Monday, December 26, 2011

Love the writer, hate the editor

Mishna Wolff's I'm Down is, for much of its length, the funniest book I've ever read. Her outsider younger self—a white child being forced by her white father (a man evidently more comfortable about black folks than white folks) to fit into her black community—is a source of much self-deprecating humor and increasingly profane responses to the messed-up world(s) around her. Once she finally learns how to have cred in the black world, she's sent to a largely white school for gifted kids and once more finds herself having to navigate strange waters. Part of what makes the book work is Wolff's refusal to explore issues surrounding race; rather, she shows us how particular people of varying races live their lives, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about culture and class. The center of the book, as with many memoirs, is less the author than the parent, in this case the father. As the book moves through time, we see Wolff become more distant from her father, only to have a redemptive reconnection with him in one longer, more serious chapter at the end.

The book has problems, but I'm going to blame them all on the editor who, absurdly, Wolff singles out for thanks in the acknowledgements. Wolff has great material to draw on, and she has a gift for comedy. The challenge for the editor becomes how to turn the book into a coherent whole. For much of the book, when we're dealing with Wolff's earliest years, the material manages to do this itself. But as time passes, the book feels more fragmented; there's no strong sense of how much time she's spent somewhere or how something from a previous chapter affected the current one. The book's tone shifts, too, as Wolff's issues change, until we reach the conclusive scene with her father. My problem with the father's redemption, however, is less the shift in tone than the shift in the way we're expected to see this man. The scene, in which he joins his daughter's for a swim across a lake, seems to involve a different character than we've come to know. This is the guy who never works? Who never finishes any project? Who is tugged about emotionally because he seems to have no real certainty about himself? I'm not saying the scene didn't happen, but there's no sense from the author about how to connect this man with the character we've come to know. 

There's also an unresolved undercurrent of the writer not telling people what she needs to tell them. Repeatedly, she lies about her own motives and actions in order to defuse situations. It's an interesting motif, but she never explores what it means. And that's true for a host of things. So while I appreciate the youthful-observer perspective on issues of class and race, there's some oddly unexamined material that leaves the work feeling incomplete and thin. This sense isn't helped by the prose; the youthful voice at the beginning is the same voice at the end, and it never rises much above stylistically serviceable. 

I blame the editor. Again, Wolff has great source material and a good sense of how to set a scene and build a funny narrative. But the editor needed to take this book to the next place. The editor also needed to actually read the book. Increasingly as the pages go by, errors (typically homophones) pop up, along with missing words or sentences that don't parse. It's the homophones that are most jarring, for me; they announce that the writer tends to make these kinds of errors, which means that the editor, if she is doing her job, is going to watch for this kind of thing. What is the editor being paid to do?


Calvin said...

I wonder if, like so many of us, frontline editors are asked to "do more with less" and are stretched so thin they can't do the kind of editing of yesteryear. I don't have much direct experience so I can't speak to this. I do notice a lot of books these days, even high-profile books (*cough* J K Rowling *cough*), which seem poorly edited.

This is, of course, sheer speculation on my part, not having any books out there edited by a live editor...

William Preston said...

I went a talk about15 years ago at SU that featured, among other well-heeled alums, a guy who'd been a big literary agent. He said, then, about the agent and editor roles often merging, and that you would see less of the kind of writer-editor relationship that helped shape great works. And then, I think, there's a dearth of copy editors at these places.