Here is everyone’s chance to show me up as a shamefully inept Googler. Mulling over a recent post on the future of editors as oral culture makes a revolutionary comeback, I realised that I knew nothing definite about the history of editing as a profession. I was thinking of the very beginning, centuries before Yeats’ frightening spectacle of learned bald heads crunching lines by young men ‘rhymed out in love’s despair’.
Typing editing + history into a search box only fetched links to texts about digital and film editing, or about Byzantine Wikipedian editing procedures — or fine-tuning Doom, presumably what young geeks who can’t be bothered to ‘flatter beauty’s ignorant ear’ do in our time. I sighed, ‘Oh, please!’ when editing + history + Britannica yielded, for a fourth result, the 1911 Encyclopaedia’s entry on the history of Switzerland. When I looked up one of the ‘E ’ tomes on my shelves, I found that my vintage Britannica had nothing on either editors or editing.
What that suggests is that for generations, we’ve unconsciously accepted text editing as so inextricable from publishing that we are no more likely to examine its raison d’être than anyone sensible tries looking at the tip of his nose without a mirror.
The superior sense of entitlement to creative latitude that I’ve detected in the subtext of many posts by the visual artists on this site, compared to most writers, made me stop one day and think: ah, but of course none of them have ever had to contend with editors pawing over their work. Here I must confess that I’ve worked as an editor myself, but my views about this task were formed, young, by two powerful men. One of them advised me to stay as far as possible from editors. The other ran a magazine and used the authority conferred on him by a famously dazzling career at Cambridge to set a policy of hiring writers with unusual care and then — instead of expecting us to follow a style that he dictated — taking special pride in letting our distinctive approaches through in print.
Both men are unusual. I had a ferocious attack of the green-eyed monster after I realised that in no branch of the arts — with the exception of architecture — is one professional routinely licensed to tamper with the work of another to anything like the same degree as in writing of every kind. An architect’s plans must be approved by engineers in civic building departments, but – as far as I know, she or he makes the final decisions about how to tweak aesthetic values to meet the rules, and the wishes of clients. Each conductor of a symphony will interpret a composer’s piece differently, but does not get to mark its master-score. Painters may have had to accommodate the tastes of patrons and gallery-owners over the ages, but no one alters the shade of any colour they choose or re-does brushstrokes – yet that is precisely the kind of correction to which some of the most famous names in literary history have submitted.
Not long ago, the world learnt from The New Yorker that the literary style we once thought of as ‘Carveresque’ was actually the result of a monumental slashing and minute reworking of the short stories of Raymond Carver by his editor, Gordon Lish.
From where, I wondered, did editors originally acquire the God-like sway over the work of writers that made Carver, for one, deeply unhappy? The answer appears to be . . . well, . . . God.
The trail suddenly grew warmer when I had a flashing image of monks hunched over manuscripts and tried ‘scriptorium’ as my key search word. The Wikipedia offers these clues to a mystery that I’d enjoy digging further into – collaboratively — with anyone reading here:
The period of “Late Manuscript Culture” dates from roughly the mid-fourteenth century to the fifteenth century, preceding and existing alongside the printing press. [. . .] There are many clear characteristics of Late Manuscript Culture. For instance, careful attention was paid to the punctuation and layout of texts, with readability and specifically reading aloud taking pre-eminence. Meaning had to be clear in every sentence, with as little room left to interpretation as possible [. . .] due to preachings’ rise in popularity after the Fourth Lateran Council.**
Preaching, hmm, then . . .
The emergence of new standards in manuscript production, beginning in the Low Countries at the end of the fourteenth century, clearly marked the beginning of a new epoch in manuscript culture. Uniformity would result from the desire for clarity, both in terms of bibliographic accuracy and the reproduction and correction of the text itself.
. . . But correction to conform with exactly what ur-text, and obtained how? . . . By divine revelation? Some holey-moley mountebank intoning unctuously, ‘Dear Brethren, by the authority vested in me by the Almighty himself . . .’ ?
This is my roundabout way of saying that the most basic assumptions about the rightness of deferring to editors are centuries out of date – that these lovely people should have been turned into pterodactyls a long time ago. Yes, clarity and precision in communication are as desirable as they ever were. But with the instantaneousness intrinsic to net culture, mistakes and ambiguities in transmission are corrected in a blink by feedback from readers and other kinds of ‘audiences’.
Might textual creativity surge in shocking and unexpected ways when writers – or do I really mean, ‘text-focused multi-media artists’ – are as free as most of today’s visual artists from the dead hand of micro-management? As free to write as colourfully – or colourlessly – as they speak, each one truly individual? Without editors – as I can testify from my nine-week experiment in blogging – writers can act on responses to texts in a way that was never possible with editors obstructing the supercharging feedback loop that one young sculptor has turned into a theme.
O brave new world, come as soon as you can.
** The papal palace in Rome is called the Lateran Palace because, in ancient times, the site was owned and occupied by the Laterani family. Five different Ecumenical Councils have been held there during the Middle Ages.