Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Checks and balances

with one comment

About a third of the way through my upcoming book, while discussing the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, I include the sentence: “The issue also featured Heinlein’s “Universe,” which was based on Campbell’s premise about a lost generation starship.” My copy editor amended this to “a lost-generation starship,” to which I replied: “This isn’t a ‘lost-generation’ starship, but a generation starship that happens to be lost.” And the exchange gave me a pretty good idea for a story that I’ll probably never write. (I don’t really have a plot for it yet, but it would be about Hemingway and Fitzgerald on a trip to Alpha Centauri, and it would be called The Double Sun Also Rises.) But it also reminded me of one of the benefits of a copy edit, which is its unparalleled combination of intense scrutiny and total detachment. I sent drafts of the manuscript to some of the world’s greatest nitpickers, who saved me from horrendous mistakes, and the result wouldn’t be nearly as good without their advice. But there’s also something to be said for engaging the services of a diligent reader who doesn’t have any connection to the subject. I deliberately sought out feedback from a few people who weren’t science fiction fans, just to make sure that it remained accessible to a wider audience. And the ultimate example is the copy editor, who is retained to provide an impartial consideration of every semicolon without any preconceived notions outside the text. It’s what Heinlein might have had in mind when he invented the Fair Witness, who said when asked about the color of a nearby house: “It’s white on this side.”

But copy editors are human beings, not machines, and they occasionally get their moment in the spotlight. Recently, their primary platform has been The New Yorker, which has been quietly highlighting the work of its copy editors and fact checkers over the last few years. We can trace this tendency back to Between You & Me, a memoir by Mary Norris that drew overdue attention to the craft of copy editing. In “Holy Writ,” a delightful excerpt in the magazine, Norris writes of the supposed objectivity and rigor of her profession: “The popular image of the copy editor is of someone who favors rigid consistency. I don’t usually think of myself that way. But, when pressed, I do find I have strong views about commas.” And she says of their famous detachment:

There is a fancy word for “going beyond your province”: “ultracrepidate.” So much of copy editing is about not going beyond your province. Anti-ultracrepidationism. Writers might think we’re applying rules and sticking it to their prose in order to make it fit some standard, but just as often we’re backing off, making exceptions, or at least trying to find a balance between doing too much and doing too little. A lot of the decisions you have to make as a copy editor are subjective. For instance, an issue that comes up all the time, whether to use “that” or “which,” depends on what the writer means. It’s interpretive, not mechanical—though the answer often boils down to an implicit understanding of commas.

In order to be truly objective, in other words, you have to be a little subjective. Which equally true of writing as a whole.

You could say much the same of the fact checker, who resembles the copy editor’s equally obsessive cousin. As a rule, books aren’t fact-checked, which is a point that we only seem to remember when the system breaks down. (Astounding was given a legal read, but I was mostly on my own when it came to everything else, and I’m grateful that some of the most potentially contentious material—about L. Ron Hubbard’s writing career—drew on an earlier article that was brilliantly checked by Matthew Giles of Longreads.) As John McPhee recently wrote of the profession:

Any error is everlasting. As Sara [Lippincott] told the journalism students, once an error gets into print it “will live on and on in libraries carefully catalogued, scrupulously indexed…silicon-chipped, deceiving researcher after researcher down through the ages, all of whom will make new errors on the strength of the original errors, and so on and on into an exponential explosion of errata.” With drawn sword, the fact-checker stands at the near end of this bridge. It is, in part, why the job exists and why, in Sara’s words, a publication will believe in “turning a pack of professional skeptics loose on its own galley proofs.”

McPhee continues: “Book publishers prefer to regard fact-checking as the responsibility of authors, which, contractually, comes down to a simple matter of who doesn’t pay for what. If material that has appeared in a fact-checked magazine reappears in a book, the author is not the only beneficiary of the checker’s work. The book publisher has won a free ticket to factual respectability.” And its absence from the publishing process feels like an odd evolutionary vestige of the book industry that ought to be fixed.

As a result of such tributes, the copy editors and fact checkers of The New Yorker have become cultural icons in themselves, and when an error does make it through, it can be mildly shocking. (Last month, the original version of a review by Adam Gopnik casually stated that Andrew Lloyd Webber was the composer of Chess, and although I knew perfectly well that this was wrong, I had to look it up to make sure that I hadn’t strayed over into a parallel universe.) And their emergence at this particular moment may not be an accident. The first installment of “Holy Writ” appeared on February 23, 2015, just a few months before Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, plunging us all into world in which good grammar and factual accuracy can seem less like matters of common decency than obstacles to be obliterated. Even though the timing was a coincidence, it’s tempting to read our growing appreciation for these unsung heroes as a statement about the importance of the truth itself. As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in the Washington Post:

It’s not surprising that one of the persistent jokes from the Trump era is the suggestion that we’re living in a bad piece of fiction…Pretending we’re all minor characters in a work of fiction can be a way of distancing ourselves from the seeming horror of our time or emphasizing our own feelings of powerlessness, and pointing to “the writers” often helps us deny any responsibility we may have for Trump, whether as voters or as journalists who covered the election. But whatever else we’re doing when we joke about Trump and the swirl of chaos around him as fiction, we’re expressing a wish that this moment will resolve in a narratively and morally comprehensible fashion.

Perhaps we’re also hoping that reality itself will have a fact checker after all, and that the result will make a difference. We don’t know if it will yet. But I’m hopeful that we’ll survive the exponential explosion of errata.

One Response

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  1. A chemist, a physicist and a mathematician were going to a conference on a train. They passed a field with a single sheep standing in profile.
    “There are sheep in that field,” said the chemist.
    “There is at least one sheep in that field,” said the physicist.
    “There’s at least one side of one sheep in that field,” said the mathematician.

    Darren

    April 21, 2018 at 10:53 pm


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