Monday, April 21, 2014

Jacques Barzun on Editing

The renowned cultural historian and essayist Jacques Barzun hated editors. One of his editors, John Simon, who was never allowed to actually edit him, called him “the Unedited Man”: “Everything, down to the last comma, had to be left as it was, even where — an admitted rarity — improvement was possible.” When he was 78 years old, Barzun wrote an essay detailing his grievances against editors.  Here are some passages from the essay (Caveat editor! Barzun, otherwise often a subtle thinker, was a blunt instrument on the subject of copy editors, and his vitriol is ugly):

Behind the Blue Pencil: Censorship or Creeping Creativity? (1985) 

The editor is the “anonymous co-author brought in after the author has said his last word.”

“The spread of specialized knowledge, coupled with that of half-education, created a new class of authors—people who knew things of value but wrote badly.”

“That some additions to the script on its way to the compositor…are needed can be granted at once. … But out of the need for this intervention has grown a practice which latterly has been changing the very idea of authorship.”

“[Editors] have begun to challenge and change in written work whatever deviates from their own norm. This raises a question which is rather important for the art of prose: who is this editor and where has he or she picked up that norm?”

“[A]ll copy editors show a common bias: vigilance breeds suspicion, and the suspect is the writer. What he has set down is ipso facto questionable and incomplete; anything not utterly usual is eccentric and reprehensible; what the editor would prefer is preferable.”

“Meanwhile the ancient question occurs: Quis custodiet, etc.—‘Who will cuss the custodians?’”

“When such a person does have the ambition to write, the situation is very likely worse. For the creative urge, which already makes for gratuitous tampering at ordinary times, now knows no bounds and produces a virtual rewriting.”

“Even worse, a misplaced sense of fair play comes over the writer when he is put on the defensive: from weighing the changes and arguing his case step by step, he or she comes to think: ‘After all, should I have it my own way all the time? Let’s give the laborious mole a chance to score as often as we decently can.’ This is absurd.”

From: Jacques Barzun, “Behind the Blue Pencil: Censorship or Creeping Creativity?” in On Writing, Editing, and Publishing: Essays, Explicative and Hortatory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 103-112.