Apparently ignorance is in vogue at Slate

Yesterday I had a little asterisked mini-rant about some sloppy thinking in an article on Slate. Well, today I discover that they’ve printed an article from someone who thinks that editors are narcissistic megalomaniacs who deserve no credit or consideration. I won’t name him (I’ll say why below), but I will say he knows Jack Sh…itt about editors and editing.

I mean this. This guy is offended by the New York Times’ new policy of including an editor credit at the end of a piece. He thinks the NYT is perhaps doing it just to set themselves apart and grab attention. It couldn’t be because it’s a good idea, after all.

There are, of course, in reality, good reasons for including editor credits, especially in a newspaper, where facts are important and it’s worth making clear everyone who touched an article. It’s not somehow saying that the editors are the real heroes; as professional editors well know, there are some writers who need very little work, and others whose information or ideas may be good but whose expression of them is a bit lumpy, but the writer is the one doing the writing and it’s their name on it. It just happens that editors are also part of the process. And they are generally a necessary part. If there were no editors, the content of these newspapers, magazines, and books would simply not be as engaging reading. Some articles would be scarcely different. Others would be jumpy and annoying and sloppy.

But editors are surprised when anyone gives them credit. I know a lot of editors (a lot), and they are the sorts of people who are not in it for the fame. Editors are always surprised and delighted when they actually get credit. I’m not talking about the Tina Brown kind of editor, which is a managing and acquiring editorial role, a big boss-person. I’m talking about the lowly cotton pickers: the substantive editors, the copyeditors, the proofreaders (not three different people usually, by the way). They are in the world of “don’t clap, just throw money.” They know what their role is, and their role is to make the writer’s meaning come across to the reader as effectively as possible. See Are you editor material for more about what kind of person makes a good editor.

But this Slate guy, whom I will call JS for what he knows about editing (see above), somehow doesn’t know this. JS labours under two delusions, one common, the other one almost bizarre.

First, he seems to subscribe to the romanticist, actually narcissist idea of artistic output, where there is the glorious hero and then there are a bunch of little serving people who really just, you know, get in the way by doing dumb things like (in a film) designing the lighting, making the lighting work properly, editing so that things look good and make sense, and otherwise providing the necessaries for the actor to do his thing, and (in a publication) making sure the structure flows well, the sentences aren’t lumpy, the facts are correct, and it all sits well on the page so the reader can get the content without roadblocks and hiccups. Such little non-persons, such nonentities, just practically standing in the way of the Charlie Sheens of this world!

Never mind that without these people the movies you see and the stories you read wouldn’t be there, and with just some of them lacking it still would not be as good an experience. Who gives a darn about them? Why can’t they just shut up already? Why bother showing all those credits on a movie? Writers and actors must be good enough to do it all without any help, and these other people are just parasites. Et cetera. Never mind that most people ignore the credits anyway.

But those of us who are in the real world know that making these things is a cooperative effort. Never once, in all the plays and other performances I’ve been in, have I forgotten that there are technicians who make it possible. And never once, in all the writing I’ve published, have I forgotten that publishing is optimally a cooperative process involving a number of different pairs of eyes and hands to make sure that what comes through is as effective as possible. And it’s worth making people aware of that. Otherwise people have unrealistic ideas basically on par with a belief that food grows in cans.

The more bizarre assertion is that somehow editors are all megalomaniac narcissists. Let me quote: “Let me tell you a thing or two about editors. Most that I’ve known have mistakenly thought they, and not the writers, deserved the credit for all the good pieces that run in their publication and none of the blame for the bad ones.”

WTF?! This is frankly idiotic. I don’t often say things that harshly in my blog, but please refer again to what I wrote above about editors. I really can’t say enough bad things about his presentation of editors. He claims to have been one at some point; he must have been a bad one with a bad attitude. And now he’s a poor excuse for a writer, with an obvious disregard for reality and fact-checking and an apparent narcissistic approach to writing and life in general.

Now, let’s just say for the sake of argument that JS did know some editors who always felt they were the ones who made the stories work. Perhaps they only said that about his stories, because he wasn’t capable of writing something that wouldn’t make sensible people want to flush his head in the toilet. But perhaps his newspaper editor colleagues did engage in that kind of braggadocio. If they did, it would likely be as an antidote to, and as part of the atmosphere of, the arrogance they were getting from people around them like JS. That’s not the usual approach editors take, though.

And saying that that kind of attitude is in itself sufficient reason to sentence them to perpetual anonymity is also necessarily saying that JS, who himself displays just that kind of attitude, should also be perpetually anonymous. I’d go with that – because while what he says about editors is generally about as false as saying that cats are bad because they bark too much, JS in particular is a member of that class of people who seem to think that ignorance, and aggressive ignorance at that, is a sign of superiority.

And that is why I am not bothering to spread his name around. Actually, he should sink beneath the waves, into that den of obscurity that is the deserving final resting place of trolls everywhere. His article has all the intelligence and factual background of a YouTube comment written by a thirteen-year-old.

And shame on Slate for publishing such rubbish.

13 responses to “Apparently ignorance is in vogue at Slate

  1. I totally agree with all you’ve written. Well, almost totally. Because bad editors do exist. And if you’re a new writer whose book is accepted by a major publisher but you’re at the bottom of their list, his word is law. If he says, “here’s a crappy rewrite I did that totally destroys the rhythm and voice of this paragraph, and that’s what we’re using”, you tell him it’s the best rewrite since Shakespeare edited Henry VI part 1. Many bad editors think writers who don’t agree with them are narcissists.

    Here’s an example, taken from my book. The editor insisted I add the words shown in italics even though it interferes with the rhythm, so I did.

    “to sleep on the red earth of a village street was no hardship at all if I could wake to the sound of laughter and pestles pounding corn and cassava, to the smell of the dew-damp forest.”

    Even Maxwell Perkins can be viewed as either saint or spoiler.
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9501E3DE123DF931A35753C1A9669C8B63&pagewanted=all

    • It’s true, bad editors do exist. I’ve inveighed against them here before (I took one to task in Let’s be clear about something). The idea of editors as generally megalomaniacs, though, while apparently popular among authors, is overall quite baseless. Moreover, the possibility of an editor screwing a story up is in fact a good reason to put the editor’s name on it, so that if there is blame it doesn’t all land on the author. (Interestingly, book reviewers will often blame the editor, who is as a rule nameless, for factual errors in a book, as though the author had nothing to do with them – the editor should have caught them, yes, but that’s as far as the reviewer goes, not really getting into the fact that the author is supposed to be the expert.)

      • Interesting that you say this, because what I was going to wonder is whether the NYT is doing this new thing, at least in part, to (as they say in management seminars) hold editors accountable for their work, as well as to give credit where it’s due…

  2. I think I should have realized I was fated to become an editor when, having spent some time on the stage in elementary-school productions, I migrated voluntarily to the costume crew in high school. But even techies (and second sopranos) like to see their names in the programme!

    An actor friend of mine used to refer to the crew, with tongue in cheek, as “techie pond-scum”; JS seems like the sort of person who, were he playing (say) the Father in Six Characters in Search of an Author would call a costume techie “pond-scum” in all seriousness, as though his shirts self-launder and self-iron, his suit hangs itself up at the end of each show, and his pit pads snap themselves in place, and as though the play would be so much better without makeup, lights, props, sound, or a set.

    JS, buddy, if you don’t want to sit through the movie credits listing all those lowlife techie guys, get up and go home. I promise no one will miss you.

  3. Right on the money, James.

  4. When I read that Slate piece I kept thinking it must be satire. Surely, no writer could seriously think that way, right? And then I thought of the Globe and Mail article from a few weeks ago, when Russell Smith went on his anti-editor rant, and now I’m just wondering, when did editors become the bad guys? As far as I know, we’ve always been the type who are content to remain behind the scenes, to work WITH our authors (not against them), and to give recognition to the writers who own the piece. Why are we suddenly being thrust into the limelight as nasty little attention-seeking monsters?

    • The Slate piece is so over the top, I keep wondering if it’s meant to be taken as satire. But there’s just nothing indicating that it is.

      I’m not altogether a stranger to anti-editor sentiment. I used to read Writer’s Digest fairly regularly when I was much younger, and just every now and then there would be some spitting (perhaps in the letters or briefly in an article) at those idiots, the copyeditors, who just go in and wreck your perfect prose. I don’t recall ever seeing any sort of real counterbalancing opinion or acknowledgment of the important role editors play, not back then anyway. Certainly some authors really do speak very favourably of editing and of their editor. (Wayson Choy did so wonderfully at the last Vancouver EAC conference.) But there are egotists in the field, and narcissists, and so on, of course. We just shouldn’t enfranchise them, or let them go all Charlie Sheen unchallenged.

  5. I suppose Slate is publishing this kind of crap on the basis of the same reasoning that leads newspapers to publish columns by trolls (one Toronto newspaper is incessantly polluted by the foul sputum of a particularly nasty troll who I can only conclude is still published because of this reasoning): if it gets reactions, it must be good. And by “reactions” they mean reactions that they are aware of – which of course are always more likely to be negative than positive, people being less motivated to write letters saying how much they liked an article than they are to write ones saying how much they hated it (a sad observation, but I’d be surprised to see any evidence to the contrary).

    And yet newspapers keep presenting themselves as purveyors of truth. They should really take a lesson from the publications that go to the greatest lengths to make sure what they print is true: academic journals. Academic journals have reviewers who check facts. But, more importantly, when speaking of academic claims, the term “controversial” doesn’t mean first of all “interesting”; first of all, it means “dodgy”. It means people are arguing about it because its veracity is far from universally agreed.

    Now, if a person is doing ground-breaking research, it often can’t avoid being controversial, but that’s not the aim, it’s a consequence of its being a new area that breaks with the usual pattern. Contrast that with rubbish like JS’s article or the various trolleries published by newspapers: they don’t bring forth new data or ground-breaking interpretations of data; they just say things that are meant to get people pissed off. In the world of facts, pissing people off is not a reliable sign of success. I’d venture to say that people are usually more easily pissed off by vicious falsehoods.

  6. Pingback: Why More People Should Understand What Editors (and Writers) Do « Lynne Melcombe

  7. Madeleine Thien has a very nice piece in praise of her editor: The Sustained Gaze.

  8. Here’s a good quote: “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers” (T. S. Eliot)

  9. “Let me tell you a thing or two about editors. Most that I’ve known have mistakenly thought they, and not the writers, deserved the credit for all the good pieces that run in their publication and none of the blame for the bad ones.”

    I wonder what the editors he has known would say about that. It seems to me to be a ridiculous remark.

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