Sunday, 10 June 2012

Editing again (books)

Why the post before last strayed off-track was because I got wandered into a long quote on book editing, as opposed to magazine editing . . .

On the one hand, Gordon Lish edited Raymond Carver almost to the point of creating a writer, the one we thought we knew, until the un-Lished work was posthumously published. On the other hand, here is Barbara Epler, chief editor at New Directions: ‘Actual editing consists so much of petting and patting beautiful writing . . . With the poets, that means allowing for differences. One poet, alive like the inside of a light bulb, requires five or six sets of proofs: allow time. One might need a suggested re-jigging of the order of contents: allow possible irritation. Allow “grey”and “gray” in the same volume (the former greenish and the latter more blue: the opposite of what I'd guessed). Also allow the fact that many poets don’t need you at all, except to run interference with the designers for fonts and cover art . . . Translations allow and need the most tinkering. The one thing I know for sure is that the better the translators, the more they enjoy editing. They like the queries and the complicity: the turning their new fabric to the light together, looking at its play, showing the gorgeous weave and colors and also maybe a few snags here and there. The best translators love pouncing on that snag: they might not pull it then in the direction you suggest, but they carefully undertake a new phrase. You fiddle with long, multi-clausal snakes of sentences, questioning colons and semi-colons and dashes, or eliminating serial commas between multiple adjectives when the sentence winds more than a half a page. You allow the utter twigginess of Robert Walser or the multiplicities of BolaƱo but ask about this “saw-in-the-pants” (and the translator from the Hebrew says, “Ah yes, I thought you'd ask about that – the author doesn't know”). You might suggest monkeying with the verb tense or the tone or atmosphere or dialogue – how it might sound more idiomatic – but in the end a lot boils down to six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other; your name’s not on the book, you did your job by mentioning those spots . . . Your job is just to worry, to check and double-check. One study pointed out that the difference between competent people and incompetent people is that competent people know they might be wrong and double- and triple-check; incompetent people know they’re right. (Or, as a Brazilian publisher joked, What’s the difference between ignorance and arrogance? “I don’t know and I don’t care.”) Editing doesn’t seem to be a process of knowing but of asking. You just do the best you can . . . And after you do the best you can, you enjoy the beautiful book and people’s pleasure in it.’

I like that. I’m in the Epler camp. (Though I can veer wildly, when in the mood.) But magazine editing, and more specifically the Poetry Review issue, is a different thing. More on that next month, perhaps.

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