“Editors are Ghouls and Cannibals” (Updated and Bumped)

Filed under:Authors,Need a Good Editor? — posted by Anwyn on October 15, 2007 @ 12:38 pm

Your opinion first, then mine. Tell me what you think of this line of prose, taken from the book All Together in One Place by Jane Kirkpatrick:

“Mazy Bacon embraced her life inside a pause that lacked premonition.”

Not much context necessary; it comes very near the beginning of the book. Mazy Bacon is the protagonist, an 1800s Midwestern farm wife, 19 years old.

Give your interpretation and your opinion of the line. I’ll update this post later after a few comments.

Update: Overwhelming majority in the comments says: Pretentious BS. Also the overwhelming majority made this judgment without going ahead and saying what they think the author is actually trying to say. And thus my point, in a nutshell: Be pretentious and you not only look pretentious but you drive people off of trying to figure out what you want to say. Anne and I were on the same wavelength–she said she’d stop reading right there. And I almost did, although since I already bought the book the fact that I might have stopped reading wouldn’t have affected the publisher’s bottom line–but it would affect the author’s exposure.

“Editors are ghouls and cannibals” was said by Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon. I’m accustomed to taking the general drift of Harriet’s remarks as author’s voice, and if you surveyed a random sampling of authors on the question of “agree or disagree,” I’d lay money that the majority would come back “agree.” But the editor’s only job is to make the author look better. Whether it’s by correcting actual mistakes of grammar, spelling, punctuation, or usage or by adjusting wording for readability or by telling the author, “Look, this is pretentious BS, go back and fix it,” our only job is to make the author look good for publication. Of course there are officious editors who would like nothing better than to swap their own words in and the author’s out, but good editors use their BS detectors on the author’s behalf. Yet so many authors resist changes with everything they’ve got. I don’t blame them; I’ve been on the other side of the coin myself. It is an emotional battle. But if authors kept the basic tenet in mind–that our only job is to make them look better–both authors and editors would ultimately have an easier go of it.

Here’s the kicker: This is not a bad book. It’s not the Great American Novel, of course, but it’s not bad. It’s got a good basic story line, some interesting characters, and some good language … but stunners like this crop up from time to time and divert the flow of reader’s enjoyment right into an anger bucket. It’s not good. The kindest thing a good editor could have done for Ms. Kirkpatrick would be to have stopped her cold at lines like this and made her understand that if the reader has to wade through even one line of meaningless dreck to try to hazard what the author could possibly have meant by it, it takes away so much from the story that readers will even quit reading.

wg’s interpretation: That Mazy Bacon does not think about the consequences of her actions.
Anne’s interpretation: That Mazy Bacon is stupid and doesn’t see even what’s happening right in front of her.
My interpretation, with advantage of having read the back-cover blurb before beginning reading: That Mazy Bacon loves her life and doesn’t know it is about to change.

I believe mine is the correct interpretation (and, of course, I know the other two are incorrect because of what I already know about Mazy Bacon), but it took me a few tries even though I knew what was going on in the story, and the other two folks who hazarded guesses came up with two different ones. If a line is open to so many different interpretations, it doesn’t convey many facts about your protagonist, now does it?

I don’t know whether the problem here was an editor who embraces the pretentiousness a little too much, a dim or timid editor, or a mulish author who resisted whatever the editor might have tried to tell her about this kind of language, but the result was a book that is a lot worse than it needed to be. Sad.

18 comments »

  1. My interpretation is that its more of the pretentious, poseur dreck novelists embrace in the idiotic pursuit of writing retarded literature that the most ignorant and barely literate of the American reading public can descend into and pretend they are reading serious literature when in fact they are reading nonsensical dreck without any real meaning, resonance nor value. This is the perniciousness of modern fiction, but it goes back decades. Toni Morrison wouldn’t have a career without this tripe trope.

    Yes, I can tell all that from one, poorly constructed, empty, content-devoid, meaningless, senseless, soul-sucking horror of a sentence. Even the fucking NAME “Mazy Bacon” denotes the pig-ignorant, stultifying sentimentism and cloying condescension, (not to mention disgust, disrespect and hatred) the author has in store for her readers in the following paragraphs.

    I’d guess the part would be played by the broken faced Bridget Jones Diary chick in the movie. Mazy would later marry, get knocked up by, then knocked around by, Cooter Weems, who would die a well-deserved, after which Mazy would fall for the sensitive, intelligent, well-hung Obama supporter Rather Dashing.

    I detest this writer just from that one nauseating blurb. And I hope her heroine is smited rather than smitten later in the book.

    Comment by docweasel — October 14, 2007 @ 6:41 pm

  2. Tell us how you really feel, docweasel.

    Comment by Anwyn — October 14, 2007 @ 6:54 pm

  3. Gee, and I was just thinking that Mazy was an odd name for a woman.

    Comment by Bill — October 14, 2007 @ 8:00 pm

  4. I have no clue what it means but then I am clueless about a lot of things. Daubs of paint on canvass that sell for a gazillion dollars among them. Why do words need be only denotative or connotative and not evocative? If the phrase brings tears to the eyes of some bookworm holding the book with one hand and reaching into a box of chocolates with the other ….

    Comment by nk — October 14, 2007 @ 9:17 pm

  5. If someone’s gonna go splorch their literaryocity all over a sentence, it should at least make some sense. I can sorta see what they’re getting at and it’s a good IDEA. But it reads like a bad translation.

    Comment by Mad William Flint — October 14, 2007 @ 9:20 pm

  6. “Splorch,” I love it. Tell me what you think the idea is that she’s getting at, Mr. Flint. I really want to know.

    Comment by Anwyn — October 14, 2007 @ 9:39 pm

  7. The idea comes across fairly clearly, in a tortured pedantic sense. I have to agree with Docweasel – pretty much everything s/he said is right on the mark.

    That being said, the idea is that the heroine goes through life without considering consequences for her actions – very much an in-the-moment personality, or at least that’s how I read it. It strikes me as an excellent entry to the “Dark And Stormy Night” competition that’s held every year, though.

    Comment by wg — October 14, 2007 @ 10:00 pm

  8. re: Anwyn

    Well, I did hold back some of my harsher comments so if the author does see my critique her obviously fragile psyche won’t be dealt a killing blow.

    Btw, you aspiring schockmeisters out there, eschew assonance in your fictional names. It works for heavy metal bands (i.e. Black Sabbath, Led Zep, Def Lep, Twisted Sister etc,) but its death for a heroine. Even Margaret Mitchell knew that when she changed Pansy O’Hara to Scarlett (different “a” sound, you see).

    I suspect Mazy Bacon is the fat, herpes-ravaged, pimpled, purulent, spotty toad-belly white, beetle infested dread-locked daughter of Wavy Gravy.

    Comment by docweasel — October 14, 2007 @ 10:04 pm

  9. Actually I think “Scar-” and “Har-” are closer in sound than the “a” in “Pansy” and “O’-Hara.” Or else that neither of them are like “O’Hara” at all. But you’re right, of course, the name is not good. I’ll get back to the line tomorrow.

    Comment by Anwyn — October 14, 2007 @ 10:12 pm

  10. Must be my mid-west accent :|

    Comment by docweasel — October 14, 2007 @ 10:37 pm

  11. Dude, I’m from Indiana. : ) All I know is that my normal way of pronouncing “Scarlet O’Hara” sounds like “Scar-let” (as in chicks dig scars) “O-Hair-a” where as the “a” in “Pansy” I pronounce as flat as a frying “Pan.”

    Comment by Anwyn — October 14, 2007 @ 11:02 pm

  12. That’s what I thought, but how the heck are you getting ‘scar’ to be assonant with “hara”?

    I aver that the short “a” in ‘Hara can be the same as the “a” in “Pan”. At any rate, its closer than the “a” in Scarlet.

    Hell, poets have used ‘swan’ and ‘stone’ to be assonant, so license is allowed.

    Dunno why we are debating this really, it was a minor point in my tedious jeremiad. I think it means you are infatuated with me and crave my tender touch. Call me.

    Comment by docweasel — October 15, 2007 @ 6:01 am

  13. I’m a little short on clever this morning but if I ran across that sentence in a book, unless the sentence before it took my breath away, I would stop reading.

    I like the name Mazy. Mazy Bacon is too much.

    I think I would translate the sentence into English this way: Mazy Barton was dull as bad prose and liked it that way. She didn’t see the eagle flying with a tortoise overhead until after the eagle had already dropped the tortoise, killing Mazy but failing to break open the tortoise shell as the eagle had hoped.

    Comment by Anne — October 15, 2007 @ 8:43 am

  14. That’s what I thought, but how the heck are you getting ’scar’ to be assonant with “hara”?

    They’re not, really, but the “r” makes them sound like it, kind of deceptively. I totally disagree about the “a” in “Pan”–there are three distinct A sounds here, as in “fat,” as in “pear,” as in “hall.” (The second one isn’t even really an A sound since it can only be made in combination, but that’s neither here nor there.) The “r” makes the last two sound closer than they are, or at least makes the two words sound similar if not assonant. The first and second … eah.

    I think it means you are infatuated with me and crave my tender touch. Call me.

    Yes, I always show my interest by insisting upon minor points of precedence in written assonance. It’s such a tell. I should really try to be more poker-faced.

    Comment by Anwyn — October 15, 2007 @ 10:52 am

  15. Yup, I knew it. That’s why I’m so totally successful in the love arts, because I understand women so very well.

    Now if I just knew a woman on which to practice my arts.

    anyway, I’m in the book give me a ring, we’ll do a late dinner on my yacht in the riviera.

    Comment by docweasel — October 15, 2007 @ 10:05 pm

  16. “Mazy Bacon”, “Pig, her dog”…

    Sounds like Jane was craving pork when she wrote this book…

    /Amazon has the first page, fyi
    //mmm… pork…

    Comment by Daddyman — October 16, 2007 @ 12:54 am

  17. Today’s Ten…

    1. Michele would like to remind you that big girls don’t cry on public TV.
    2. WG is back to blogging again. About time.
    3. Lori has some great advice on how to raise a reader. Having books scattered everywhere in our house (while PS2 games are st…

    Trackback by I Think Therefore I Blog — October 17, 2007 @ 10:31 am

  18. This quote has been with me for years because I’m an editor. I also write, and I know very well how people feel when their writing is edited: it’s quite simply a bad feeling. Thank you, Anwyn, for writing what you did in using Sayers’ quote.. You summed it up perfectly. The problem: the need for separation between the emotional attachment (and self-identification) of the author with his or her writing, and the purely factual necessity to express oneself at one’s best.

    Comment by Liz Cabelli — October 12, 2011 @ 11:50 am

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