The State of Editing

Jeannette Winterson, quoted at the end of a recent Guardian article about the lost art of editing, illustrates that editing is not just about catching type-os.

"Editors have become linear and timid. They worry about how things follow and Emma Bovary's eyes both change colour unexpectedly, and no one minds. As Virginia Woolf wrote, "all my facts about lighthouses are wrong". So there is wrong that is right, and that is better than rigid rightness that is wrong. I find, too, that many younger editors simply don't have the cultural resources to recognise a reference or playfulness therein. But life is getting so much worse everywhere that we must not be too gloomy about books . . . Books remain a pocket of air in an upturned boat. I cannot think in a linear way and I do not care. I can only say what I mean and often that raises editorial queries of the "translate from the Japanese, please" kind. Copy-editing is not the skill it once was. There are computer programs to do that for you because we no longer believe we need human beings. I would like to see zest for difficulty making a comeback. Must we always be transparent? Remember when TS Eliot was asked what he meant by "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree", he said: "I meant, 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree'." I have no idea what that means, but I am glad it didn't get edited into "Mrs, there's three wild animals under that shrub". We should edit with good sense, of course, but with a sense that sense is not everything. This is obvious enough in fiction, but wonderfully eccentric stylists such as, say, Jan Morris or Harold Bloom don't need their magnificent non-fiction to be turned into Google Notes. Editing only looks micro. It is about the whole as well as the parts."


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