Editors, editing and infant mortality … (part 2)

[ Editors, editing and infant mortality (part 1) can be read here. ]


When Han Kan was summoned
to the imperial capital
it was suggested that he sit at the feet of
the illustrious senior court painter
to learn from him the refinements of the art.

‘No thank you,’ he replied,
‘I shall apprentice myself to the stables.’

And he installed himself and his brushes amid the dung and the flies,
and studied the horses – their bodies’ keen alertness –
eye-sparkle of one, another’s sensitive stance,
the way a third moved graceful in his build –

and painted at last the emperor’s favorite,
the charger named ‘Nightshining White,’

whose likeness after centuries still dazzles.


…and that’s my answer to this whinge in yesterday’s New York Times from a misnamed James Sunshine …:

‘…Your column [..] dealt with the standards of blogs, as though we all agreed on what a blog is and is not. I spent 45 years at The Providence Journal, and I still do not understand them. Nor do I like them.

Is a blog merely the private thoughts of the blogger, who has been given the privilege of saying what he happens to think at the moment without a qualified editor passing judgment on it for accuracy, taste, appropriateness and so on? …’

Don’t tell me what the dictionary says, even if it's the OED. The word twit means: someone (i) still insisting in 2010 that bloggers post nothing worthy of close reading or looking; (ii) rabbiting on about how the internet has killed serendipity; (iii) wailing that editors should be treated as protected species, under the delusion that they midwife more good literature than they stifle — in the womb.

First, serendipity … Yesterday I learnt that Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, sent someone in Rumania to this site to look at Shawn Yu’s drawing of Bruce Chatwin — first published here. From that search result, I discovered – oh of course I read Russian, and with my eyes shut, who doesn’t? – that the Yu portrait has been chosen for nothing less than the home page of the site dedicated to the great nomad by Jonathan Chatwin, who is strangely not a relation, according to The Bibliophilic Blogger.

When I stumbled on the Yandex query, I happened to have been wondering what new work Yu and Harold Francis Bell, another artist lauded in this spot, might have put up on their sites lately. Bell appears to be in mid-redesign on his site, unless he has put painting aside to concentrate on his perceptive female-focused sculpture – if his slide show moving like a glimmering Chopin sonata is any guide. Yu’s blog says that he has just graduated from art school. It offers a fine self-portrait as compelling as Lang-Lang playing Beethoven, and a powerful nude in charcoal.

So much for serendipitous looking. As for reading, editors were on my mind when I checked the always stimulating blog of the novelist Helen DeWitt , whose reportedly brilliant The Last Samurai I have only failed to read because someone bossy, too close for comfort, keeps demanding that I do.

A brave – and much too rare – writer, she had the temerity to suggest last month that scribes submitting work to editors serving as gate-keepers and assayers should have ready access to information about those editors’ qualifications. She actually asked, in public, a question that – before the internet — could only have been put by one semi-inebriated writer to another in the darkest corner of a watering hole, and promptly forgotten about, for the security of both their careers:

Unlike the size of an advance, an editor’s intellectual strengths do not fluctuate with the economy or the sales of a writer’s last book. It would help to know what they were. […] It would be even more helpful if […] writers who had worked with an editor wrote brief accounts of their perception of the experience. […] This sort of suggestion seems to provoke suspicion if not down right hostility: wanting this kind of information was one of the reasons my last agent, Bill Clegg, had second thoughts about working with me.

[After that, she was understandably even angrier, as she explains here, in a saga that nearly had my eyes rolling out of their sockets.]

The first of two recent discoveries of bad editorial decisions revealed, about Simone de Beauvoir‘s seminal work of sexual politics, that …

Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s new translation of “The Second Sex” is the first English-language edition in almost 60 years, and the first to restore the material Parshley excised. In this passionate, awesomely erudite work, Beauvoir examines the reasons women have been forced to accept a place in society secondary to that of men, despite the fact that women constitute half the human race. Supporting her arguments with data from biology, physiology, ethnology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, philosophy and economics, she documents the status of women throughout history, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the mid-20th century. In one of her most interesting chapters, “The Married Woman” (a chapter Parshley particularly savaged), she offers numerous quotations from the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Edith Wharton, Sophia Tolstoy and others.

Too bad that those were missing from the edition I read, years ago. As it was clear even from the hacked English edition that prolixity was characteristic of de Beauvoir’s warp and weft, why not leave well alone?

Regrettably, the work of David Foster Wallace has never lit the smallest flame under me — because I like the man who emerges in accounts of people who knew him, and have always been impressed by the huge numbers of discerning readers among his fans. Surely those admirers deserve not to have had to wait fourteen years to read this detailed, posthumous profile of him by David Lipsky that, we are now told, was spiked by editors in 1996, the year DFW’s Infinite Jest was published to wide acclaim:

[A]fter Lipsky spent five days with Wallace, staying as a guest in his house, driving and flying with him across the Midwest and interrogating him on increasingly personal subjects […] Rolling Stone killed the assignment, apparently concluding that its readers would not be interested in the author of a dense, challenging, wildly satiric, at times profoundly sad and gruesome 1,079-page novel after all.

Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of 46, devastating his loved ones and confounding a generation of readers and writers. The reputation of “Infinite Jest” still grows. Set in a near-future America fixated by its tools for chemical and electronic self-gratification, the novel seems more prescient with the rollout of every new compulsively entertaining digital device.

In this age of the Blogosphere, thank goodness, Lipsky could have put his rejected conversations with Wallace online in seconds and let us judge their merits ourselves.

By all means let’s have editors for the refinement of a small proportion of the finest of fine literary creations. Let them be like curators of museums guarding cultural treasures, or perhaps personal hair choppers-and-fluffers who travel with celebrities.

As for the rest of us … Every week, I seem to come across a new, unmediated, wonderful blog, delving into some subject I have always longed to know more about. I follow a few of these regularly. One-Way Street, for instance, which is mostly about architecture, has had some sharp posts on contemporary fiction, and last week offered the deftest evisceration by far – through excellent links — of the feeble responses of the Israeli government, and foreign public intellectuals defending it, to the outcry about the petrifying, unconscionable raid on the Mavi Marmara.


Filed under Editors and editing, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

2 responses to “Editors, editing and infant mortality … (part 2)

  1. shawn

    I love the spontaneity of blogs, and I love the story about the horse painter. your blog is wonderfully written

  2. @Shawn, that’s very kind … thanks, and I dearly love the story of the horse painter. I’d forgotten all about reading it in a book someone gave me years ago until I was flipping through its pages, looking for an image I might use. I decided against posting a version of Nightshining White because I couldn’t find any reproduction on the net as handsome as the one I have on glossy paper, … printed in Singapore on behalf of the Met (NYC). Interesting that, … all the great printing used to be done in Italy — or Japan or Germany.

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