Saturday, April 11, 2009

Open questions about the author-editor relationship

I read a New York Times article about a new collection of stories today, and one of the anecdotes somewhat alarmed me. Now the question is whether the anecdote is balanced and accurate. The author Wells Tower has just published a book. Here are the paragraphs in Eric Konigsberg's piece about it that gave me pause:

The book is a lot of things, in other words, but, given the subject matter of the stories, which range from marital infidelity to a boy’s mistreatment at the hands of his stepfather to the dismemberment of a moose to Viking mutilation, you would not expect anybody to call it cute. Yet when Mr. Tower submitted the finished manuscript to Courtney Hodell, his editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, the words “too adorable” were among those she wrote most frequently in the margins. And she didn’t mean it as a compliment.

“Initially, there was a lot more corn-pone-ing and self-consciously vernacular language, cute little moments,” Mr. Tower said in an interview the other day, adding that he reined all that in upon revision. “So I actually didn’t sit down to write a bleak collection. When I look back at the early stories, it seemed much more like a ‘Hee Haw’ episode.”

So now (again, if this story is accurate), because an editor apparently thought it best, an author's voice has been irrevocably changed? Is this an editor's job?

So often "self-consciously vernacular language" and those "too adorable" moments are the very aspects that make a collection worth reading. Is the bleak vision of an editor in New York appropriate to paint onto the more humorous one of an author from Chapel Hill, North Carolina?

I encourage responses on this, especially from the parties involved. What really happened? And how does the author feel about his art being changed in this way? How does the editor feel? Is this necessary? Is this right?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Brilliant series from Duke University Press!

This series is a genius idea, and I'll post all of the installments if the press makes more. This is Duke University Press's Editorial Director, Ken Wissoker, explaining how it works at Duke:

I love this book about academic writing

My "best book lately" award goes to the mercifully short and delightfully witty How to Write a Lot by Dr. Paul J. Silvia. This is not The Artist's Way. It is not therapy. It is not sensitive. It is a smart and usable guide for producing voluminous reams of scholarly writing without resorting to blather and jargon. Dr. Silvia has more sense than a dozen other would-be how-to-write authors, and he's funny, too. Here's a quote:

Always write during your scheduled time, but don't be dogmatic about writing only within this time. It's great if you keep writing after the period is over or if you do some writing on a nonwriting day -- I call this windfall writing. Once you harness the terrible power of habit, it'll be easier for you to sit down and write. Beware, however, of the temptation to usurp your writing schedule with windfall writing. It doesn't matter how much you wrote over spring break -- you committed to your scheduled time, and you're going to stick to it. If you find yourself saying absurdities like "I wrote a lot over the weekend, so I'll skip my scheduled period on Monday," this book can help: Close it, hold it between the thumb and index finger of your nondominant hand, and wave it menacingly in front of your face.

I'm laughing sooo hard at this, but perhaps to wring the true humor from this graf you have to be a veteran of a zillion how-to-write books that advise writing with the nondominant hand, writing with a blindfold, etc. Those things can help (I'm not a complete scoffer), but Dr. Silvia can help more.

NB: He writes for psychologists, with the attendant emphasis on journal publishing. This isn't so much about books, although he has smart things to say about them. You'll need to adapt his advice to suit your own situation unless you're in the sciences, but this is still an amazing book. Buy it, read it, tell your academic friends.