Friday, August 05, 2011

Bring Editing Back (Please?)

The on-going self-publishing orgy that started twenty or so years ago with the arrival of a viable POD technology has now reached some kind of apex (or nadir, depending on your viewpoint) with the almost onanistic instant gratification of one-handed ebook publication.

Hooray, say the countless hordes of writers who might otherwise have never seen publication, but can now bask in the adoration of the masses who will certainly rush en masse to buy their 99 cent self-published ebooks, available at finer (online) retailers everywhere.

Not so fast, say old nit-picking cranks like me. What's good for self-proclaimed "writers" may not be all that great for those of us who still appreciate good writing. Because surely one of the casualties of the afore-mentioned orgy has been the denigration of such quaint, old-fashioned ideas as editing and criticism.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, in fact, both mattered.

In fact, the quest to "get it right" once drove many a writer to drink. (Or at least that was their excuse).

Now dubiously talented, pudgy schlumps in sweat pants can swig giant sodas, hit "SEND" with a single Dorito-stained digit and give not a single iota of thought as to whether their latest masterpiece, to be available digitally within a matter of hours, could have been a little better. Being "published" has surpassed being "good."

In fact, a quick perusal of writers' blogs, message boards and discussion lists soon reveals a dishearteningly large number of newbies who sneer at the very notion of someone daring to tell them how to write, relying instead on SpellCheck and the blind encouragement of a small body of fellow would-be literary titans, dubious beta readers and other enablers. As though the only possible thing that could go wrong with one's writing might be a misspelling or a wayward comma. And those are invariably shrugged off as "typos."

Likewise, the once respected endeavor of literary criticism has been rendered almost meaningless -- at least online -- by an epidemic of enthusiastic but not particularly skilled online reviewers -- often the very same fellow titans, beta readers and enablers -- whose grasp of literary technique, history or even basic grammar and spelling is at best tentative. And often totally missing in action.

Cliff loves Earl's book. Earl loves Davey's book. Davey loves Cliff's book. And the beat goes on...

"It was an awesome roller coster of a thriller that I could not put down and it kept me turning the pages of this book and it kept me reading and thrilled until the verry, verry last page. Five stars!"

Really? Is that what passes as "criticism"these days?

The fact the self-published brigade will actually gleefully use these dubious recommendations (often, astonishingly, without correction) from Bob in Squamishville or as blurbs in their own publicity shows how far we've fallen.

Granted, even in the imaginary good old days, there were howling boners of both editing and criticism. But there were (or I'd like to believe there were) standards and a consensus of respect for them. And there are certainly still reviews, both online and in print, and a slowly growing number of self-published books that display great merit and literary style and technique. But the current fandango of ego-driven self-entitlement ("I DESERVE to be published!") that turns a blind eye to the falling standards of good writing is a tragedy to those of us for whom words matter.

More frightening is that this disrespect for quality seems to slowly spreading, like an inoperable tumor, from the self-publishing extremities towards the heart of the mainstream.

Which is why I'm so bummed when I come across something like this in a starred review in Publisher's Weekly of John Huston: Courage and Art by Jeffrey Meyers:

"In his detailed, absorbing portrait of Huston (1906-1987), biographer Meyers (George Orwell, Samuel Johnson, and Somerset Maugham) captures the remarkable parallels between these two men as he narrates the life and compelling work of one of the world's greatest filmmakers."


Granted, PW is not the epitome of criticism -- their reviews are more like retailer-friendly quickie book reports -- but for the most part they've always been cogent and useful, regardless of their ultimate verdict on the cited work. So a train wreck of a sentence like that is not a pretty or encouraging thing to see.

In this case, I can understand why PW's reviews are anonymous. I wouldn't put my name to a sentence like that either.

Nor does the later bold and annoying statement that Huston's 1941 classic, The Maltese Falcon, is where "all of his talents as a writer, actor and director finally came together" fill me with much respect for a) the reviewer who didn't read the book, or possibly b) the author, who has his head up his ass.

I'm assuming, though, that Meyers got it right in his book (it was Huston's father, Walter, who had a brief, uncredited cameo in the film, not John) and that it was the anonymous reviewer who got it wrong. But where on earth was the editor?

Even if the editor wasn't up to snuff on movie trivia, did he or she really think that first sentence was fine? Or was there even an editor? Was the reviewer -- like so many self-published authors these days -- simply given carte blanche; trusted by his or her publisher to deliver the goods without any need for any sort of time and money-wasting filter or overview?

Lord knows, my own writing is prone to embarrassing gaffes, arguable declarations and dubious sentence structure -- which is why I myself rely so heavily on the kindness of editors. And you should too.

You think your writing doesn't need editing?

You think "typos" don't matter?

You think a gushing, barely-literate review is really something worth boasting about?

Think again.

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