Editing Dirty Realism: the difference between baby and bathwater

The other day I found some old school exercise books in my cupboard. Labelled 4/C on the covers (the letter stood for the teacher’s name), these books date from when I was nine. I flipped through them, idly looking for early signs of a talent for writing. No such indications were detectable. What I did find were traces of the bluntness that embarrassed my mother; such as, in a short composition titled ‘My Family’: ‘Mum can’t drive because she’s too scared to have driving lessons.’ And at the end: ‘Mum is scared of spiders. One night a spider crawled through the window and mum wouldn’t go into the room the spider was in until Dad killed it. Dad snores.’

Though the non sequitur escaped my teacher’s attention, she attacked the penultimate sentence with a red pen, amending the grammar in a way that changed the meaning. But she didn’t stop at mere, if incompetent, copyediting. Mrs C (whose surname means ‘cross bearer’!) undertook a structural edit. The revised last sentence reads: ‘Dad snores loudly at night, but and Mum is a wonderful cook.’ Perhaps Mrs C was expressing solidarity with my unsung mother. But even had her praise been justified, it changes the gist of the whole composition.

Indignant, decades later, that my version of the facts had been messed with, I searched for further evidence of heavy-handed editing. Another piece, ‘Mark’s Birthday’, ends with: ‘Everyone had lots to eat and one of the girls had to go home because she was suffering from indigestion. Everyone started leaving after six o’clock.’ Again, Mrs C rewrote my ending: ‘Everyone started leaving for home after six o’clock, and an enjoyable party.’ Enjoyable for whom? Not the girl who left early with dyspepsia. Was Mrs C trying to brainwash me via positive affirmations? Her final interference appears in a brief, borrowed fable, ‘The Fox and the Grapes’, the last line of which reads: ‘After a while he walked away saying “They’re probably sour anyway.” ’ Mrs C has added her predictable up-beat twist: ‘but of course they would have been simply delicious.’

Assuming that Mrs C actually read in her spare time (I still recall her fuming at my twice correcting her misspellings), it’s doubtful she’d have enjoyed the short stories of Raymond Carver, the minimalism of which leaves room for the reader’s imagination, and in the dirty realism of which I’m currently finding relief from the modern addiction to the happy ending (or, if not, an ending with a moral).

Some years ago I found common ground with a writing peer I’ll call Ray (after one of his favourite authors). At a comparable stage in our craft, and close in age, we enjoyed an ongoing exchange of books, tips, critical opinions and thoughts. Before the unhappy, premature ending of our friendship (or should that be ‘the unhappy ending of our premature friendship’?), Ray told me of a useful writers’ website (more on which, later), though he said he had yet to try it. He also sold me on the benefits of a creative writing MA, a high-priced, widely available course to which aspiring Oz authors are now flocking in epidemic proportions, and from which he’d gained nothing if not confidence. His last friendly gesture was to edit the opening of one of my mss, which he pronounced unreadable at first-draft stage.

Thorough editing training during MA studies has long since left me with enough perspective to guess that editing wasn’t among Ray’s electives. He did, however, swear by his own personal editor, upon whose input he seemed to depend; a friend who sounded like a non-industry version of Gordon Lish, the mastermind behind the pared-down style that made Raymond Carver famous. While not a fan of purple prose, least of all my own, I was no wannabe minimaLisht either. My main objection to Ray’s painstakingly close edit, with its absence of a unified vision, was his failure to stand back far enough to identify where the ‘I’ was coming from. His notes on the narrator’s diction expressed contradiction. Having pegged my synopsis as Mills & Boon (plot analysis wasn’t his strong suit), he proceeded with a line-by-line mechanistic dissection, inattentive to how the parts might be put back together. No professional editor would copyedit before tackling structure. To focus on your child’s dirty nails if s/he has a hunchback is counterproductive. Besides, if you leave an author (and most of us lack distance from our own work) nothing but negatives to sort through, that author might succumb to discouragement. I sifted through Ray’s mostly sound nitpicks (the fruits of his romance with how-to books), used what I could, and posted a rewrite on the website he’d mentioned to me, where peer support scored it a professional critique.

The literary editor from Bloomsbury UK took a different tack to Ray. She began by identifying strengths, a strategy geared not just to gain an author’s trust but to reduce the risk of their throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Next, she began to discuss probable obstacles to reader engagement (in greater depth, if less detail, than Ray had), and to make general suggestions re character, thence story, development, intent on how to unlock the novel’s potential, not how to correct my mistakes.

Ray’s report on my extract conceded only one asset: good grammar. That’s like telling a model that s/he’s taller than average. As a prerequisite, it’s beside the point. In essence, Ray had more in common with Mrs C than with me. He wanted my narrator (and maybe me?) to be more hopeful, less negative. And, like Mrs C, he didn’t appreciate feedback on his own errors, at least, not from me; having entrenched himself in the role of teacher, he couldn’t see us as equals.

Legendary editor Gordon Lish might have exercised dubious liberties in his ‘surgical amputation and transplant’ of Carver’s story parts; but at least he was driven by a coherent, consistent, distinctive vision. His extreme makeovers covered the micro (style) as well as the macro (structure). Without his input, who knows if Carver could have made such an indelible mark? He had to work fast, given his early death from lung cancer at fifty.

I continue to hope that Ray’s hard-arse editor can likewise help him make his mark (assuming he hasn’t yet outgrown the dependency); he had real talent, and I respect his high standards. Charles McGrath, Raymond Carver’s editor at The New Yorker, observes in an insightful 2007 review that, these days, editors are more often accused of doing too little than too much (like Lish). Allow me to submit a glaring micro instance from a recently published work of literary fiction: ‘He raised his eyebrows up and down.’ My erstwhile friend Ray would never have missed this. We could have shared a good laugh about it.

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