rejected from the blue pencil club

Welcome new subscribers! I hope you like the Maven Game. There are many excellent options in the newsletter space today. I appreciate your giving this humble operation your attention. And now, on to the intellectual pyrotechnics someone told you to expect!

But first, a bit of housekeeping for my existing subscribers. You can skip ahead a few paragraphs. Just scroll down to the image of Yoda fighting puppies. 

OK, everybody else: Somebody posted something about the Maven Game after last week’s essay. I’ll admit I was on fire, but didn’t I tell you to stop recommending this?  I got like a million new subscribers—practically ten. And without Twitter or Facebook, I have no idea where to cast blame for this sudden and highly unwelcome influx of unseasoned noobs who won’t get any of my inside jokes or obscure references. The Maven Game is like Fight Club but even more secret—not talking about it is the first three rules.

(The noobs never even saw Fight Club. They probably think “Tyler Durden” is a minor-league baseball pitcher.)

Damn it, guys! When Kevin Kelly said you need a thousand true fans to be a successful creator, he skipped something critical: the dangers of overshooting the mark. I’m not about to take any chances by “cracking the M,” as the Romans used to say about their own email newsletters. (They called them “Greek tragedies.”) Who knows what the consequences might be? Look how the Gods of Olympus punished Orestes for killing his mother and then using it for clickbait. (They called clickbait “Aristotelian unities of action, place, and time.”)

Maybe people with over a thousand fans are those Millennials everyone’s been complaining about! That would explain a lot. I hadn’t understood what all the angry middle managers were complaining about until now. If this list hits 1,001, will I eat avocado toast on pink plates while blaming Boomers for everything? It isn’t worth worth the risk. Although I have to admit that, taken as a generation, the Boomers could have done more to live the principles they fervently espoused during the social and cultural upheavals of the late…it’s already happening. Kill…me…

So who’s to blame for the boost? I can’t identify you without using our socially acceptable deep surveillance tools, but I know you’re out there, sharing.

It’s weird to write blind like this. Publishing a newsletter without social media to gauge the response feels like doing surgery with oven mitts. (I would have used the Bird Box Challenge as my metaphor but, without social media, I’m completely unaware of that meme.)

yoda fighting dogs

Welcome back new subscribers! Again, good to have you on board. You’ll notice a few key differences between the Maven Game and other newsletters, the first one being that we’re quite a ways along and even I’m not sure what this week’s essay is actually about. Just go with it or, as one publisher often suggested I tell my uptight authors, unclench.

Look, you’re checking your email over the weekend. Clearly, things aren’t off to a good start. Might as well see whether I stick the landing or not. (No, that is not an invitation to email me that I didn’t, you.)

I entered book publishing in 2004, at the very transition moment to digital. I’m probably one of the very first Big Six publishing house editors to have worked without a pencil from the very start of my career. (If I’m wrong, please correct me.) Truth is, I barely know how to sharpen a pencil—it involves vigorous rotation and a sharp edge, but that’s all I’ve got, and I’m not going to start experimenting now.

Truth is, I’d love to be a pencil person. Like Mary Norris. What could be more freaking legit than writing about pencil snobbery in The New Yorker? In a more recent issue, Joshua Rothman writes about these odd aspirations we have in “The Art of Decision-Making“:

Suppose that you sign up for a classical-music-appreciation class, in which your first assignment is to listen to a symphony. You put on headphones, press Play—and fall asleep. The problem is that you don’t actually want to listen to classical music; you just want to want to. 

I want to want to like pencils. I’ve always wanted to want to like classical music, too. I’ve fallen asleep many times, in venues ranging from the Metropolitan Opera House to La Scala in Milan. (This isn’t a self-deprecating gag. Ask my wife.) If you want a really cozy nap, go see Bargemusic on a cold winter’s night. Chamber music on a rocking boat next to a crackling fire? They might as well dole out warm milk.

Traditionally, editors used a blue pencil to make corrections to a text because it wouldn’t be reproduced by lithography, photography, or, later, xerography. The blue pencil became a symbol of the profession, like those strange black Airpods doctors still wear even though they’re unnecessary.

One of my most deeply felt professional rivalries sprang up when a fellow editor at my company was described in a magazine as having “the best blue pencil chops in the business.” I can’t find the reference, but I’m pretty sure it was also in The New Yorker. He never knew about our rivalry, but that made it no less bitter, particularly when he left book publishing to go work at…The New Yorker. He wasn’t even interested in pursuing the career he was better than me at! Er, better at than me.

Maybe I should stop reading The New Yorker.

Using a blue pencil does not make one a good editor and liking classical music does not mean one understands music better than your average Imagine Dragons fan. We all get trapped by this, conflating tools with talent, practices with practice. We all want to look and act the part. I found evidence of “Blue Pencil Clubs” going back to the turn of the last century, like this one:

ATE CHOP SUEY

How the Blue Pencil Club Observed Forman Night.

It was Allan Forman night at the Blue Pencil Club, New York, on Wednesday evening, and in honor of the chief guest a chop suey dinner was served.

Those who are connoisseurs in such matters say that they never ate a more satisfying Chinese dish than this favorite concoction of bamboo sprouts, mushrooms, and shark fins.

The editor of the Journalist during the evening made one of his witty and characteristic speeches. William E.S. Fales, the president of the club, also spoke. 

Ernest Jerrold (Mickey Finn) was master of ceremonies.

So much to unpack here:

  • Modern copywriters act like they invented clickbait, a.k.a. Aristotelian unity, but whoever came up with the headline “Ate Chop Suey” in 1901 knew exactly how to capture this reader’s eyeballs. 
  • Allan Forman was a journalist who wore a pince-nez and had his own trading card in the “American Editors” series (!)
  • I feel sad for turn-of-the-century Chinese food connoisseurs who died too early to enjoy General Tso’s Chicken.
  • How’d it feel to be Fales after reading this? “Congrats to speaker one on the terrific job. Oh, and this other trash-pile flapped his lips and grunted.”
  • Who was M.C.—Ernest Jerrold or Mickey Finn? Was “Mickey Finn” Jerrold’s character, like “Alex Jones” is Alex Jones’s?

You don’t need a club or a pencil—or a very large pencil one could use as a club—to be legit. Just get up early in the morning and work all day, to paraphrase Philip Glass.

That said, everyone currently subscribed to this newsletter gets to be an inaugural member of the New Blue Pencil Club. In return for your monthly membership dues, you will receive one expansion pack of editor trading cards, which I will be resurrecting as a collectible card game like Pokémon or Magic so you get to fight the different editors against each other. (Naturally, my card will be an ultra-rare foil hologram card with the best stats in the game.)

And with that witty and characteristic essay, I doff my pince-nez and bid you good weekend.

p.s. Yes, of course liking classical music means you understand music better than your average Imagine Dragons fan. I mean, just watch this actual, completely genuine live performance.