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