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Type
Article
Category
Publishing
Writing

Death of the editor

Among the various portentous ‘deaths’ that seem to be befalling contemporary culture – the death of the ‘manly man’, the death of ‘Australian values’, the death of the personal essay – is the lesser-known apparent death of the editor. In a 2008 long-read for Essays in Criticism, Harvard University’s J Stephen Murphy lamented the slow demise of my long-beloved profession, largely as a result of the changes to the publishing landscape wrought by new media and their ostensible democratisation of writing and literature.

Journalism has contended with the brunt of this monumental shift in how editing is (under)valued: in the last few months alone, editorial jobs were slashed by both Fairfax and News Corp on local shores, as well as by The New York Times further afield. During the same period, Australia’s Pacific Magazines also terminated a substantial number of editorial positions. It seems books haven’t been invulnerable, either: a 2011 Guardian article incorporating responses from several publishing bigwigs diagnosed a marked weakening – a ‘timidity’ – in how the editors of today approach their assigned manuscripts.

What’s particularly interesting, for me, is how this final criticism seemingly jars with the traditional conception of the Good Editor as self-effacing. The renowned Beatrice Davis, Australia’s first full-time book editor, famously described the work of the editor as ‘invisible mending’, highlighting the importance of making non-intrusive, seamless changes to a text – of preserving the author’s tone, tenor and intention. In publishing circles, we joke about editors being ‘midwives’ to authors’ ‘babies’, alternating attention between darlings killed and discursive gems needing mining. Indeed, beyond being secondary to the author, the editor is caught in the middle of a four-way tug-of-war between the author, their readers, the publication (its history, vision, voice), and the broader media and publishing industries.

Yet misconceptions about the editing profession remain – my favourite, and the furthest from the mark, being that we editors just sit around and wield red pens to correct grammar and punctuation. That we are perceived as glorified spellcheckers (ones susceptible to human error, no less) perhaps partly explains the diminishing value placed on what we do: why pay someone a wage when Microsoft Word will mete out squiggly lines for free? Then there’s the idea of editors emerging gracefully out of lifts, swanning around at galas among the literati, then arriving home to a mock-up put together by swathes of underlings. Like the migrant that both scabs off the dole and steals locals’ jobs, these competing characterisations somehow coexist in the minds of those whose lives aren’t beholden to the production schedule.

The reality is so much more unglamorous, however. I’d already addressed some problematic aspects of these myths in a piece for Voiceworks a couple of years back, so I won’t rehash those points here. But further demystification is necessary, especially in a world that is seeing a significant decline in resource allocation – and respect – for the profession. Speaking on purely economic terms, as eminent Australian publisher Hilary McPhee has argued, the ‘best edited’ works ‘last longest’ in the marketplace: ‘Editing is not only about ensuring that “Commonwealth” has a capital “c”, it’s about structure, it’s about audience, it’s about getting the voice right. Then sales follow.’ Author Charlotte Wood is also unreservedly warm when recounting editor Jane Palfreyman’s pivotal role in the creation of her Stella Prize–winning 2015 novel, The Natural Way of Things. Here, we are reminded of editing’s ‘value-adding’ effect on texts: an investment in quality leads to better returns – not just economically, but also in terms of symbolic capital.

And editing isn’t a career you just ‘fall into’. In line with the attitudinal expectation raised earlier, it isn’t unlike fields such as teaching, in which professionals are overworked and underpaid, with not much visible recognition. It requires a specific kind of person. Or, as New York Times ‘comma queen’ Mary Norris describes it, editing ‘draws on the entire person’. In addition to brandishing the red pen, editors face working to, anticipating and addressing setbacks in the production cycle – often at the expense of our own cycles for sleep and socialising. There’s the need to always be on the pulse: commissioning topical pieces and keeping abreast of developments in slang, society, political sensitivities. There’s having an eye for design and knowing how text and image best complement one another. There’s the drive to fact-check everything. There’s the never-ending obsession over the perfect wording and the inevitable heart-rending humility of ‘but there’s not enough time, so this’ll have to do’.

New media – and the new consumption habits they foster – are challenging this traditional model of quality-control. Not only is anyone, regardless of expertise or eloquence, now able to publish their writing on an online or digital platform, but our voracious appetite for content also means that demand far exceeds the time and human resources that can be allocated to ensuring what we engage with is authoritative, articulate and well-analysed. Moreover, the networked, ‘perpetually editable’ online arena lends itself to continual corrections and less judiciously structured texts. Perhaps the minimal investment involved in clicking on a hyperlink to yet another ‘free’ article is matched by minimal investment in how rigorously those written works were put together.

In the economy of ‘free’ (advertising prevails, of course), value is placed firmly in the hands of the consumer. So if not on quality of style and structure, then, the role of the twenty-first-century editor may well focus more on being a custodian of substance. As critic and Overland columnist Mel Campbell wrote in 2014 – reminiscing about the time she ‘accidentally changed hip-hop history’ – ‘information goes feral online’, especially when it is ‘truthy’: ‘if information feels right to us, and plays to our existing perceptions and prejudices, then we’ll accept it’. Confronted with a surfeit of sources, it’s more crucial than ever that editors help writers mean what they say and say what they mean – and, more importantly, safeguard readers from erroneous, egregious information, or messages peddled to hurt or harm. Objectivity may be an illusion but, with editorial intervention, a writer’s bias (and readers’ penchant for confirmation bias) can at least be tempered with fact and tact.

Modesty, scrupulousness and diplomacy are integral to professional editing and – aligning with Davis’s characterisation – the best editors do their work invisibly. Concomitant with this is the reality that those not directly involved in the editing process won’t always be able to discern the degree to which a text has been improved by its editor’s efforts. But amid the evolutions in media and publishing, the technologies available to producer and consumer, and the reading habits of the general public, editors must persist – the fulcrum for the publication tug-of-war. It’s vital that editors continue to mend text, context, contention lest our globalised discourses come apart at the seams.

 

Image: Impercettibili Sfumature 008 / Naomi

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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Adolfo Aranjuez is editor of Metro, Australia’s oldest film and media periodical. He is also subeditor of Screen Education magazine, editorial consultant for Liminal magazine, and a freelance writer, speaker and dancer. Adolfo is one of the Melbourne Writers Festival’s 30 Under 30 and a participant in the Midsumma Futures mentorship program. Find him online at adolfoaranjuez.com and @adolfo_ae.

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Comments

  1. i can think of some other things that have undermined the role (or perceived roles) of editors in recent literary history. A couple of instances that spring to mind: The reluctance, no actually refusal, by so many publishing houses/editors in the early 1990s to consider the writing of JK Rowling. Somewhere along the way, and rightly so, the “we know best” and “we are the gatekeepers” attitude got steamrollered over by the sheer force of readers around the world telling them differently. Similarly, but obviously to a lesser extent, we have seen many self-published and online published authors thrust themselves in to the grateful arms of the reading public – because if it had been left up to the editors nobody would have ever heard about them or their work (Cecilia Dart Thornton, Mathew Reilly to name two…). Instead the editors have been busily beavering away on literary masterpieces that they believe we should all be reading – um, except hardly anybody does. And then there was the Belle Gibson thing. Simple fact checking (one of the bread and butter roles of the editor so you said) was done away with in a bidding frenzy for the chance to be the first to publish her attractive but blatantly false story. Again, editor credibility: zero.
    I’m sorry editors are under threat. Of course we need them. But we need them to be bold and brave and in touch with stories people actually want to read. But what would I know? I just work in a library…

  2. Excellent intervention. The public need to be reminded of the importance of editors without whom most books wouldn’t have been published.
    Another good thing about editors is that they preserve the good use of language, that is; avoid degradation.
    Manuel Fragoso-Writer

  3. Not entirely unacknowledged…
    Every time I do a post about a prize short or long list, I always include congratulations to the authors, editors and publishers.
    And like many litbloggers, I refuse to read self-published books unless they have been professionally edited. I do this because I value the work that editors do, especially when it comes to the structural editing side of things.
    All the best, Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

  4. Thanks, Adolfo, for an informative insider’s view of the editorial profession as it stands today. I wholeheartedly concur that published works which have been through the ‘invisible mending’ process are far easier to understand – and more enjoyable too! At this point, I’m left wondering what is being done to sustain, grow, and develop the editorial profession. Your essay offers a good defence of editors and a decent description of what they’re all about. That’s all very well, but what conditions are necessary for editors to continue to go about their business in the future? Editors can’t turn back the clock to a pre-digital age, so is it just a case of standing firm and keeping standards as high as possible, or is there a more flexible and adaptable approach? If so, what would that mean? I suppose your essay left me with as many questions as it did answers. Good stuff though!

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