweig was one of the founders of the formalist school of writing and subsequently came to be viewed as its leader.

The question I ask does have some parameters. For example, message means the politics, philosophy, or “religion” of the manuscript, whereas structure and language refer to the specifics of the manuscript. For most of us who are asked to edit on tight deadlines, I think the answer is clearly that we edit for the structure and language, not for the message. For us, the message is incidental except for how clearly and coherently it is expressed. It is because of this that we see the discussions about the ethics of turning down work on a manuscript whose message we personally abhor.

But the article on Zweig got me thinking about editing and its role. Perhaps this question best sums up my wondering: Is editing literary criticism just in another guise? If editing is literary criticism, then we need to be concerned with the message. If editing is not a form of literary criticism, then we need only be concerned with the formalism aspects of the manuscript.

Zweig’s world divided editing into formalism and symbolism. Under formalism, the concern was with repeatedly seeing and “enforcing” across manuscripts the same literary style and approach. Formalism determined that there is one way in which to present a genre and all manuscripts had to conform to that one way.

Although I am sure there will be a rush to dismiss the strictures of formalism in today’s editing, I am not convinced we can so easily dismiss formalism as a product of a bygone era that no longer has life. After all, isn’t the approach of the style manuals a formalism approach? When we ask what “Chicago” says about compound adjectives or when we are told by a client to adhere to the APA style manual, are we not practicing formalism? Maybe we are not so rigid that every plot is identical, but are we not rigid enough to require that every manuscript we edit adhere to certain predetermined rules and if it does not, we make it conform?

The formalism school goes much deeper than (perhaps) copyediting today goes. For example, formalism allows the same basic story to appear in multiple cultures at varying times using different words but the same fundamental story. In other words, the details and the evolution are the same just with different words. And formalism requires the stories to start at similar places and end in similar places, having crossed similar places and themes getting from beginning to end.

Editing as often practiced today is a search for patterning. We know that certain formulaic presentations work and others do not for today’s audiences. There are rules — express or implied — of which editors are cognizant, consciously or subconsciously, and which we apply in the guise of “improving” a manuscript, either at the request of our client or because, in the absence of client direction, we choose to “apply” a particular style.

Which leads me back to what I consider the most intriguing question: Is editing a form of literary criticism? If we get past the formalism approach and, instead, work on the message of the manuscript, there is a chance that our work as editors could rise to the level of literary criticism. I would consider that a worthy goal, especially today when literary criticism, as practiced in the early and mid twentieth century, seems to be a lost art.

A knowledgeable editor could easily be a literary critic. With the ability to call upon multiple sources as well as to discuss the more formalistic aspects of a manuscript, the editor can provide invaluable insight. Alas, that would amount to volunteer work because it is clear that few publishers and authors are willing to pay an editor for the time necessary to think about a manuscript’s message.

Today’s professional editor is much different than the professional editor of 30 years ago, when I first entered editing, and certainly much different than the editor of the 1950s. When I began editing, one of the things I was asked to do was to give a critique of the manuscript. The critique was to be emphasize any structural issues and, more importantly, any message issues. Was the message coherent? Was it understandable? Was it sustainable? How did it fit, if it fit at all, with similar topic manuscripts?

The in-house staff asked me what books I was reading (in those days, my to-be-read pile was never more than two or three books) and I often was given a manuscript that fell into the broad field of what I was reading. The publisher wanted to know whether the manuscript was carving out its own place in the field or simply mimicking what was already there. If it was mimicking, did it do a better job of communicating?

What was wanted was literary criticism, which made editing exciting and intellectually stimulating (and provided a great excuse to buy books for my library). Unfortunately, it was not financially rewarding.

Today, most clients, if not all clients, want and expect the formalism approach to their manuscripts. For the most part, editing lacks the literary criticism component. I do not expect to see a revival of the literary criticism approach to editing.

Today, I think, most professional editors edit for the structure and language of a manuscript, not the message. This is what clients want and also reflects the skills and mindset of many editors. Fewer and fewer editors have been exposed to or educated in literary criticism; the description of editing has changed over the decades.

What is most fascinating to me is that 100 years after the rise of the formalism approach of Stefan Zweig’s era we are participating in its rebirth. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen; that it is what the market wants seems obvious.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 11, 2010

The Rarefied Literary Critic: Literary Criticism from One Author’s Perspective

Sue Lange, today’s guest writer, is a novelist and blogger on culture and technology at the Singularity Watch. Two of her published books of science fiction satire (Tritcheon Hash [2003, Metropolis Ink] and We, Robots [2007, Aqueduct Press]) are available at Amazon. Sue also has an ebook compilation of her published short fiction available in the Kindle Store or at Book View Cafe. Sue followed my articles about the downfall of literature and what follows is her take on the subject.

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The Rarefied Literary Critic

by Sue Lange

Rarefied: lower in oxygen. Extend that idea to all gases. Extend it further to the world of literature and you get a critic who is not full of hot air. I have nothing against windbags, but when it comes to literary criticism, perhaps less is more. Less gas maybe means more substance.

According to the Microsoft dictionary, rarefied also means “very high quality in character or style.” We worry that the high quality in character and style publishers and critics have exhibited in the past will go away in the new, anything goes Internet models. Consider Ben Elowitz’s assertion in “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless” that times have changed. The credentials, accuracy, objectivity, and craftsmanship of those presenting published materials no longer matter. Speed and relevancy matter now. Content is king and the people alone crown it. No high priests. No swearing in with the right hand on the Bible.

Can the Internet audience find a king, let alone the right one? The one that can pull the sword out of the rock? Or do we need a rarefied literary critic that can recognize blue blood and ensure that we don’t go down in history as a pack of ignorant, tasteless, illiterates? Further, does it matter if we can’t leave behind evidence of our scholarliness and ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? Civilizations have come and gone without a trace. I doubt the citizens of such races suffered because they left no record, let alone one of literary achievement. However, we maybe suffer having no access to the lessons those unrecorded civilizations learned. Perhaps what you leave behind is important.

Beyond that, though, I say, yes, there is need for accurate and intelligent comment on our published works. As an author I want to know I hit the target. Sure it’s nice to get a bunch of five-star reviews by writing to the lowest common denominator, but if you put more into the material than just sex and violence, if reviews are not detailed and thoughtful what good are they? I mean beyond all the money to be made from a runaway bestseller that speaks to the lowest common denominator. There is that. But I daresay, deep down inside, every writer wants a competent analysis of their work. Because without that, an author is simply the equivalent of the tree falling in the forest. No sound is made because no one is hearing it.

Does this low-gas, high-substance critic exist anymore? It’s easy to bemoan the fact that the Internet makes a democracy of criticism as Elowitz’ article implies. Every one of the unwashed others is a critic now: educated, uneducated, those with an ax to grind, those who have something to gain personally. Everyone has access to a platform on which to exclaim their judgment. How can we glean understanding from the opinions of such?

Not only is everybody a critic, but there is exponentially more material to wade through to find the good stuff. Where will our John Kennedy Tools, Zora Neale Hurstons, Herman Melvilles come from now that the playing field is not only level but overflowing with talent? Competition for readership is so fierce no writer is going to get more than a little sliver of the fame pie. How can the critics familiarize themselves with all that is out there in order to make an intelligent decision on who is worthy? In case you didn’t realize it the first sentence in this paragraph was sarcastic. All three of those now worshipped authors were at one point dissed by either the publishing industry or the critics of the day. I’m sure there are many other such tragic instances, not to mention thousands of genius authors whose work never even saw the light of day. The point is things were never perfect and maybe the art of kingmaking was never much better than it is today.

So we, the consumers of the Internet, are heirs to a system of criticism with a history of mixed results. Where do we go from here? Our tools are suspect, our present style ruled by the mob.

Take a look at our assets. We have a collective conscious comprised of a million voices communicating with a million keyboards. This appears to be a deficit: isn’t the democracy of the marketplace why pop music sucks? Pop music is not a genre, it’s merely music that is popular. And the banal always has the broadest appeal because no one is offended.

Although music and literature are both creative arts, the end products of their criticism have different effects. The common man’s voice is now the written word. When the common man voices his opinion on music, the musical continuum is unaffected. But in writing about writing, a lesson is learned and the lesson is about writing. What happens when you write? You get better at it. And then what happens? You recognize other people’s writing and what’s good about it. In other words the medium of the Internet actually teaches people about good writing by making them do it. It teaches them nothing about good music. Maybe there will never be such a thing as pop literature then. Wouldn’t that be something?

I don’t kid myself, people find greatness in opinions that they agree with. The form of the opinion doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content of it. But some amateur critics will learn from form, about the form. Something will sink in. A more educated public will produce better criticism and better recognition of criticism.

Will it ever produce a critic as enlightened as someone who does nothing but read and write all day? Perhaps. Unfortunately, though, our system does no more to nurture the budding critic than it does to nurture the budding author. Yes, the avenues are there for a would be writer or critic, but it does nothing to nurture them and nurturing is required for excellence. An author is nurtured not only by a three-book deal, but by an editor and a public that understands the nuance and gives competent feedback. How will the critic be nurtured?

Technophilic bloggers spend more time reading tips on how to garner readers than the latest, greatest writing. With their huge readerships, they appear to be viable tastemakers, when in reality they’re just good at the pop mentality. Serious criticism requires a knowledge of what has gone before and what is out now. Who’s reading all that literature? Certainly not the technophilic blogger watching visitor stats and thinking about search engine optimization.

There is one group that does educate itself on what has gone before: the authors. The self-respecting authors, anyway. The ones that deserve critical acclaim. True critical acclaim, not just best seller status. These are the serious writers that respect the art. The ones that voraciously read and study the competition. The ones who love a good book. And they will seek and support an intelligent critic.

Perhaps the industry will turn to self-policing then. It will judge itself. I’m sure that will work. Look how well it works for the military.

I believe we need competent, thoughtful critics to help us wade through the dross. We will find those that have educated themselves on what is out there, what has gone before. Much like scientists who once were knowledgeable in every field, but now specialize, they will not know every book in every genre. They will have a field in which they know every book. We will trust them. They will decide who the king of content is. We, the people, however, will decide who the critic is. Welcome to the world. Breathe. Lots of air, lots of oxygen. It’s healthy, but don’t be afraid if things get thin. A little less gas means a lot more substance.

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As you can see, Sue and I have differing points of view. For those who would like to read my original articles, you can begin with this one: Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? It was followed by a 4-part series that began with eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I and continued over the following 3 days.

I know some of you weighed in on this discussion by commenting on my articles, but does Sue’s perspective change your mind? Do you agree with her? Have you something to add?

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