Where Ignorant Armies Type By Night
A friend and fellow editor sends me a link to this Gary Kamiya piece in Salon.
My friend wants to know what I think of it. I don’t know what he thinks of it. And that makes me a bit afraid to tell him what I think of it. So I'll tell you for sure, and then I'll tell him later. It’s also shown up on two of the editors’ mailing lists that I subscribe to.
The piece is not really written in a recognizably human voice; it is written in the voice of the hive mind of the professional media person. Although it’s written in the first person, it’s impersonal, a smooth, unthreatening, steady flow of bromides. I don’t quite believe that this speaking person exists – it’s a persona. When I criticize it, therefore, I’m not making any personal criticism of Kamiya, who barely makes any appearance in the piece at all. Well, it’s journalism, it’s not supposed to be personal. And as they always said in journalism school, “Who cares what you personally think?” Well, the person out there who does care what you personally think is me.
I recognize a familiar tone, the appeal to in-group solidarity, the patronage those poor dimwits out there (readers, students, the uncredentialed, the writers who are trying to get your attention and send you all sorts of junk, the people who think you can just sit at a keyboard and write) for whom, mind you, Christ also died. The ones who don't understand or appreciate the Editor's Burden.
I used to hear this in the hallways of English departments, too. How put upon the faculty were, how hopelessly inept, callow, ignorant, and feckless the students were -- it was quite hilarious really. Indeed it was always good for a laugh. It was one thing that could make all those various intellectual factions lay down their offensive weapons and slap each other on the back. How dumb the students were, how we were all there to "Teach Them How to Think."
It always made me feel uncomfortable, and I refused to indulge in it myself. I didn't go around yukking it up with the English professors about how dumb students were. I mean, these were people who could not teach who were making fun of people who could not learn from them.
Editors, like academics, are prone to this sort of in-group frame of mind. Kamiya notes that the people formerly known as readers have started writing and publishing themselves on the Internet, without the ministrations of editors.. Predictably, it prompts him to strike the elegiac note.
In the brave new world of self-publishing, editors are an endangered species. This isn't all bad. It's good that anyone who wants to publish and has access to a computer now faces no barriers. And some bloggers don't really need editors: Their prose is fluent and conversational, and readers have no expectation that the work is going to be elegant or beautifully shaped. Its main function is to communicate clearly. It isn't intended to last.
If Flaubert were alive he’d have to add the word “blog” to his Dictionary of Received Ideas.
BLOGS: Will not ultimately stand the test of time. Written by uncivil adolescents.
In a piece like this the writer must always look to the silver lining. It turns out all is not lost: readers will still depend on editors to choose their reading for them.
Still, editors and editing will be more important than ever as the Internet age rockets forward. The online world is not just about millions of newborn writers exulting in their powers. It's also about millions of readers who need to sort through this endless universe and figure out which writers are worth reading. Who is going to sort out the exceptional ones? Editors, of some type. Some smart group of people is going to have to separate the wheat from the chaff. And the more refined that separation process is, the more talent -- and perhaps more training -- will be required. In any case, real editing is something different. It takes place before a piece ever sees the light of day -- and it's this kind of painstaking, word-by-word editing that so much online writing needs. If learning how to be edited is a form of growing up, much of the blogosphere still seems to be in adolescence, loudly affirming its identity and raging against authority. But teenagers eventually realize that authority is not as tyrannical and unhip as they once thought. It's edited prose, with its points sharpened by another, that will ultimately stand the test of time. There is a place for mayfly commentary, which buzzes about and dies in a day. But we don't want to get to the point where the mayflies and mosquitoes are so thick that we can't breathe or think.
Oh, those damned teenage lawyers, English professors, business owners, biologists, and journalists!
How much writing in print will stand the test of time? Does anybody remember the Edward Hamilton catalog? Some 32 pages or so, tabloid, every column inch packed with a brief description of books that publishers were unloading for pennies on the dollar, just to get rid of inventory. It was the best one of its kind, totally unselective, and you could find the odd treasure if you dug through it patiently, but most of the books for sale were junk. Newspapers are preserved, not because of literary interest, but because they are part of the historic record. Most newspaper writing, as writing, deserves oblivion. Here I live in the Trade Association (or “lobby” if you prefer) Newsletter Capital of the World, and I know that of all the self-serving printed dreck that is produced here by the ton, daily, and shipped out to members, the best thing that can be said about it is that it has no shelf-life.
I mean, if you are going to talk about writing that has no shelf life at all, why always look at the bloggers? I am sure Kamiya reads good bloggers and not just the crappy ones. But the intent here is to set the class of editors apart from those outsiders, those teenage yahoo movie producers and investigative journalists, and it’s much easier to point to the existence of – oh gosh, he doesn’t even give any examples of what he finds so adolescent but trust him, he knows, he’s on the inside – the bloggers (real or imaginary), that is, who are beyond the pale and shouldn’t be let in. This is the hive mind talking.
But that is how we all find ourselves with Kamiya and Matthew Arnold out on Dover Beach: it’s considerably crowded as all of us editors are out there and there are probably more editors now than ever before – we’re not an endangered species, though our status (or our status in our own wishful minds) may be endangered.
The art of editing is running against the cultural tide. We are in an age of volume; editing is about refinement. It's about getting deeper into a piece, its ideas, its structure, its language. It's a handmade art, a craft. You don't learn it overnight. Editing aims at making a piece more like a Stradivarius and less like a microchip. And as the media universe becomes larger and more filled with microchips, we need the violin makers.
Hush! Hark! OMG can you hear the violin?
The writers hardly fare any better.
The truth is, you have to learn how to be edited just as much as you have to learn how to edit. And learning how to be edited teaches you a lot about writing, about distance and objectivity and humility, and ultimately about yourself.
In an odd way, the exchange between writer and editor encapsulates the process of growing up. The act of writing is godlike, omnipotent, infantile…
Sounds a lot like some editors I’ve met. Whenever I've gone to some workshop where there's a panel of editors, there's always some self-important little It Girl who, explaining her criteria for accepting work, feels compelled to say, "And if you misspell my name your manuscript goes right into the trash."
I’ve spent time working through boxes of submissions, and I’ve thrown out stories for all sorts of reasons, but in all cases the reasons had to do with the story. I wasn’t actually looking to fill the pages of the magazine with the correct spelling of my name. I don’t know if I’ll ever find myself digging through a slush pile again, but if I do, I can promise you this: if you turn in a good piece of writing and you’ve misspelled my name in your cover letter, no problem. I’ll fix it! I’m an editor!