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Meanland: Editors, trolls and lovers

Gwen Harwood’s sentiment about editors – eloquently expressed in an acrostic, has become Australian folklore. While some authors would agree with Gwen, for others it’s not as simple. Nor is it always obvious in this blogging, tweeting, forever-online world, who our ultimate editor might be.

In many areas the editor-author partnership remains unchanged. Editors and publishers work with authors the way they always have: commissioning, editing and publishing work. At the other end of the spectrum is self-publishing including web pages, blogs, twitter etc, produced without editorial intervention. Between these is a hybrid model – in which some areas of a journal, for example, will be edited, but blog posts or opinion pieces remain unedited. Then there’s the editorial process where no apparent human intervention occurs; instead machine-made decisions are based on complex algorithms referencing past choices and the preferences of the majority.

Editing and being edited is like a love affair. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes not. When it works you can find yourself shouting, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Or, like Jack Nicholson’s character responding to Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets, an editor can make an author ‘want to be a better man’ (or woman). As with love affairs, there’s the ongoing search for the ‘one who really gets you’, or for the transformative relationship which will ‘take you away from all this’.

Perhaps this is the reason so many authors become romantically involved with their publishers and editors. Or maybe it’s just that authors don’t always get out much.

A good – or indeed bad – editor can fundamentally change a writer’s work. Some partnerships are legendary: Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, Gordon Lish’s slicing and dicing of Raymond Carver, Max Perkins and F Scott Fitzgerald.

When the author-editor connection breaks down, it can have all the characteristics of a failed relationship, including name-calling, sulks, rage, backstabbing and legendary feuds. Sylvia Plath fans will never forgive Ted Hughes’s alleged suppression of Plath’s work, and similar claims have been made about Percy Bysshe Shelley’s intervention in Mary Shelley’s work.

Economic realities mean that publishers are less likely to have the time to invest in the long-term nurturing/interventionist editorial relationships. Cory Doctorow outlined some of the recent changes in publishing in a Guardian article, and, as Gary Kamiya pointed out some years ago, many traditional editorial roles are being outsourced or forgotten.

But where does this leave us in the unmediated part of the online world? What happens when the audience becomes the gatekeeper? A lot of the online world is as much mediated by editors as the traditional print world. Editors commission work, read unsolicited material, choose what they want, edit it and make the final call as to how it is presented.

On the other hand, the ease with which anyone can self-publish by creating web pages, blogs, etc, means that there’s lots of material for which the audience is the only editor. In some ways, a relationship that used to be private and personal now becomes public. We’ve replaced an intimate editorial relationship with one or two people with an open relationship with many. Like an ongoing version of some reality television show – it’s the crowd that gets to decide. And as we all know, the crowd is not always wise or kind.

Exposing yourself to the unfettered reaction of the mob, instead of the (hopefully) measured, thoughtful response of an editor, is like diving into the mosh pit. Sometimes the crowd lifts you high, carrying you along on their shoulders, at other times you’re trampled beneath the crush. Most often there’s a kind of ‘meh’ of non-response, and, as Zora Sanders reminded us in a recent Meanjin post – there are trolls out there whose main agenda is to hurt and maim.

Readers today have the expectation of participation, of a dialogue, a democratic response to the author. So whether they are consumed by joy or a kind of write-rage, they expect to comment. How this ‘editorialising’ impacts the writer is as individual as any relationship. Some people are empowered by thoughtful, engaging comments, others are dragged under by violent destructive responses.

Commenting online seems to have replaced some other forms of public editing. While Apostrophe man and woman still stalk the mean streets (sometimes in the guise of one of my sisters), other forms of street editorial (also known as graffiti) seem to have fallen away. While graffiti as art is flourishing, there seems to be less direct comment. Perhaps the fury to respond which used to drive people to pick up a paint can is now directed to tweeting, emailing and online commenting. I keep expecting some of the 99% to reply to the Big Clubs’ pro gambling ‘who voted’ billboards with BUGA UP style ripostes, but I haven’t seen it yet. It looks like no one can be buggered. They may be actively tweeting and blogging instead, but they’re talking to a different audience.

The centrality of editors in setting and reflecting cultural agendas over the years can’t be underestimated. The impact on Australian culture of literary journals and publishing houses with strong, determined editors, from Louisa Lawson and the Dawn, through the Bulletin’s JF Archibald and Alfred Stephens, down through the long stayers like Meanjin, Overland and Southerly, is immense.

But how will this play out when it’s not a human editor who is choosing which works to include and discard, but a machine?

Search engines and social media already edit what you see in response to the choices of the crowd and your previous preferences. (See Eli Pariser’sTED talk for an overview.) Many web pages, particularly news sites, are constructed by pulling in a mash-up of ‘popular’ items into a page, and instead of human editors determining what they’ll publish, editing is replaced by filtering and decisions are made by a computer gatekeeper.

The Google corporation is working hard on creating a ‘synthesis of knowledge’ in which instead of getting a series of webpages in response to a query, we’ll get a Google-crafted ‘synthesis’ of all the responses (probably edited to reflect our known preferences and prejudices).

The logical extension of this is a future version of my favourite literary journal where none of the bits my online editor thinks I don’t want to see appear – all the hard bits, the things that challenge me, the people I don’t agree with, anything new and exciting, are removed – kind of like listening to your favourite radio shock-jock. Or it might be that a ‘knowledge editor’ synthesises the disparate bits of the journal into one small easy-to-digest document.

But why stop there? Why not, like the 60 second classics, exponentially reduce the journal to its essence like a sauce simmering on the stove, until all that remains is one well-crafted tweet or haiku?

Anyone want to give it a go?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this piece and I think it raises a lot of very important points. I really hope that writers of all kinds will start to use editors more and build a kind of network of comment before they publish. Too often when I read things I wish I had a red pen to write ‘so what?’ in the margins, pushing the writer to expand or explain. Or to delete the unnecessary. It is a lonely business, writing, but it shouldn’t be.

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