Thursday, 15 January 2009

Anthology II

Apparently I am to deal with some of the anthology business with confidentiality, so I will not be able to tell you many details about the publishing. Instead, I will maybe talk to you some more about editing others' work.


My peers have told me that sometimes they are afraid to receive essays I have edited for them, because of the intimidating amount of red ink. It has become common practice for me to draw pictures on these essays to lighten the mood and give them something to look forward to. You'll recall, maybe, a polar bear. Perhaps it is odd, or perhaps it isn't, but I'm often myself nervous when giving someone their edited paper. I am afraid they will be angry with me for something I have written. Perhaps they will take my criticism of their feminist argument as chauvinism; perhaps they will be upset that I did not like their word choices; perhaps my indication that their work did nothing for me will hurt them. One way or another, I worry that they will be wounded by what I say and react with ire. The thing is, I try to say things as nicely as possible, but sometimes the truth will be hurtful regardless of how you phrase it. Sometimes, too, an error they make is so offensive that I cannot but be stern with them; some of the feminist papers I have edited in the past have contained greivous attacks on all men, usually implying that men necessarily and irrepairably act in specific, stereotyped, sexist ways. This itself is evidentally a sexist argument, and I would be a poor editor if I did not point out how this undermines non-essentialist theses and alienates many readers. There have in the past been similar issues, not pertaining to sexism, as well.

Thus I have been afraid, sometimes, when editing work for the anthology. Not only am I being thorough, and thus more ruthless, but I am picking apart work that is much closer to people's hearts than essays usually are. I am combing through poetry and fiction that often contain large amounts of autobiography. A religious studies professor I had last semester said that we ought to be careful when critiquing people's religions, since a person's religion is part of their self-identity, and a critique on a religion will probably and quite reasonably be interpreted as an attack on the person. Similarly, a critique of the work of a poet may be felt by the poet as a personal attack. Say a person devoted to a particular dialect writes a poem sometimes employing that language; if I say, "I'd avoid this language, if I were you, as it undermines your authority and appears to be antagonist in this context," I could hurt them. Now, I'd not likely say something like that because I understand how dialect can relate to identity. But I don't always know what any given writer's identity consists of, and so I may inadvertently attack that self-identity through my critique of a personally meaningful piece.

I also know that my ability to be diplomatic in my criticism is hampered when I'm tired, which is inevitably the state I'm in when I write the critiques up for my peers. It always happens at the end of a long day.

So that's the bulk of the anxiety I feel about editing; I have been told that I'm a good editor, and that people appreciate my directness. This is good, but I still don't like to hurt people.

So, that covers my concerns about reception. What, though, is my philosophy of editing? How do I go about it? What methods do I bring to the table? I have recently begun to consider these questions, and have gathered the following 'answer':

Any given text includes the engagement of two different people or sets of people. The first is the author, and the second and final is the reader. The author assembles the words on the page, consciously choosing them to elicit meaning in the mind of a hypothetical reader. Scholars and artists argue about whether you can write something without a reader in mind, but I won't worry about that. The reader comes along afterwards, sees the words, formulates thoughts, and recovers meaning from the words. Perhaps the reader actually creates meaning out of the words. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that meaning results from a negotiation between the author and the reader, with the text as the medium.

[Theoretical aside, which you may skip if you aren't interested: This understanding of a text is preoccupied with meaning. I confess that this is how I automatically think of texts, as vehicles of meanings. There are other concerns, including aesthetic and affective considerations. I will clarify, then, that I understand 'meaning' to also refer to emotions and other mental, non-cognitive states. Words are meant to provoke brain-stuff. Just as 'text' is academese for 'words,' 'meaning' is just academese for 'brain-stuff.']
So we have writers, and we have readers. Do we also have editors? In some cases yes, but really not. An editor is someone who helps a writer understand how to influence a reader. An editor is like a textual shaman, negotiating the worlds of creation and reception.

I am an English major, which means practice literary analysis in school. A literary critic (and not the kind in newspapers who tells you whether a book is any good, but the kind who writes essays to explore what a text says on a less-than-surface level) is just a super-reader. A literary critic is a reader who understands how words make you think certain things, or more accurately, a reader who understands this better than most other readers. So I go to class, I read a text, I say, "This texts makes me think such-and-such about politics," and then I look at the words and figure out how. I also look at the words and see if there's anything in there that I wouldn't have noticed I'd read the first time. Sometimes we read meanings, internalize them, and not notice that we've done so. Many many people have been thinking and reading things about Aboriginal people without knowing it, and they start to believe this things without realizing it. For instance, I doubt anyone ever came out and said to you, "Native society has stayed basically the same way ever since they came over on the land bridge." No one says this, but I bet a lot of people believe it. That's because it's hidden in the things we read about Native people. Everything written about their culture talks about it as though it has gone on that way for all time. Natives are universals; they are like water and fire. This is completely untrue, of course. But so long as it's hidden in the text, assumed and taken in without anyone noticing, it's harder to articulate, harder to notice, and harder to disprove. A literary critic is someone trained to find these things and make them explicit, so we can decide whether it's something we want to believe or not. A literary critic is someone who knows how to read, and hopefully knows what to do with that skill.

I am also a writer. I write essays, rants, fiction, and sometimes poetry. I try to say assorted things to my readers. I have felt what it takes to create sentences, string words together, articulate signifieds through signifiers. I have experience in and investment in the poetic process. Word selection and ideology packaging are things I engage in.

As an editor, I try to employ the skills and perspectives afforded me by each skillset. I read a person's work and try to investigate it as I would a literary text. What does this say to me? Why does it say that? What in the structure, the word choice, etc. makes me uncover meaning the way I do? That's the reader part. Then, do I suspect that the writer wants this effect? If not, how would I, as a writer, avoid this meaning? What would I do to direct the reader toward the meaning I want (or, the meaning that I suspect the writer wants)? I report these findings and suggestions to the writer. I say, "This is what I got from your piece. This is why. If you are happy with this interpretation being possible, yay! If you are not, this is what I would do to remove that meaning from your text."

For instance, I read one piece in which a figure of speech existed as a set of similes and metaphors throughout the last stanza until the final two lines, where the conceit was revealed to have been literal, only in an unexpected way. I don't want to give away the actual piece, so for an example let's say a character frequently described as being "on fire" or "aflame," and there's an actual fire in the room. The poet is connecting the imagery of the fire with the character. And then, in the last two stanzas, we discover that the character is "flaming," slang for homosexual. This is not made apparent throughout. Alright. What this revision does is it forces the reader to rethink her previous understanding of the piece. This feels actually forcible on the reader's part. It is also powerful, and memorable. The impression the reader has is one of disruption. If you want to indicate that there is something disruptive going on in the character's situation, this technique would do it. However, if you're trying to demonstrate that there's something peaceful or calm about the character's situation, this revision will ruin the effect. Simultaneously, the moment of revision, the lines immediately surrounding the piece of information which necessitates that re-understanding, will stick in the reader's mind. The reader will remember that part quite well. So this would be the ideal place to put whatever you want the reader to get out of the story. Hit them with social justice issues, or with a particularly swashbuckling part, or a particularly raunchy part, or a particularly funny part (actual, this could create humour in itself), or a particularly scary part (again, this revision could create horror), or a particularly pretty part. Whatever you want your reader to walk away with, this would be a good place to do it, because it's memorable.

See how I did that? I took it as a reader takes it. I say, how does this make me feel? I then use my super-reader powers to determine why it does that. I then say, as a writer, would I want this in this piece? How could I use this to my advantage? How could I use this to communicate with my reader, either on a conscious or an unconscious level? That's what I do as an editor.

Wow, that's long winded. Sorry about that. Should I include pictures to make it less intimidating? Maybe I will.

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