in praise of the poor devil of letters

Editing’s a thankless job. Turns out it always has been.

According to the historian Anthony Grafton in this piece at Lapham’s Quarterly, book editors—who began as “correctors”—have been underpaid and under-appreciated ever since Gutenberg:

One of the most striking facts about correctors was, and is, depressing: for all the utility of what they did, they usually found themselves the objects less of gratitude than of anger, pity, or derision. As early as 1534, when Viglius Zuichemus described Hieronymus Froben’s printing shop, he mentioned the chief corrector there, Sigismund Gelenius, only to say how much he regretted seeing him employed in this capacity. Gelenius, he explained, was “an extraordinarily learned man, and worthy of far better things.” Pretty much everyone agreed.

Many of my book publishing peers aroused the same pity in me (regardless of the fact that I was toiling right alongside them). One humble copy-editor at Penguin always astonished me with the breadth of her knowledge, the sheer sagacity displayed by her corrections. You have to understand a subject pretty well to make truly useful suggestions as an editor. It’s like being the cameraperson for a footrace—you have to run a little bit faster and carry a big camera to boot. On any project, this copy-editor clearly knew more about the subject at hand—whatever that subject was —than the person being given a six-figure advance to write about it. But what choice did she, or any of us, have, other than to toil away on her corrections? To paraphrase Churchill (who was actually quoting someone else), being a book editor is the worst form of employment, except for all the others. I mean, if you’ve got the chops, what else are you gonna do for a living?

In Grafton’s words, it’s the “quintessential fate of humanists” to suffer this way. Blessed with “discriminating tastes,” you are qualified to be nothing more than “a poor devil of letters.” Clearly, the best job would be reading all day, but that’s not a job. Consequently, some extraordinarily talented people—highly educated, perceptive, curious, articulate—do the next best thing. Which is downright awful.

Back in the 16th century, correctors were jacks-of-all-trades:

They corrected authors’ copy as well as proofs. They identified and mended typographical and other errors, to the best of their ability. They divided texts into sections and drew up aids to readers: title pages, tables of contents, chapter headings, and indexes. Some correctors composed texts as well as paratexts, serving as what might now be called content providers. At times, correctors acted as expert intermediaries between an author and his publisher.

Today, we specialize, although terms differ and there is no agreement on where to draw the lines: developmental editing, line editing, copy-editing, and on and on. When I face a manuscript, I don’t know what I’m doing from one moment to the next beyond fixing. That’s what I do. I fix what needs fixing and call it a day. But the nature of the fixing varies. You work your way down from gross to fine correction depending on the scale of the task and the time you have available. Though I still have a habit of correcting typos early in the process, a.k.a. arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Imagine it this way. Your dog makes a mess on the floor. What’s the first thing you’re going to do? There’s no time for niceties. You’ve got a big date and they’re coming over soon. You’re going to scoop what you can scoop. Once the ugliest part of the task is out of the way, you can afford to be a bit more particular. You spray the floor and wipe it down. You get out the wood polish and the air freshener. You step back, look at the floor from different angles, take the occasional sniff. Eventually, you decide you can live with what’s stuck in the nooks and crannies and you move on to the next mess.

You probably think I should have chosen a nicer metaphor. Unless you’re an editor, of course.

This is why it’s tough when people ask me what kind of editorial support I can provide, or what kind of help I think they need. I never know until I get a good look at the mess.

How big is that doodoo?