To Edit a Mockingbird

The controversy surrounding Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is really heating up, with fresh commentary appearing daily. These essays are becoming increasingly esoteric, tacking away from the more prosaic whodunit investigations to the deeper realms of literary criticism. And for you history buffs, there’s even a piece comparing Atticus Finch’s moral ambiguity to that of Big Jim Folsom, liberal governor of Alabama (who completed his second term just a year before the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird), and another equating Finch to historian Francis Butler Simkins (“an emancipated critic of the old order”). Everyone, it would seem, wants a piece of the action.

I’m an editor, and my interest is primarily technical. If Watchman is an amateurish draft of what ultimately evolved into Mockingbird (Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor at J. P. Lippincott, recalled, “[Go Set a Watchman] was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”), why offer it to the public in its embryonic form? Indeed, if Ms. Lee believed she had a solid companion piece to Mockingbird in Watchman, why had she forsaken it? Speculation abounds, but the evidence strongly suggests the author never had any intention of publishing the earlier manifestation of the classic; there is ample reason to believe the decision to go ahead with the project was merely the product of what one critic cynically calls “the Harper Lee industrial complex.”

I think the gravitational pull of this “lost” manuscript is its very existence. It’s something akin to the discovery of a demo tape recorded by a now-famous musician. Hearing the music in its seminal form provides the kind of intimate connection with the artist and his process that’s so coveted by diehard fans. Imagine stumbling upon a mislaid recording of the Beatles before the raw material was treated to George Martin’s sophisticated “editing” skills: fascinating, but of little intrinsic value. Yet even basement tapes can be turned into cash cows through shrewd marketing. Of course the publishers spin it as being the author’s call: “It was made clear to us that Harper Lee wanted it published as it was. We gave the book a very light copy edit,” the literary equivalent of a dusting off. Note the weasel words: “It was made clear to us”—not the declarative, “Harper Lee told us.” This is particularly troubling when you consider we’re talking about a frail octogenarian who is allegedly not entirely lucid.

Granted, a close reading of both volumes augmented by insights about the author’s relationship with her lawyer/sister, agent, and editor yields a glimpse of the internal workings of the old-school publishing process, and (one would hope) illuminates the need for a competent editor. But casting Go Set a Watchman out into the world to stand on its own without subjecting it to the gentle ministrations of a developmental editor is truly a shame. How important is the collaboration of a talented editor? Lee’s agent, Maurice Crain, stated unequivocally: “Most good books are ones that have been a long time maturing, with a lot of cutting and fitting and replanning done along the way. MOCKINGBIRD, for instance, was about the most replanned and rewritten book I ever had a hand in, and it turned out finally that all the labor on it was well justified, and if the Lippincott editors hadn’t been so fussy and painstaking we wouldn’t have had nearly so good a book.”

Including the rough draft in a thorough biographical treatment of Harper Lee’s life and work (along the lines of the University of California Press’ monumental project, The Autobiography of Mark Twain) would have been a better use of the material. As it is, Go Set a Watchman is a fluke, a literary curio. It probably won’t resonate with fans of Mockingbird (and will more likely distress them), though lit profs will dissect it, analyze it, and juxtapose it to its famous sibling for generations to come.

I am not convinced this long-forgotten manuscript is some hidden gem, and I’m not alone. Surely, there was a reason it was shelved in the first place.

What are your thoughts? Is Go Set a Watchman a worthy contribution to Harper Lee’s legacy, or will it tarnish her reputation? Is it “a remarkable literary event,” a “masterpiece,” as HarperCollins proclaims, or a half-baked, tentative attempt at a novel that should never have seen the light of day?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him: Aden[at]LittleFireEditorial[dot]com.

The Copyeditor’s Code

Proust MS

Marcel Proust, original ms. “Du côté de chez Swann,” public domain

The Copyediting blog recently posted a graphic based on editor Erin Brenner’s earlier article, “The Typographic Oath” (with a nod to Stan Carey for the borrowed title). The original piece was the final installment in a three-part series. The text, which is laid out on a background of weathered parchment, constitutes the copyeditor’s ten commandments. Brenner notes that she’s riffing on a couple of similar lists as well as feedback sparked by her series, and readily acknowledges that the collection is not complete (“It is a copyeditor’s set of commandments, after all,” she jibes).

Now I realize that her title is offered with tongue planted firmly in cheek; still, I’m a little uncomfortable calling these collective tenets an “oath.” As copyeditors, we’re all about le mot juste, and here’s how M-W 11 defines “oath”:

1 a (1) : a solemn usually formal calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says (2) : a solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.

Pretty heavy stuff. I prefer the more secular term “code,” which according to Merriam-Webster is “a set of ideas or rules about how to behave”—as in an “ethical code” or the “Digital Warrior-Poet’s Code.” I view it as a kind of philosophical framework that informs my approach to the craft.

So with a tip of the editor’s visor to Ms. Brenner and a frank admission that none of the following is original by any means, I offer you the current manifestation of my Copyeditor’s Code.

  • Do no harm. The copyeditor’s Golden Rule. Minimize your footprint and like a conscientious camper, leave no trace (er, other than those messy Tracked Changes, that is). Apply textual triage first; only resort to major surgery where absolutely necessary to save the patient. You may find it helpful to chant this mantra: “It’s not my book, it’s not my book, it’s not my book…”
  • Seek clarity. This, my friends, is the storyteller’s Holy Grail.
  • Stet! Let it stand. The client wields the veto power and reserves the right to ignore your changes. This is his prerogative, so long as the check’s good. If seeing your lovely work undone causes you grief, see mantra above.
  • Be as a green twig, Grasshopper. Breathe. Stay flexible, nimble, and intellectually open. After all, there’s an outside chance that the client who stetted your well-intended edit just might be right.
  • Be an advocate and an ally. Assure your client that you are partners in the pursuit of excellence. The copyeditor bears the dual responsibility of being the reader’s advocate and the writer’s best friend.
  • Don’t condescend. This is a corollary to the point above. Always be professional and collegial. Treat your client as you would like to be treated: be respectful, be diplomatic, be empathetic. Never chivvy, deride, or browbeat. Do your best to instruct and inspire through the medium of editing. Share the love.
  • Collaborate with your client in the service of the reader. Don’t forget for a New York second that the most important member of the storytelling triumvirate is the reader. After all, where would we be without engaged and delighted readers? A truly great editor is a shapeshifter, capable of projecting himself into the psyche of the reader and kenning exactly what will effect that magical connection we so highly prize.
  • Don’t be a prescriptivist. Rule #1: There are no rules. There are only conventions, shibboleths, personal preferences, and pet peeves. Language is perpetually evolving, and you must strive to improve your understanding of the currently accepted guidelines regarding grammar, usage, and style. Study, rinse, repeat. Read good writing—lots of it. Then, with supreme confidence in your mastery of the conventions, acknowledge the universal truth that they are transitory and may be safely ignored to achieve the desired ends of clarity and consistency. Copyediting is a subjective craft; rather than being the pedantic determination of right or wrong, editing is often a choice between good, better, or best. This is the art of editing. This is what distinguishes great editors from good ones. When you can manage this feat without altering the author’s “voice,” you are serving your client well. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something. Yes, it is kinda Zen…
  • Think. Have a sensible, justifiable reason for every change you make—and verify, verify, verify!
  • Trust your editorial intuition. You’ve invested a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears in fine-tuning it, so listen to your inner editor. If something just doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t.
  • Fear not the large vocabulary. There is a time for concision, and a time for indulging in luxurious language (turn, turn, turn). Edit with your heart as well as your head. As a copyeditor, you must be vigilant and fight the Strunk & White curse. Don’t be afraid to allow a difficult word to remain unscathed—even if it has several syllables. Never disrespect your reader by underestimating her intellect. Elegant prose is an endangered species; be a conservationist of succulent verbiage.
  • Strive for efficiency. Time is money. Utilize every trick in the book to streamline your editorial process and workflow, but never let technology trump your education, experience, and common sense.
  • When in doubt, query. Never hesitate to seek clarification—diplomatically, of course.
  • The style sheet is your friend. Don’t depend upon memory, write it down. Aim for consistency. A good style sheet will save your sanity. Tedious? Yes. Indispensable? Absolutely.
  • Never promise “perfect.” As a mere mortal, you will never achieve perfection, and promising your client otherwise can only lead to dark places (see Muphry’s Law). Ernest Hemingway sagely counseled, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master” (and Papa knew from dark places). Whether he was referring to writing or life matters not; they are one and the same.

Do you keep a list of editorial do’s and don’ts? Please share! What would you add or delete?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden[at]LittleFireEditorial[dot]com.

Can the University Press Be Saved From Itself?

Two_Arabs_Reading_in_a_Courtyard

Painting by Rudolf Ernst via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been following an online discussion about the relevance and sustainability of university presses (here and here) and whether or not there’s a future for publishers of “books that no one needs to use or wants to read.” Opinions expressed by those laboring within the UP community cite shrinking budgets, the corporatization of the academy, niche markets, and the disruptive onslaught of the Digital Revolution as the leading threats to the traditional UP publishing model. Charles Watkins, director of Purdue University Press, described a more nuanced problem and proffered a solution:

Many university presses, especially smaller ones, did not do themselves a service by attempting to fly beneath the radar at their institutions … . Focusing just on academic disciplines and not serving their university community was not a good strategy. If a university press is subsidized by its parent institution, it should expect to give something tangible back. That can range from explicity aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths to providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint.

Very diplomatic, but he’s still just dancing around the real issue. In a post at a copyeditors’ virtual water cooler, Tammy Ditmore (a professional editor with considerable academic press experience) pointed out the obvious: The king has no clothes!

What [Watkins] doesn’t mention is how the pressure on academics to publish monographs remains as high as ever. Tenure and promotion committees rarely acknowledge changing times, and many give little weight to anything other than scholarly mongraphs published by the top UPs. … So universities pressure their faculty to create books that no one will read, which puts pressure on libraries to buy books that no one will read, which puts pressure on universities to support UPs to create books that no one will read. It seems like a vicious and pointless cycle that very often does NOT contribute to informed dialogue, which is ostensibly the role of academic publishing.

It’s that old “publish or perish” rubric. In the pursuit of tenure, academic aspirants are required to crank out esoteric monographs that no one outside a small circle of specialists will ever consult. It is a rite of passage that those who came of age with Mr. Chips are loathe to surrender: Academics writing to impress other academics in an infinitesimal echo chamber, an exclusive club that disdains anything so unseemly as social media or publishing well-researched, interesting nonfiction aimed at the unwashed masses.

A Broader Mission

In our extended conversation, Ditmore elaborated,

In the nonacademic world, those niche markets get taken care of through self-publishing or tiny niche publishers or even through blogs and electronic discussion lists. Why do the specialized academic niches need to be subsidized so they can produce expensive, hardbound volumes that few people will want to buy? Especially when about three-quarters of  [the content of] those expensive, hardbound books is re-hashing all the prior research on an issue to prove the author has read everything else written on the topic, and one-quarter of the book attempts to advance an argument by one turn of the screw?

Why indeed. Times do change, and the university press must change with them. Publishing scholarly monographs has long been the university press’s raison d’être, but what happens when the dead-tree monograph becomes an anachronism—a quaint artifact of the pre-digital world? Just as it no longer makes sense for the doctoral curriculum to be focused solely on preparing PhD candidates for nonexistent tenure-track teaching positions, an overemphasis on the publication of pricey, small-run, hardbound doorstops is unrealistic and misguided.

Here’s a thought: Why not publish books people want to read?

I certainly won’t gainsay the importance of the monograph to the scholar’s professional development, but there’s no reason for it to be a physical volume, or the primary source of the university press’s income. Digital technologies render the publication and distribution of this kind of specialized research and analysis a relatively inexpensive process. Further, open-access, cross-platform publishing encourages scholarly collaboration and ensures that such data will be searchable. Both of these factors promise to boost usage, but even such expanded utility will not generate the revenue stream necessary to keep a university press afloat.

I agree with Watkins’s contention that UPs need to rethink their mandate, but he’s being entirely too timid. I would recommend broadening his parochial concept of “serving their university community … [through] aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths [and] providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint” to a more expansive mission statement—something along the lines of “servicing an eager and receptive global market by producing books its constituents want to buy and read.”

The UP as Trade Publisher

There are more college-educated readers in the population today than ever before, so why not tap this huge potential market? Rather than being content with churning out yet another scholarly monograph on global economics (zzzzzz…), wouldn’t it be more fiscally responsible and creatively rewarding to have a book like Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (a New York Times bestseller) prominently featured on your university press’s website and Facebook page as well?

The university press should be a robust and functional organ in a multifaceted publishing ecosystem, not an insular, adamantine ward of the academy. Remember those hulking console stereos from the ’60s? Oh, they were adequate—if all you wanted to listen to was Mantovani. But as consumers became more sophisticated audiophiles, they replaced those beasts with component systems that enabled the user to mix and match complementary elements to achieve the sound that soothed their soul. The university press needs to adopt that kind of creative flexibility.

Commercially viable titles would help subsidize pure scholarship while building the professor-cum-author’s (and the press’s, and the university’s) cred. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater—digital monographs (scholarly journals, too, for that matter) can peaceably coexist with stellar trade nonfiction in the university press’s catalog. Generating income to underwrite a sustainable business model that foots the bill for orthodox scholarship while entertaining and enlightening the public-at-large with worthy trade nonfiction sounds like a win-win proposition to me.

Turning Scholars Into Storytellers

But there’s a catch: Producing compelling nonfiction calls for authors who can write well, ably assisted by editors who know what they’re about. The first element in the equation is problematic; PhD programs are not designed to produce skillful communicators. That really needs to change, and I believe it will.

The unvarnished truth is that a PhD sheepskin is no longer a ticket to a cushy tenured faculty berth, so the nature of scholarly exposition must also evolve. An increasing number of universities are retooling their curricula to prepare doctoral candidates for alternative careers in the Real World, where strong communication skills are critical—and this applies to both the arts and the sciences.

And what about the other half of the equation? University presses should be hiring rather than firing editors. Without good editors, the quality of the books they produce will suffer. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t believe me, ask any bestselling author.

If they can’t justify the cost of keeping a full complement of top-flight editors on staff, university presses should cultivate a stable of qualified freelancers. And they shouldn’t cheap out—unpaid grad students, peer reviewers, beta readers, and crowdsourced editing just won’t do. Professional editing is simply a sound business investment. As Tom Wolfe reminded us in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Demoting and digitizing the monograph, turning scholars into masterful storytellers, adding that professional editorial polish, and aggressively marketing the product to a general audience may not single-handedly rescue the university press from oblivion, but it sure can’t hurt.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.