Sunday, 4 October 2009

On second thoughts

Two pages of proof corrections from a book I worked on several years ago. (The book, the first of three volumes, was over a thousand pages long, and the corrections here were typical rather than exceptional. I quit before vols 2 & 3 arrived.)

Lawrence twice rewrote Lady Chatterley from scratch. Balzac famously rewrote at proof stage. Infuriating for the desk editors, but understandable: in life you generally get only one chance, but in writing you can revise endlessly (or until the publisher’s patience snaps) in the attempt to get it right. My mum once heard it said of a writer that she delivered her manuscripts letter-perfect and would allow not a comma to be changed – and for my mum, this showed what a wonderful writer she was. Me, I’m suspicious. Arrogance, just as much as indecisiveness, can be a sign of insecurity.

‘Getting it right’ suggests there’s a rightness to be had. I doubt there is, in any absolute sense. (Which are more right, the original, mostly unpublished versions of Raymond Carver’s early stories or those edited by his editor?) Still, it’s worth going for. Both writer and editor would agree on that, and it’s in their disagreements en route that a provisional rightness may emerge. This piece on editing by Barbara Epler of New Directions seems to me so wise there’s little more to be said (except that there always is): ‘Editing doesn’t seem to be a process of knowing but of asking. You just do the best you can. (And hope the book goes into a second printing to fix typos and add the right portrait to the frontispiece or turn the Japanese family crest upside up.)’


Bob D. said...

An editor for whom I once worked likened the editorial process to cleaning the glass between the author's thoughts and the reader – taking care not to leave your own fingerprints on it.

charles said...

I like that. And in a window of any size it’s rare that the glass is completely clear. Ideally, there’s a meeting of minds and a career-length relationship between writer and editor. There are famous historical examples, and I think this occasionally still does happen. What makes it rare now are the usual things: takeovers and movements of editors, and books by big-selling names, for which much money has been paid, delivered late and needing to be published fast.

Anonymous said...

And George Orwell said good prose is like a window pane.

I do love this blog.

Beverley said...

Me too. And want to put in a plug for The Threepenny Review, a really excellent Berkeley broadsheet, where Barbara Epler's piece originally appeared.

charles said...

The Threepenny Review: YES. Every so often I meander to their website, look at the subscription rates for getting copies in the UK, decide I’ll make do with the online contents. But next time I’ll just sign on the dotted line.