Thinking Hard for Ourselves: A Short History of Editors

By Rebecca Brinbury, NWIEG Administrator

“Reading breeds the power of an independent mind. When we read well, we are thinking hard for ourselves—this is the essence of freedom. It is also the essence of editing.” –Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

Books and Time copyright Scott GroganChapter five of Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, a book on the craft of self-editing*, is dedicated to the (mainly western and Eurocentric, it must be said) history of editing. She traces the editor’s genealogy through the following positions.

She originates editing with scribes, who, in ancient Mesopotamia, “had to downplay their reading skills lest they antagonize their employer” with their powers to understand and shape the written word. Later, in medieval Europe, “the sleepy scribe would accidentally skip or alter words; the arrogant yet lucid would rewrite an obtuse passage; the zealous would interpolate” (and sometimes a feline coworker would contribute their own take on a manuscript).

With the advent of printing in the late fifteenth century, the role of the editor came further into focus. In Venice, the center of Europe’s publishing world, editors collecting and presenting the work of the high-profile authors of the day had a fair amount of freedom, as those authors (such as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio) had been dead for several hundred years. Among those “original freelance editors,” Bell points out, were

Franciscan monks, teachers, law students, and writers. In a few short decades, the book industry was so successful that freelancers could live by editing alone. They helped publishers do several difficult jobs. Editors first had to locate and authenticate old manuscripts. Then they had to correct grammar, which, at the time, was a highly complicated task, since the Italian language was still forming itself. Once editors had decided a work was worthy of print and had copyedited it, they oiled it entry into the world with an exegesis—today’s flap copy or scholarly introduction. These first industry editors created a tacit manifesto that still guides many editors today: be savvy enough to find good manuscripts, suave enough to navigate their ambiguities, and erudite enough to discuss them persuasively.

If you’re a copyeditor and you find yourself wrestling with, for example, the dissonance between Chicago’s discomfort with the singular “they” and a desire to use inclusive pronouns and/or reflect everyday usage, consider what editor Pietro Bembo found himself contending with: in Petrarch’s poem Italia mia, Bembo restored the Tuscan spelling of “bavarico” in one instance (in current Italian, essentially “Bavarian” or “German”) and rejected the Venetian “barbarico” (in current Italian, the more general “barbarian” or “non-Roman”)**, thereby shaping the direction of the Italian language.

In the Renaissance, editors had to contend with what level of discourse they wanted their works to achieve. Should they, as Bell puts it, “water down classical Latin into pedestrian speech, so it would be understood by a general, uneducated public, or render it into a more sophisticated vernacular”? (The tech editors among us are familiar with the feeling of sitting down to a document that seems to be written in a foreign language—but at least you aren’t translating from Latin!).

As for the period post-Renaissance to the mid-1800s, Bell covers it with this paragraph:

How editors and living writers worked together from the late sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century is, for the most part, woefully undocumented. The Catholic Church held strict rule over art for most of that time [blogger’s note: this might come as a shock to the Austrian and English artists and writers of that time, I imagine], and a suite of prudish popes and draconian Councils turned editing largely into censorship. Publishers and editors were preoccupied with trying to stay out of jail.

She asserts that it took editors a long time to shake the habits of censorship acquired during those periods. In 1861, Emily Dickinson’s poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” was published in the Springfield Daily Republican, but some editor, concerned about decorum and ladylike ideals, published this stanza:

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not Frankfurt berries yield the sense
Such a delirious whirl.

instead of this:

I taste a liquor never brewed—
From Tankards scooped in Pearl—
Not all the Frankfurt Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Bell argues that by the time the twentieth century rolled around and editor Max Perkins was working with his coterie of literary talent (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marguerite Young, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others), the specter of censorship had largely faded to a sense of caution and market awareness—editors were sometimes priggish, perhaps, but often on the author’s behalf. Perkins, for example, convinced Hemingway to remove some vulgarities from A Farewell to Arms in order to publish serially in Scribner’s Magazine, pointing out to him that he could “enormously [consolidate] your position, and [you] will henceforth be further beyond objectionable criticism” that would “[prevent] so many people from looking at the thing itself on its merits.”

Bell concludes the chapter lightly bemoaning the “corporate” sense of contemporary book publishing and how squeezed for time modern book editors are (though, as she herself pointed out earlier, things did not sound that different in fifteenth-century Venice). She advises her fellow writers that “[W]e must read our own drafts with strict care and pride; the way we read, not just write, will matter immensely. In our era, more than some others, writers must buck up and take care of themselves.” Happily, of course, editors are still very much a part of the written-word landscape, and while careful reading is always a good idea on the part of any writer, I would imagine that most of us consider it part of our jobs to help take care of our writers—or at least their work—as our predecessors have done for many years before us.

* The idea of which, admittedly, some editors may bristle at and whisper reflexively, “If you’re doing it yourself, just call it revising.”

** I’ve extrapolated these definitions to the best of my ability as a former Italian minor, but take them with a grain of sale (salt).