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Ugly Letters

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

Editor: “A person .. . whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.”
—Elbert Hubbard

In my youth I sinned, and in mine age I am paying for it. My first novel appeared in 1951. Simon Michael Bessie had heard about me from Richard Wright while visiting Paris, and we had met and he had asked to see the manuscript. His suggestions were shrewd and educational; I rewrote; and Harper’s accepted the book. The copy editor made some 600 changes. Well, I was 23, a middle-class kid from Yonkers, educated beyond my station or indeed desire, with a certain surface charm and intelligence but no real character, not even ego, only vanity. And in that first novel I acknowledged Faulkner’s mastery but not my own slavery. Of the 600 changes, mainly soothing applications of simplicity and normal punctuation, 550 were doubtless improvements. But I exploded, threw a tantrum, and wrote a long angry letter that I doubtless considered elegant but that was probably only rude. I have owed that copy editor an apology ever since, but am tempted to call it quits now: other editors have, starting in the 1970’s, paid me back viciously.

In my book editors I have always been more than lucky: Bessie, Joseph M. Fox at Random House, and Starling Lawrence at Norton are proud and literate citizens of the republic of letters, with a full command of everything from arcane points of usage to the elegancies of Macaulay. And for a brief period I had Justin Kaplan and Bob Gottlieb jointly

doing their kindly best to deplore and correct my anfractuos-ities. Henry Kisor at the Chicago Sun-Times has edited my frequent book reviews for more than a decade, always to my benefit. (In 1967 the estimable Robert Manning outdid them all. He asked me to do a piece for The Atlantic Monthly on my long and arduous experience as a hospital patient. When it was finished, I asked him please not to change anything, as I had trod a fine line between pathos and heroics, and he wrote back that usually when he saw that request he reached for his blue pencil, but he liked this piece so much that he would not only not change anything, but also add $100 to my fee.) Obviously the editorial debt was, for many years, all mine; I was in better hands than I deserved.

But in the 1970’s other editors began to let me down, to intrude and meddle, to substitute bad for good and unconscious contempt for the old respectful camaraderie. It began with a paperback edition of The Chinese Bandit in which two, three, or four lines were simply dropped perhaps a dozen times. It proceeded to translations, which ought to be fairly editor-proof: the translator presumably knows the original language, and his English version of it is to be trusted or he would not have been hired. I did a Malraux in the 1970’s, The Conquerors, in an afterword to which the author used the phrase “from Michelet to Jaures”—Jean Jaures, a French socialist and pacifist assassinated by a half-wit in 1914. There it was on Malraux’s page, and consequently on mine; I checked the galleys to be sure of the accent, and greeted the finished book with joy—only to find “from Michelet to Juarez”—different man, different accent, different century, different country. An editor or printer had seen fit to alter the author’s work without consultation, and had left me—my name, after all, followed Malraux’s on the title page—forever embarrassed.

Another sinister note was struck a year later on the jacket of Louis-Philippe’s Diary of My Travels in America. I had enjoyed the translating because it let me render the French of

1790 into a Georgian-colonial English. The text of the book was unmutilated. But the jacket copy told us that Louis-Philippe had found it “expeditious” to leave France for America. Of course no one at the publisher’s acknowledged this original use of English. Henry Steele Commager had written the introduction to that book, and when, wincing slightly, I ran into him shortly afterward just down the road at Archie MacLeish’s house, he made no reference to the abuse. Perhaps he had not noticed it. Perhaps he had no idea who I was. I sighed, and went on with my life.

Nothing terrible happened for five years or so, during which time I published a couple of novels and a couple of translations and moved to the British Virgin Islands, leaving strife and anacoluthon behind. So I thought, in my innocence. In 1984 I received three handsome copies of the paperback version of my tenth novel, The Blue-Eyed Shan. The hardcover version had been free of even the slightest blemish—not one typographical error.

There were 99 typographical errors in the paperback. “Aforementioned” became “aftermentioned.” Misspellings pocked the pages. Among my previous novels, it seems, was A Convenant with Death. I used half a dozen French phrases in the Shan; there were misspellings or false accents in each, rather dismaying to one proud of his reputation as a translator (“entendu” became “entudu”). Of course “guttural” became “gutteral,” and “foliage” became “foilage.” It was as if those chimpanzees in the fable had been loosed at a word-processor, and had almost managed to set the book.

I was furious. The publisher apologized—it seemed that no one had been checking proofs. (Oh.) As solatium they were sending me 100 free copies. Splendid. Corrector’s items. Eventually there was a second paperback edition, clean; but bitterness was in my blood now, and wariness.

What happened in 1989 almost destroyed me. I exaggerate only slightly: I was sick in my soul for weeks. In November of 1987 I had suffered an esophageal spasm that mimicked a heart attack, and when I recovered and was discharged from the hospital—a matter of days—I saw the humor of it and wrote a light, stylish essay about the experience. It sold almost immediately to Modern Maturity, the magazine of the AARP, which promised my agent to make no changes, barring typos. I was delighted. Twenty million readers? Thirty? A senior editor would see it through. The fee was pleasant. I had by now published 11 novels, 14 translations, and an array of essays, short stories, introductions, reviews. Modern Maturity was delighted to have me.

Some months passed. In February-March 1989 (the magazine appears every two months), my graceful little piece burst upon a waiting world, and the first thing I saw was “I laid in the sun.” The next thing I saw was “Patiently I laid in residence.” (I had written “I lay patiently.” What “in residence” means I do not know to this day.) I read with mounting horror, and I do mean horror: I was nauseated (editor: not nauseous). Paragraphs had been wrenched apart, or created for no reason. Words and phrases I abhor had been inserted. Punctuation had been mangled. The order of phrases had been arbitrarily and irrationally reversed. What grace, what rhythm, what musical force had informed the essay, were all shattered and dispersed. Of my 160 sentences, 75 had been altered or deleted altogether. A gentle paraphrase of Shakespeare had been “edited”—not even he was good enough for the exacting editors at Modern Maturity. I wrote “ ‘Mary,’ I said, ‘something bad has happened.’” That appeared “ ‘Mary, something has happened,’ I said”—so the little pause for breath vanished, and the simple adjective, and the whole line became flat and meaningless; and no one seemed to know or care that a presumably dying man’s words to his wife had been falsified.

The litany would be boring. It was butchery, vandalism. And the magazine identified me as a professor of English at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. So I heard from every retired grammarian in the United States. Contemptuous letters came in every day for weeks. Some of them vilified me, excoriated me. How dared I teach English! I answered them all, gently referring these outraged citizens to the editors. I wrote to a couple of dozen friends—novelists, poets, editors—briefly expressing my innocence and anger. (They of course sympathized, and a few sent me horror stories of their own.) Starling Lawrence wrote to the magazine pointing out inter alia that a man who did not know lie from lay could scarcely be trusted with a blue pencil. Henry Taylor (that superb poet) rebuked them in a severe and salty letter. Some of the complaining readers were kind enough to redirect their wrath to the magazine. The “senior editor” wrote to apologize for “laid,” apparently unaware of any other howlers, lapses, and mutilations. By now I had sat down with the original (7-plus pages, double-spaced) and a red pencil, and had converted my version to theirs: it took more than 200 red marks. My agent called to express our indignation. The senior editor—I burn to give names, but it would right no wrongs—was aware of the agreement not to alter my prose? He was. What happened? He was not sure. He had a copy of the original? No, he did not have a copy of the original. A copy editor wrote to one protesting reader that the staff was so charmed by my prose that everyone simply grew careless; but he probably never saw my prose. By the time it reached him, it was corrupt. It was no longer mine.

Four months—two issues—later, the following apology ran in the letters column: “Those of you who caught the ‘lay/laid’ error in the article should have pointed your fingers at us. The mistake was our doing and was not in the author’s manuscript. We apologize to Mr. Becker and you.” That was all. My lawyer made attempts to communicate. Modern Maturity saw no merit in my protests. And indeed, how could an author prove damages? Find a potential reader to affirm that he had planned to buy my next book, but now would not, because he was so disappointed in my prose? And perhaps here I should say that I am middle-aged and disabled, and had no heart for a journey to California or a series of depositions or courtroom appearances. (Recent accounts of such actions, verging on the farcical and antic, have justified my reluctance.) The insult was perhaps more serious than the injury. But it was an insult to all writers who try hard. And the danger of vandalism persists, and increases, as the little green shoots of living prose are trampled by crowds of literary tourists calling themselves editors.

I never heard a word from anyone about the vast destruction, only the apology for “laid” and the brief lines in the letters column; and I never heard from the editor in chief, who was ultimately responsible; and nobody but me ever suffered at all. Some months later, apropos of another writer’s work, the editor in chief wrote to my agent, in part, “I realize we cannot hope to persuade you it was very unusual (unique in fact) for such a thing to happen here. We do not make a habit of altering a good writer’s work—it shouldn’t have happened with Mr. Becker and it certainly won’t happen again.”

It certainly won’t.

That was the low point of my life as a writer—bad reviews are like a day in the country by contrast—but my troubles were not over. Some time later I completed a translation, and sent in the manuscript. It was of a novel by a noted author. With it I sent a memo saying in part, “Please remember that I am the most reasonable of mortals about editing in consultation, and the most unreasonable about being rewritten without consultation.” I heard nothing for three months, at which time the balance of my advance arrived. Then nothing for six months more, at which time an edited manuscript arrived, with galleys: would I go through them and please return them in a week?

After nine months! A week! I started work. The manuscript was not mine. The editors had booted mine onto a new set of disks, and had then enjoyed months of word-processing. “Un vieux rafiot”—an old tub, carrying 800 passengers—became a “tug.” It had weighed anchor; now it “lifted anchor.” There were more than 200 changes. Four lines had been dropped inadvertently. “Slapdash service” had become “lousy service.” Sure enough, “nauseated” had become “nauseous.” Sentences originally difficult were now opaque. (I must say that about 10 per cent of the alterations were useful, and would have earned my serious gratitude had they appeared on my manuscript as suggestions in blue pencil.)

So I had to sit there with my manuscript, their manuscript, the original book, and the usual dictionaries, and make all right again. Let me add that it took more than a week, that my judgment prevailed, and that the author took my side, professed himself very happy with my translation, said he was proud of our association, and came back to me shortly with another assignment.


Well then: who or what is the villain?

History; arrogance; anonymity; and the word processor.

History: to writers and editors educated, or overeducated, before or around World War II we are now in the third generation of illiteracy as public policy. To many of us, written English is descended from the Authorized Version, Shakespeare, the great 16th and 17th-century poets, the great 18th and 19th-century novelists, the noble line of essayists that runs from Macaulay (the aftermentioned Macaulay) to Mitchell. To younger writers and editors this ancestry is striped and shadowed by bars sinister from film, television, and the popular magazine, and the writers who count are mostly still alive. (I mentioned Macaulay as exemplar to a distinguished “younger literary person,” who paused for reflection and then asked, “Robie Macauley?” In five years they will ask, “Macaulay Culkin?”) Fiction became an art in the 18th century, a craft in the 19th, and an industry in the 20th: the younger editors tend to deal with products or attitudes, and many of them are less literate simply because 10,000 hours of their childhood and youth went to television, where my contemporaries spent the same hours reading or worrying. The virtues of powerful prose-—stately, melodic, urgent, explosive—have the quaint ring now of virginity or fidelity. It may be an axiom: now that pictures rule, every generation will be less literate than its predecessor.

This goes with democracy, which I would not swap for elitist elegance any more than you would. And the swap, or equation, is false. There are dozens of accomplished writers and editors at work today, and eventually there will be standards and excellences that we can glimpse only dimly from here. But for now there are thousands, and probably tens of thousands, of “writers” and “editors” with nebulous notions of usage and even meaning, whatever their good intentions and political bona fides: the same society that produces illiterate editors produces illiterate writers, and they need each other. The eager amateurs, the academic jargoneers, the impassioned versifiers, tend to be suppliers of raw material for insecure editors who need to feel superior— and what better way than rewriting?

Arrogance: cultural democracy has outstripped political democracy, and poets, good or bad, are indeed becoming the unacknowledged legislators of the world. But one result is a new sort of brash insolence. If we are all equal, then any editor just down from college is the equal of any writer except maybe if the writer has won a prize or made lots of money. And the world changes fast, and there were evils in the old days, so the right-thinking younger editor is right to keep curmudgeonly older authors in line, and all this stuff about style and language and eloquence is the old fogies’ way of impeding progress. And the best way to make sure their prose is suitable is to—

Anonymity: the “auteur” editor has nothing at stake. By the time the piece or book appears the editor may be with a different magazine or house. Only the author stands naked before the public.

Word processors: boot it up, and juggle to suit. I am morally certain that Modern Maturity put my essay on a word processor, threw out the manuscript, and proceeded to what I call “editing by Nintendo,” and that the editor was telling the truth when he said there was no copy of the original. The word processor has replaced the blue pencil, and the ill-read editor and the workshop are replacing the imaginative writer. (Today’s best sellers are not imaginative, but ingenious, and most of them are written in a relentlessly pedestrian post-Hemingway journalese.) I use a word processor myself, and sign what it produces. The Nintendo editor is not accountable. But the writer who retains a little pride must either achieve the immunities of fame and fortune, or struggle incessantly against the earnest and ignorant meddler. The word processor disguises that ignorance. It confers talent and importance upon its manipulator. Can you imagine “the first rank” of American and British novelists in the hands of my “senior editor”? And less famous but clearly established writers are often mugged by literary hoodlums; not even their titles are safe. Short stories and whole novels have been retitled, without notice to their sometimes eminent authors, by paperback publishers. Perhaps a few textual alterations are small change. But many of us bring to our sentences— new-minted and tarnished alike—the true miser’s love. And the danger of anonymous theft rankles and exasperates, as the currency of living prose is daily debased by indifferent tellers calling themselves editors.

Aside from meddlers, we here come to technologies of which I am ignorant: can type still be set from manuscripts, or is a disk now necessary? If the latter, we are in trouble. If publishing requires Nintendo, the mindless gamesman will win every time. The most recent set of proofs from one of those biography mills had me born and married both in 1927, and now a “novelist and translater” [sic]. HarperCollins San Francisco has enjoyed a burst of computer ecstasy (discussed in Publisher’s Weekly), to bring the “craft” back to publishing, and among their programs is electronic text management, or ETM, a “cost- and time-saving device.” Sounds terrific, but it reminds me of our famous “anticipatory protective retaliation strikes” in Vietnam: the phrase was muzzy and abstract, almost devoid of sense, but it really meant “zap anything that moves”—women, children, water buffaloes. So ETM (how innocent! management!) may in time impose a house style on an original writer, or impose a word count on paragraphs, or reject a series of adjectives without connecting commas, or impose programmed solecisms on a serious stylist. All very noble to say, “We take authors’ disks and clean them up and convert them to our system,” but just what does this laundering consist of? Or, “I still believe you need to read the manuscript through once in hard copy before you start editing, so I can’t say we’re not editing on paper.” But how that reeks of condescension, of afterthought, oh yes, by the way! The real writing is about to commence!

The technical solutions are miraculous. If the matter were all, we could rejoice. But if the manner matters? If connotations, connections, subtleties, rhythms are important? Well, perhaps with all these windows and levels and footnotes the technology can work both ways—expedite the editing and present clean copy, or even a disk, for the author’s final approval. Yet inevitably that second step will be omitted more and more—deadlines, or simple neglect, or “We’ll just sneak this one through in a hurry.” And suppose house style and author’s preference conflict? Suppose a data base is corrupt, and errors are automatically imposed by the helpless servant of an ignorant programmer? A writer’s corrections may simply be rejected by this authoritarian, truly mindless bungler.

And where will we be when barbarisms become standard because semi-literate or uncaring editors insist on meddling, and vulgar error prevails? “More important,” which is correct, already keeps appearing as “more importantly,” which is pompous and incorrect. If my “fortunate” comes back “fortuitous” (ah, the extra syllable!), what will I do when I need “fortuitous”? Why should my venerable abolition become the bureaucratic abolishment, progress progression, use usage? Not to mention the thousand shoddy terms like “preventative” medicine or all those appetizer adverbs like “hopefully.” Or “the media (or data) is.” (Even television anchors! What do they think “media” means?) My own “wondrous,” referring to medical technology, was altered to “wonderful,” which I have always associated with Lawrence Welk, and advised against. These will in time be imposed on us: editors will feel free to “improve” writers’ work freely by adding that bombastic extra syllable (see how educated we are!), creating new and more grandiloquent academic and journalistic euphuisms (editor: stet).

The prevalence of barbarism is in itself merely annoying, and I don’t spend my days condemning popular errors. Editors may do as they please on their own time, and long life and good health to them. But to impose those errors on my work—! (How often here I have used the word “impose”!) And enough barbarism will deprive us of the world’s most majestic, precise, and powerful language. Our rules and regulations, already unreadable, will become incomprehensible. Our laws, written in fire, will blur—are already blurring—to smoke. Our poems will become—are already becoming—mediocre prose arranged in irregular lines.

What can we do about it? Somewhere—in some Platonic contract—is a perfect clause, effective protection, but its exact wording eludes the layman. To say “No changes whatever” is one solution, but it is also a call to editorial arms. We cannot deny editors their function, and should be grateful to those of them who still care how a sentence or paragraph or book is written. They are at liberty to edit, but have no license to rewrite. Yet a minatory clause without penalties is no clause at all—”Sorry,” they’d say later, “but it’s only ‘laid’ for ‘lay,’ and a few missing paragraphs, so don’t worry about it.” And the helpless writer would remain helpless. A pecuniary mulct? “Should any alterations in text be published without author’s written consent, the fee herein stated shall be doubled, and the balance paid within thirty days, and an explanation and apology be published in the next issue, and all rights revert to author”? Small comfort, of little moral value, and would publishers stand for it? Suppose they insist on their “final cut”? Will writers refuse to submit? Maybe the question is one of copyright and forgery, but a magazine piece is a “work for hire”—when we take the king’s shilling, can we be forced into the king’s uniform? How many of us can insist on “no editing”? Or on editing by blue pencil only, and typesetting from the manuscript? Or on proofs of a casual magazine piece? How legal is a “letter of clarification” to accompany the signed contract and specify the limits? These are questions for licensed guides to the legal wilderness, not for greenhorns like me.

Meanwhile, I am extremely curious to see what is done to this piece.


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