Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Sorrows of the Unedited Text

This morning's Telegraph Web site offers an interesting essay by Alex Clark reflecting on the recent "dust-up" (his term) between Alain de Botton and Caleb Crain after the latter reviewed the former's book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in The New York Times. I am less interested in the extent to which I agree or disagree with the points that Clark made, however, than I am with one of those dogs that did not bark in the night. I was more than a little surprised at the absence of any word with the "edit" stem in Clark's text; and this set me to wondering whether that absence had any significance.

In the days before the Internet turned such "dust-ups" into sports of audience participation, it would have been natural to assume that both de Botton's book and Crain's review were products of a scrupulous editing process. Having written many reviews in the print medium, I can think of any number of interactions with my editor over whether a particularly sharp attack could actually be justified and whether or not it really deserved the harsh language of my first draft. Similarly, I have on several occasions been asked to examine early drafts of books and have used those occasions to raise similar questions, involving not only whether or not the methods really justified the conclusions but also whether or not the rhetoric behind those conclusions was appropriate. These days it seems valid to question whether or not any such editorial review took place on either side of the coin. Back in May I raised the same question when, in writing for The New York Review, Sue Halpern exposed several instances of specious reasoning in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers: The Story of Success. My conclusion at that time was that I could no longer regard The New Yorker (where Gladwell's material first appeared before being published in book form) as a "reliable source;" but there were certain New Yorker authors, such as Seymour Hersh, with self-editing skills that I could usually trust. Basically I feel the same way about The New York Times and probably trust an equally limited number of its regular writers, whether it involves news, analysis, or the arts.

Where Clark is concerned, I do not consider his lack of any mention of editing to be a significant "sin of omission." He was more concerned with what happens after harsh words are "uttered" (regardless of the medium) than with the absence of normative practices through which those words might have been moderated before being uttered. Furthermore, I recognize that, where writing is concerned, one seldom pays attention to editors. Once the work is done, the editor recedes into the background, rather like Julian Marsh at the end of 42nd Street, sitting alone on the steps of a fire escape listening to everyone in the audience walking out of the theater raving about the new star they have discovered. The result is that these days we are barely aware that there may be a problem when we read texts behind which the editorial effort is minimal, if it is there at all.

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