02 October 2006

The Editorial Function

It seemed to us that it might be useful to pose a few questions re this matter of the editorial function that Joe raised some while back. We each enjoyed a brief stint of late as (executive, managing) editors with American Book Review; like all of you, we've worked with countless editors (and kinds of editors -- acquisitions editors, copy editors, etc.) over the years; and if you throw in our service on editorial boards and the like, this rather rounds out our sense of what the editorial function is all about. Editors can help good work become better (line editing); they can find work that deserves to be published (acquisitions); they can stop presumably inferior work from being published (i.e., the gatekeeping function). In the review world, they can also help to promote work -- or at least contribute to the larger discourse in which a work resides -- by finding worthy reviewers and worthy items to review. This is all very straightforward.

But it leaves us with some nagging questions as to the status of the now in such terms, particularly in light of the proliferation of those many self-publishing models facilitated by our digital technologies. In what follows we make ample use of the line of reasoning that Foucault employed in "What is an Author?"

(1) For Foucault, the concept of authorship emerged at a particular time in history, as a product of history, which suggests that it may not always be with us as such. Does the concept of the editor follow hard on the heels of the author function? What is its history? Can we envision the elimination of the editorial function, and if so, what constraints will take its place? (For Foucault, the demise of authorship as such would not imply the elimination of social/historical constraint.)

(2) Foucault does not feel that one has properly interrogated the author function simply by drawing attention away from the author and to the text. In which regard, he raises the question of the author's name. Indeed, for Foucault, the name is the clearest indication that the author function is not merely a matter of some biological entity called "the author." The author's name functions in myriad material ways -- for instance, in the way books are shelved in stores (along, of course, with genre).

Can the same be said of editors? Certainly, the editorial function does not bring with it the name cachet one finds at work in authorship. In fact the general public knows very little about editors, as a rule, or what editors do (except perhaps for newspaper editors), though within some writer/author tribes -- those who publish on the major trades -- there would seem to be a heightened awareness as to renowned (read: severe) editors. (Max Perkins, say, or "Binky" Urban.) Is this b/c, in avant circles, few can afford to do that level of editing? (We know that even the trades are straining to maintain their editorial staffs at this point.) Or is it that avant writers have a general distrust of the editorial function, b/c all too often editors are hostile to work that doesn't fit precast conceptions? Are we hereby suggesting that avant work brings with it a greater potential for editorial sloppiness? If so, is it worth the latter to maintain a more open response to alternatives?

(3) Foucault discusses how the author function differs for different kinds of texts -- the author seems much less of an issue in scientific writing generally than in literary texts. Can the same be said of the editorial function?

(4) Foucault posits the author function as arising out of a (legal) need to punish transgression. Simply put, names provide a basis for litigious action against juridically-conceived subjects. Can the same be said of the editorial function, not in terms of names, but in terms of the additional capacity for avoiding (e.g.) libel? In which regard and speaking historically, did the editorial function first emerge as an additional such safeguard?

(5) Some authors, for Foucault, author not only individual works, but also entire discourses (Marx, Freud). Can the same be said of some editors? Do editors help to create "the possibilities or the rules for the formation of other texts"? Would we want editors -- or at least, some kinds of editors -- to have such powers? (Perhaps James Laughlin's New Directions, say, or Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press speak to something along these lines.)

(6) We know that, in the small(er) presses, editors and publishers are often one and the same. Should we perhaps be looking more closely, and in the terms already articulated, at the small press publisher?

Following is the etymology of "edition/editor/edit," which we lift wholesale from an online site -- "editor" originally meant [ahem] publisher:

edition L
1551, "act of publishing," from L. editionem (nom. editio) "a bringing forth, producing," from stem of edere "bring forth, produce," from ex- "out" + -dere, comb. form of dare "to give" (see date (1)). Meaning "form of a literary work" is from 1570. "It is awkward to speak of, e.g. 'The second edition of Campbell's edition of Plato's "TheƦtetus"'; but existing usage affords no satisfactory substitute for this inconvenient mode of expression" [OED]. Edit is 1791, probably as a back-formation of editor (1649), which, from its original meaning "publisher" had evolved by 1712 a sense of "person who prepares written matter for publication;" specific sense in newspapers is from 1803. Editorial "newspaper article by an editor" is Amer.Eng. 1830. Hence, editorialize (1856), "introduce opinions into factual accounts."

Finally (to leave Foucault for a bit), there is an aspect of editing that arises from a feminist perspective on the process, something we like to think of as domestic editing. We work fairly closely together on each other's work, a process that is largely erased from history, because no one beyond the walls of our home has access to that process. In fact, we often forget (argue about?) whose ideas were whose. We're pretty sure we can say with fair accuracy that Joe came up with the title of Kass's Dalkey book, while Kass came up with the title of Joe's Chax book -- but that's about it. We know from history that domestic editing has often been a major factor in artistic production: Leonard edited Virginia, Toklas edited Stein, etc. We also know from the history of women writers that domestic editing can be detrimental, both to the art and to the artist, most often to women artists. Then too there is extended-family domestic editing: James edited Wharton, Stein edited Hemingway -- as with spousal units, close friends or colleagues or acquaintances can perform an editorial function difficult to track. Given the vastly decreasing editorial services offered (even by the trades), will domestic editing play a more and more vital role? And if so, shouldn't it be theorized in terms similar to those above?

Thanks for listening---

Kass & Joe


Lance Olsen said...

What a fascinating set of questions, you two. Thanks for posing and posting them.

I'm perhaps most interested in what's becoming of the editorial function in light of the web-publishing's proliferation and the proliferation of the print-on-demand option, and how those affect what we once thought of as quality.

I also wonder if, in light of what you say, one of the definitions of experimental work has fairly recently become: that sort in which editors, publishers, PR people, readers, reviewers, and writers tend to be the same people (as opposed to mainstream work, in which editors, publishers, PR people, readers, reviewers, and writers tend to be different people).

mark wallace said...

When it comes to the issue of quality in this new environment, those of us who believe in it (and I do) probably also need to admit that we might not always immediately recognize it even when we're committed to it. For me, the one good book that does get published in this new environment but wouldn't otherwise is worth the 15 that really aren't very good. Obviously this ratio is debatable: it could be 1-5, 1-75, even 1-1000 (and of course the idea that it would be just one is itself obviously untrue). But I would still say the advantage that more work of quality might get through outweighs the disadvantage that more uninteresting work also gets through. And besides, even if it didn't, there's not much to be done about it anyway.

blonde said...

hugely interesting, you two. thank you. on the topic of editorial sloppiness--i think i'd want to suggest that avant writing does not bring with it a greater potential for editorial sloppiness...but rather helps to open the editorial process back up to its modes of production rather than its place in the great marketing machine.

so in the case of chiasmus, for instance, one might find what i would call a more "raw" product, calling attention to the forms of its own making, and an editorial process less bound by our inherited hierarchical academic models (with wise literary sages who can't see past their noses or cliques)--in our case that means letting filmmakers and visual artists be editors alongside literary folks.

on the topic of domestic editing--love what you say/ask. i've been thinking a lot about this of late. my husband and i run chiasmus, and we edit each other's texts (including film). our basement is the site of production, with two separate spaces for our individual artistries. i remember how i used to want to find a JOB out there i the world where i could inhabit the world of artistic production. that was 20 years ago. luckily i realized one need not locate the employment out there in the socius. the making can live at home.

i do think these concepts and actions need to carry strong questions with them, that we need to continually engage in dialogue about them, so again, thank you.

i also think the possibilities for evolution are endless.


rebecca said...

Given the vastly decreasing editorial services offered (even by the trades), will domestic editing play a more and more vital role? And if so, shouldn't it be theorized in terms similar to those above?

it seems to me that domestic editing would be the logical choice for an author. the familiarity with the writer and his framework/reference point could enhance the editor's skill in sharpening and refining the text.

but that exquisite meld can only happen if the writer has a person (or even luckier, persons) around them they trust and has the skill to be an editor without becoming a coauthor.

my question back to the two of you is in reference to (5). You ask: Would we want editors -- or at least, some kinds of editors -- to have such powers? I ask: Wouldn't we want editors like that?

Joe Amato said...

Thanks for all of your comments.

Akaqueenie asks whether we would want editors to have the power, like some authors (according to Foucault anyway), to shape entire discourses.

We pose the question b/c it points to the power we might (as authors) be willing to cede to editors -- the extent to which we might be willing to submit (with the attendant and oft-used pun re submitting one's work). At the same time, if we say we're willing to submit ourselves, or at least our work, to what would likely be rather stern editorial measures, then the question arises as to what we imagine would happen to our work as a result. Do we imagine substantive line-editing? (But this would hardly shape a discourse outright, yes?) Structural recomposition? (But this would hardly shape a discourse outright, yes?) Outright narrative retooling? (Well---.) If the editorial function is, at its core, a collaborative function (to varying degrees), do we nonetheless draw lines (in the sand?) as to where our work should end and an editor's work should begin?

We would like to hear more from other writers as to what they desire in such terms. James Lipton is fond of asking actors what they want from directors, and the responses range from "getting out of my way" to "complete mastery of the set." We believe that a powerful editorial function at least potentially encroaches upon the authorial function as typically conceived (in literary circles), in essence telling authors not only what they should be writing, but how they should be writing it. From another point of view, what's wrong with that?

As former editors of ABR, we had in fact a lot of say as to what got reviewed, and by whom -- at least, once we cleared the backlog of reviews that greeted us upon our arrival. We also took a few liberties with reviews as far as line-editing and restructuring goes, much to the consternation of some in the ABR fold. In particular, we felt it our prerogative to make more minor -- minor in our view -- sentence-level changes w/o contacting reviewers. The occasional outcry (from reviewers) signals one attitude as to editorial intervention.

And in our experience, the better, more experienced writers tended, by and large, to appreciate our editorial tweaking, whereas less able writers could always be counted on to defend their malapropisms. If you can't accept the fact that your writing can be improved upon, it's unlikely you'll take kindly to the stern editorial function we posit.

So akaqueenie: Our question was posed with the assumption that there were shades of practice, practically speaking, that ought to be aired out, explored. And perhaps these few paras answer to your (as we read you, somewhat more rhetorical) question as to whether we'd "want editors like that." The answer is to be sought, we think, in what we perceive as the discrepancy twixt what writers often say they want, and how they respond when they get what they want. Be careful what you wish for, maybe, but also, what do you want from an editor?

Thanks for the prompt!


Joe & Kass