Read Donna Tartt’s Philippic Against Standardization

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 11 2013 1:03 PM

Donna Tartt and Michael Pietsch

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

(Continued from Page 1)

Pietsch: It’s hard to give a response to a partial manuscript. You can’t know what secrets the writer is layering into the early chapters. You may be confused about something, but the writer may intend that confusion. All the editor can do is say what parts you’re enjoying and why, point out any places where it feels slow, and what parts if any feel confusing.

Tartt: With a partial manuscript, I think it's especially important for an editor to say what he's enjoying. For a novelist to be told, midstream, what he's doing right can actually influence the unwritten parts of a novel in a positive way—praise helps a writer know what's good about what he's written, what's interesting and exciting, and what to work for in writing the conclusion. Knowing the strong points focuses one's attention on what's strong, and makes it easier to move from strength to strength. Whereas criticism at the wrong time, even if it's legitimate criticism, can be seriously damaging and make the writer lose faith in what he's doing. It's the timing that's all-important.

Pietsch: Before I began editing your book, you sent a philippic against standardization. You declared that spell-check, auto-correct, and (if I recall correctly) even sacred cows like Strunk & White and the Chicago Manual of Style are the writer’s enemies, that the writer’s voice and choice are the highest standard. Do you have advice for other writers confronted with editorial standardization?

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Tartt: Was it really a philippic? I thought it was more a cordial memorandum.

Pietsch: Two-thirds of the way through a set of notes to the copy editor, you wrote:

I am terribly troubled by the ever-growing tendency to standardized and prescriptive usage, and I think that the Twentieth century, American-invented conventions of House Rules and House Style, to say nothing of automatic computer functions like Spellcheck and AutoCorrect, have exacted an abrasive, narrowing, and destructive effect on the way writers use language and ultimately on the language itself. Journalism and newspaper writing are one thing; House Style indubitably very valuable there; but as a literary novelist who writes by hand, in a notebook, I want to be able to use language for texture and I've intentionally employed a looser, pre-twentieth century model rather than running my work through any one House Style mill.

Tartt: Well—I'm not saying that the writer's voice is always the highest standard; only that a lot of writers who are fine stylists and whose work I love wouldn't make it past a contemporary copy editor armed with the Chicago Manual, including some of the greatest writers and stylists of the 19th and 20th century. It's not as if we're the French, with the Academy, striving to keep the language pure—fine to correct honest mistakes, but quite apart from questions of punctuation and grammar—of using punctuation and grammar for cadence—English is such a powerful and widely spoken language precisely because it's so flexible, and capacious: a catchall hybrid that absorbs and incorporates everything it comes into contact with. Lexical variety, eccentric constructions and punctuation, variant spellings, archaisms, the ability to pile clause on clause, the effortless incorporation of words from other languages: flexibility, and inclusiveness, is what makes English great; and diversity is what keeps it healthy and growing, exuberantly regenerating itself with rich new forms and usages. Shakespearean words, foreign words, slang and dialect and made-up phrases from kids on the street corner: English has room for them all. And writers—not just literary writers, but popular writers as well—breathe air into English and keep it lively by making it their own, not by adhering to some style manual that gets handed out to college Freshmen in a composition class. There's your philippic, I guess.

One final question for you: How much of your job is actually editing? Is it the most important part?

Pietsch: The editor’s job has always been a combination of elements, of which actual editing is just one part. The first thing an editor is is an investor: They are trusted by their company’s owners to invest their money in writers. They are publicists for their company and themselves, getting authors and agents to submit great books to them for publication. They are negotiators, working to arrive at contract terms that will, if all goes well, enable their company to make a profit selling the book.

The editor is the first point of contact the publishing company has with the writer, and often the closest relationship, and the core of that relationship is the work of editing. The writer trusts the book to the editor, to read before others and perhaps suggest improvements. If the writer values that advice, the bond can become deep and long-lasting. So after good judgment about what books are worth investing in, editorial skill is the editor’s most important qualification.

In modern publishing, as the business has grown in sophistication, size, and complexity, the editor's other big role has gotten bigger. That is, the editor as product manager—the person who knows the entire length and breadth of the business and can communicate all that complexity to the author and agent at the same time that he represents the author’s work within the company. This is the part of the job that takes up all the time: working with the writer, the publishing company, and the world outside on things like title, subtitle, timing, pricing, positioning, cover art, type design, selling copy, publicity strategy, marketing approach, budgeting, and all-round enthusiasm spreading. So to edit a book is to work on all this and much more, for many books at once at different stages in those books’ lives.

But like editing, all that work is invisible in the long run. The thing that lasts, the miracle at the center of it all, is the string of words that a writer has strung. That's it.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Little, Brown.

Michael Pietsch is CEO of the Hachette Book Group.

Donna Tartt is the author of three novels, most recently The Goldfinch.