When has editing not been my worst nightmare? In my dreams the hands of a clock are tiny daggers falling onto my hunched shoulders as I flick rapidly though a finished copy of one of my current projects, encountering error after error. There is an implied and inevitable death that looms, and then I wake up all sweaty, wondering whether the dream is likely to come true later that day. Being awake is not much better.
An obvious disclaimer: I wouldn’t be editing if it didn’t make me feel fulfilled and alive. I don’t want to say love. What I find myself more fascinated by, on a macro level, is the amount of physical and emotional and mental anguish that I seem to thrive on when copyediting a 90,000-word manuscript.
Am I an editor in the sexy sense of the word? I stopped using my leather messenger bag almost straightaway when the hard round corner banged against my thigh often enough to form a bruise. I wear glasses but they are always dirty, so I am just as blind as without, though with the added bonus of looking very grubby. Anyway, I think most book editors would probably agree that the ‘sexy’ element of editing is largely steeped in myth. I do not commission books for publication. Also, I do not schmooze*, or float around industry events, wine glass in hand, kissing cheeks.
None of that matters. What matters is the word. The line. Beats. The repeated adjectives and the not-yet-fully formed narrative links or devices. Does this slight bend of a grammatical convention signal the author’s acrobatic prowess with words or their laziness? Do I care that the reader might need to work a little harder to make sense of this idea? Some of the most rewarding texts I’ve read required a support group to get through. There is always a line to observe between the necessary difficulty of a difficult idea and the unnecessary obfuscation of a writer attempting to be deliberately provocative or intimidating.
I’m trying hard not to spout clichés about editors. That we are by requirement solitary, nerdy beings. That committing a grammar sin in our vicinity might result in your eyebrows being singed in a fire-breathing rage, or worse. I care when I am paid to, or when I am your friend and you have asked. Or when I deem it a worthy contribution to a greater good. And even then, who knows, I might just query it. Editors who act like they know everything are bores. They are also likely to correct words or lines or sentences within a vacuum that ignores increasing common usage or nuances between spoken and written and regionally or culturally or sociologically based grammars.
This piece is difficult to write. As someone who is not a ‘natural’ writer, I am suspicious of those who claim that writing comes ‘naturally’ to them; my own, albeit limited, experiences suggest an emphatic opposite truth. Even when I am (you might think) ripping your novel into pieces and attempting to cleave it together again, I am never unaware of how arduous a task it is to write. I feel like writing and editing share something in common: the more you discover, the less you feel you know. One does not need to be a dictionary to be an editor, merely to be near one at all times. And one must always be viscous. By that I mean fluid, but not drippy; pliable and ready to accept that lessons, in writing as in life, are constantly learnt and relearnt.
Editing takes hours, days, weeks or months. It is a piece of string. An editor occupies their author’s text wholly, and yet must navigate a porous landscape of intention, effect, meaning and objectivity. It is an unnerving sensation to make suggestions to an author’s work. I cannot bring myself to defend too heartily the idea of the infallible editor. Editors might make errors of judgement or misread an author’s intention or, indeed, skim breezily over a comma splice without noticing. The editor is not a robot.
For me the editor’s role is an immediately counterintuitive one. I’ve learnt over the years that a lack of confidence in one’s work is potentially damaging to the integrity of the process (what author would trust the editor who does not trust herself?), and yet I’ve found it necessary to the job itself. Who was that exceedingly arrogant assistant who once thought she could possibly have anything useful to offer a writer’s work? There was something deliciously alluring about the prospect of working on books. I was drawn to both the creative collaboration and the ‘pure’ fealty to the power of language that such a position would require. The ability to disregard ego (whether one’s own or the author’s) while being sutured to it. These days I am less passionate about books than I am about words – the implications of historical and political inquiries into language itself. But that is a different story from the one I’m telling here.
Part of my vacillation stems from thinking about invisibility. Regarding the invisibility of editing, there is a feeling of tacit camaraderie. I want to champion the collective visibility of editors’ work, but at the same time, I value the privacy of my own. Editors, like most people who are absorbed by their work, love to talk about editing with others, but there is vulnerability for both editor and author in exposing the literal line edits and decisions one has made in the course of working through a manuscript. Moreover, whatever sense of union exists does not translate into an organised labour force. This is surprising, perhaps, until we remember that it is a lonely type of work filled with affective labour, by its very nature ‘service-like’ (the editor always in service to the author’s and publisher’s and market’s needs), dominated by women, and therefore characterised by large portions of unpaid and underpaid hours. The role of the editor is a role of dwindling importance within Western trade publishing logic, and I am conscious of a correlation between the perception of the work we do and the compensation historically received.
There’s a ‘value-adding’ component to editing. Something has to happen in between manuscript delivery and typesetting in order for the book to be realised in its commodity form, but the intellectual nature of editing renders this labour invisible. Very broadly, we might compare the work of editors to those of mothers, carers, wives: women whose work within the home contributed to aspects of capitalist reproduction and yet has been, for a long time, hidden from view. The inability to quantify such work under capitalism makes it is easier to justify as low-paid or unpaid.
For these reasons, privacy is not always a noble aim for an editor (though respect is always owed to the author). Privacy is where exploitation thrives, where suffering for the good of the work is silenced, where the work of editors is subsumed by the machinery of the products it helps create. To clarify: yes, books always pass through machine bellies before entering the world, but I mean machinery in the larger industry sense of the word too. I must nod vigorously to Diana Athill in regard to the private aspect of work: ‘The working breakfast, and taking work home at weekends – two activities regarded by many as necessary evidence of commitment . . . were to me an abomination.’ And then later in the same paragraph: ‘I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work.’ Her point is characteristically acute, even over a decade since Stet was first published.
The overwhelming perception that we might require a blood-pact level of passion for the work of editing is damaging to wage levels and working conditions. My addiction to editing is complex. Even with the most dedicated and generous authors it often feels like quicksand, but I am happily sinking. The nightmare might after all be one I don’t want to wake from. Those who edit and those who have been edited well understand best that in this kind of work, the reward is not so clear-cut. The moment of being struck by the rare epiphany that reveals the story’s essence is invariably couched in long hours of slow trudging through viscous language. And then the triumphant moment is quickly snatched when author or publisher disagrees and we are back at the beginning. We work in a state of constant precipice. A new approach, or a fight worth having.
*Me and my co-editors at SUS press, Eddie Hopely and Astrid Lorange, occasionally ask our poet friends and subjects of our admiration to send us their small chapbook manuscripts, which we lay out and print and scan, so perhaps in this small, communally minded way, I am a schmoozer after all.