is there an editor in the house?

Thunk on or about 18th September 2003

The newsagent at Chatswood station runs a very useful service. She keeps a stack of second-hand or remaindered books which are available for three or four dollars each. The books are mostly light reading - thrillers or fantasy or (occasionally) science fiction. For a very small outlay you get enough reading for a week's train travel.

Last week I bought a reasonably thick fantasy novel for $3.00. The title and author shall remain nameless but it was basic, unashamed, pulp fantasy. Fair enough. Pulp is what my brain needs at the end of a working day. It was volume two of a (?)trilogy but, as is usual with these things, you expect to be able to pick it up as you go along and I wasn't disappointed.

There was one small problem. There were far more words than there was plot to wrap them around. Individual scenes just went on and on. And on. And on. A page worth of ideas became ten pages of tedium. Some scenes seemed to have no point whatsoever. I lost track of the number of times the 'drunken sot' character went on a bender - each time described in excruciating detail.

This morning, I finally gave up. I threw the book, half finished, into the box we send off to fetes and other charitable activities. Let someone else buy it and suffer. At least it will be in a good cause.

Now, I have no complaint against the newsagent. I'm quite happy to lay out a few dollars on spec and will do so again. I don't really even have a complaint against the author. She presumably regards what she writes as at least adequate and, if they keep publishing her, she gets to eat and pay the mortgage and all the other tedious things we have to do to stay alive.

No, it's time to put a few publishers up against the wall, pour encourager les autres. Isn't anyone prepared to employ editors anymore? Are some of these writers so well known that publishers don't dare to be critical, or is it simply that the publishers just don't care as long as it sells.

To take a current, well-known example, have a look at the Harry Potter series. The first couple of books are a reasonable length and tell a good story. Now, take time out to do a few stretching exercises to warm up your muscles. Bend down carefully and, keeping your back straight, attempt to lift the latest episode. Each book has been significantly larger than the last. Considering that there are two more books to come, they may have to issue the final one with a complementary fork-lift truck.

Sure, J.K.Rowling is now richer than the Queen. And no doubt there are legions of fans prepared to wallow in as many words as she is prepared to pump out. In fact, I have to confess that I too have read the latest tome. I even enjoyed it. But I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it been more carefully crafted and less verbose.

The excuse of capitalism that, if people will buy it then it must be OK, is not good enough. Publishers are using this argument to produce, not just inferior products, but inferior products that could be fixed with a little investment of time and effort. In other words, an editor. Someone who will help the author craft the final product not just transfer words to a page.

Does anybody have any editor DNA locked away in a cupboard? I'm sure we could clone one successfully.


01/10/2003 : Andrew Taubman writes:

Re the editor problem: this is a side-effect of the author-as-star syndrome. High profile authors are now too precious and powerful to think they need editing, indeed they think editing destroys their creativity. And if the publisher can save a few bucks, make the author happy, and get the same sales, they will do so - in fact they are _duty bound_ to do so, to get better returns for their shareholders. Blame undiscriminating readers, not the industry that provides what they want.

Encore de thunk:

This whole concept of returns for shareholders being the arbiter of appropriate action is one I find increasingly disturbing. It reduces creativity to yet another product. Products only have to be good enough to sell, not as good as they could be. Should there not be some pursuit of excellence for its own sake? I feel another thinks coming on...


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