Friday, October 29, 2010

Good and Bad Editing

On the occasion of the announcement of the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award, the BBC News Magazine resurrects the debate around an earlier comment by Claire Armitstead, chair of the judging panel and literary editor of the Guardian, that the books submitted for the prize had shown a general lack of editing in today's publishing processes.

I must say, far too many times now when I read novels the spell of the story is broken for me by some howler or other: for instance, in two books recently (one of them Andrea Levy's Small Island) I came across the non-ironic assertion that in Britain the leaves on the trees in autumn turn first red then yellow, and on both occasions the story of the novel was immediately displaced for me by speculation about the editors involved, and an image of them sitting at their desks, or maybe, no, chatting on their iphones: had they not really read the book properly? Or were they so young and urban that they didn't even know that this was a mistake? Or care? But don't they have trees in London? Don't they ever look up from their cappuccinos? OK, OK, I know it's an unfair image, but it's the one that came...

But then rooting out such factual/mechanical errors was traditionally the role of the copyeditor, (a figure whom I understand is rapidly disappearing from publishing), and what Armitstead is more importantly concerned with is the dying role of the editor as a mentor in storytelling:
Writers set out wanting to tell their story in their way. Sometimes they don't think about what it's going to be like actually reading it. The editor's job is to point out where they're going off track… what I felt is that editors are not intervening.
This hits the nail on the head. Writers worth their salt should always write with a sense of how their writing is going to be read, but there needs to be someone with a more objective eye judging whether or not a piece works, and if not suggesting how it would work better. Proper editing takes time, as is pointed out in the BBC article, and it's not difficult to see therefore how the role of the editor can suffer due to marketing restraints. As is also pointed out, writer and editor need to develop the kind of long-term working relationship unavailable in a culture of publisher-hopping in search of better deals.

Above all, though, radical editing requires sensitivity, and a commitment to the author's - or at least the story's - aims. This has been very much on my mind recently, as my first novel is currently being reissued with the original structure - radically changed by the first publisher - reinstated. The editing that that book was given by a feminist publisher the first time round was quite simple, but extreme: chapter 4 was moved to the beginning and changed from past to present tense, destroying, as far as I was concerned, my careful seduction of the reader via a gradual change of tone and perspective into sharing the experience presented in that chapter. This may have made it a better book for that particular publisher's market - a book with which they judged women readers could instantly identify - but I had never intended it as such a book, and the story I wanted to tell was different from the one which this simple but drastic measure created. (You can read about it in more detail on my author blog here.)

But then that's the thing with editing. It's such a powerful tool, it's such a role of responsibility. It's a distinguished profession with important skills we'd be the poorer to lose...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Signs of the Times

...or rather, of the industry? W H Smith in Manchester Arndale centre this afternoon:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jonathan Franzen and The Great American Novelist

Here's a picture of - what? A man pouring himself a glass of water. Or no, a man hiding from the camera. Or maybe a man who knows he can't hide from the camera. (Is that why he is grinning?) (Or is that why, in the end, he seemed to get a bit irritated with the camera?) He will say in the next few moments that he knows he needs to be careful what he says because next thing it'll turn up on a blog. And here it is, the picture anyway. Of a man who has just read to a great crowd in the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester and knows he's about to be quizzed on the fact that he has been designated the Great American Novelist and on the Author as Personality and Cultural Phenomenon, and all he really wants to talk about is his novel, and if his novel could only just wing its way into the world without him he'd be a damn sight happier. I think.

Anyway, the most interesting moment for me in all that talk was what he said before he even began reading, which was that his intention in writing The Corrections and Freedom (both door-stoppers) was to write a sustained narrative in a time of atomised narratives. It's the kind of statement that hits you between the eyes as the statement, the most relevant and interesting for now, and in my opinion its unpackaging could have filled the whole evening, but there we were hearing Franzen, head down and his eyes shielded by those horn-rimmed specs, asked for his reaction to the GAN thing (no fun, he said, to land in a country where that's being flagged about you: the only way is down), how he felt about all the publicity (it's such a contrast to the privacy of the writing experience, he told us drily, that it was helpfully unreal. It's just a novel, he said, as he has on other occasions, he just hopes you enjoy it and don't take it too seriously). He was asked what he thought about the fact that the writer is expected to be a nice person (which to me seemed rather a strange question: nice? rather than glamorous etc?, and I don't even remember his answer: my notes, which I can't read, seem to include 'sometimes irritable'). For me the whole event was imbued with a strange sense of dislocation which I think was the dislocation between the general thrust of the questioning and the novelist's own interest.

In one moment when the attention did turn to the novelist's art, Franzen was asked about his use of multiple viewpoints, and his answer was very interesting. He himself had multiple viewpoints on all sorts of issues, he said, and the thing that is great about the novel as a form is that it is able to give full life to irreconcilable contradictions.

And as far as I'm concerned the extract he read was fabulous.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

More on the 'Present'

A letter from Peter McDonald in yesterday's Guardian articulates some of the issues that have lain pretty well unstirred in the recent debate about the use of 'present tense' in novels. (I can't find it online, so no link I'm afraid.)

'Why is so much literary talk in the English-speaking world so facile and unambitious?' he begins by asking, and points out that while John Mullan ostensibly took issue with Philip Pullman's objections to the current uses of PT, Mullan nevertheless concurred that it's 'an evasion of narrative responsibility'. McDonald remarks of this: 'It is difficult to imagine a more finely balanced blend of late-Victorian aestheticism and moralism... We are back in the gas-lit critical climate of the 1980s.'

He goes on:
Compare all this with what Roland Barthes wrote about narrative time in the late 1940s... He saw the present as a way of escaping the easy sense-making allure of traditional past tense modes... [The past tense] constitutes a direct affront to the "unreal time of cosmogonies, myths, history and novels".
I think that's the whole point: that fiction is released from worldly time, and that to talk in terms of 'present' and 'past' tenses in fiction can be reductive and beside the point.

Ironically, in view of the fact that he writes fantasy novels, Pullman's comments do seem to stem from an outdated sense of there always being a real, true story behind all the other possible stories, the one for which the author 'takes narrative responsibility', a sense which is closely linked to the realist concept of the story as fact. As Barthes pointed out, the traditional use of the past tense is that which can best create this illusion, the sense that what we are reading here is the authoritative version. (Perhaps it's significant that Pullman writes for children.)

Personally, I'm interested in fictions that challenge this notion of narrative authority, and try to write them, and quite frankly find unauthorative narratives that don't. As Pullman himself acknowledged, there are many versions of the past, and therefore of any story, located in the different perceptions and memories of those who experienced it. Each of those persons has their own (often very different) 'past tense' story, after all, and novels can be great at showing up their contingency - just look at past-tense first-person multiviewpoint novels or a past-tense intimate third novel like The Corrections.

As for the 'present' tense: Vanessa Gebbie explains in the comments thread on my previous post that Philip Hensher objects to the use of the 'casual anecdote' mode of present tense in contemporary novels. In fact this precise mode was used brilliantly in Trainspotting, but the voice was that of a narrator not the author; far from abdicating narrative responsibility, via this voice the author was portraying and anatomizing the particular social and psychic (and thus temporal) entrapment of his characters. No doubt there is an army of poor imitators, but I can't say I've come across many published ones. Furthermore, the 'present' tense can be used in other sophisticated ways. I'm not a linguist so I don't know the terms, but I can imagine that linguists describe the various uses as distinct tenses in themselves (rather than the simple/simplistic 'present'). The 'casual anecdote' mode is only one form of the historic present in which it's unequivocally acknowledged that the events being described happened in the past (for the characters) but they are related in the present tense in a way that 're-lives' them and thus makes them especially vivid. But there are subtle ways in which you can use it - to show that such 're-creation' can be suspect, for instance. Present-tense portrayal of memory is even less simply 'historic', creating a more continuous temporal reality, since memories are indeed 'present', always with us, even while the events memorized are 'past', in fact continuously recreating the past (Pullman himself refers to an especially vivid instance of this use in Jane Eyre). Not to mention the possible use of the present tense to describe either an unavoidable or a putative future ('We go to the train at four-thirty' or 'we watch the sea swallow the continent') ('future present'?).

In other words, the ways to which such modes can be put are the ways that novels can free us from the straitjacket of obvious 'fact' and bring us onto the more magical and dynamic levels of possibility...