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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Anonymous Steve Darley said...

As an old crank myself, I find it very disheartening to see the quality of some of the junk that is passed off as published writing in our ebook era. You are correctly observing and commenting on a very disturbing trend of the dumbing down of our culture, particularly the written word.

Having had a recent experience with a self publishing company, I can attest that they do not do any editing for content, typo's or punctuation errors. Whatever you submit gets published. I hired and paid for my own editor, who was very good.I also had to do three redo's in order to get it right.

Your comments are right on target but unfortunately probably wont have any impact on the downward spiral toward mediocrity.

11:24 AM, August 05, 2011  
Anonymous Jan Long said...

Amen. I'm posting a link to this on Facebook and Twitter.

11:48 AM, August 05, 2011  
Blogger Chad Eagleton said...

"Likewise, the once respected endeavor of literary criticism has been rendered almost meaningless..."

I find this particularly true in the crime community. Especially when it comes to commenting on online work. We can offer critiques and help each other improve our writing without being mean-spirited dicks or spending all our creative energy on who can write the most glowing paragraph of praise.

12:01 PM, August 05, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Amen to that, Chad, A good writing critique group is a rare and wonderful thing.

Compliments are nice, but honesty does more good in the long run.

And I'm pretty sure, as you seem to suggest, Steve, that one of the big attractions of vanity presses is simply the ability to skip all the nasty filters of traditional publishing.

But writing without revising is sorta like sex with all your clothes on. Sure, it feels good, at least for a while, but after a while you realize you sorta smell.

Several years ago, on a "writer's" list, I interrupted the seemingly endless spew of vitriol aimed at traditional publishers to ask how many of these POD-defenders had actually submitted to a traditional publisher. It turned out almost none of them had, despite many of them having already "published" two or three books.

And Jan? Go ahead. Please...

12:33 PM, August 05, 2011  
Blogger Guillaume said...

I got published, but as an academic, not as a writer of fiction. It was surprisingly easy, more so than getting my PhD, but I guess most of the hard work had been done. I think aspiring writers nowadays forget that criticism is not merely necessary, it is essential. Not all books deserve to be published and if you want to get published you should earn it. This is why the whole old fashioned process of submiting your manuscript to publishers is vital. Somebody else needs to see your work and see if it makes sense. It doesn't mean they get it right all the time, but you need a distanced perspective.

4:09 PM, August 06, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Guillaume, I couldn't agree more. A distanced perspective, unfortunately, these days too often means simply "my spouse" or "my buddy who reads a lot."

A good editor must be prepared to ruffle feathers, to occasionally risk conflict. And a good writer knows when to bow to an editor, and when to make a stand. The delicate relationship between a writer and an editor is a symbiotic but essential one, based on mutual respect and trust.

Serious writers know the value a good editor can bring to a work. Hobbyists and prima donnas avoid it like the plague.

12:26 PM, August 11, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, man, that article really rocked (except for the part that sucked, but it's OK ya know?). I', like in awe of the way you make your points 'n' stuff, ya know? Awesome, dude, I'm gonna ping my buds to come and ead it. You rock.

11:44 AM, August 13, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, KBS, all in fun. You make an important point in a skillful way here, I just doubt anyone who needs to listen will hear, let alone listen. I might add that in addition to the problems you point out, even the most prominent hardcopy authors seem to get too little attention when it comes to editing for (ahem) length.

11:53 AM, August 13, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Richard, you're not the first to point out that those who most need to read my little rant are the ones most likely not to read it. But it is discouraging.

It's worth noting, however, that for the most part the easiest writers to deal with when we were editing fiction for the site were the ones who were the best writers. The ones who were the biggest pains in the ass? The ones whose work was generally the weakest.

And not just because the worst writers need more editing.

A future NYT bestselling author was fine with some major tweaks and clarifications; a writer you probably never heard of argued savagely about relatively superficial changes to punctuation and syntax. We only reluctantly published his story, after numerous compromises (it was too good a story to let slide, as I recall, although his insistence on a murky, clumsy conclusion seriously damaged it, IMHO) but he's to my knowledge never been heard from since.

Maybe other editors weren't as willing as we were to cut him some slack, or maybe he grew up, changed his name and is now happily churning out great work. Or maybe he's still a dick.

The truth is, most of the guys I and my fellow editors worked with were fine writers who were serious about the writing. There are only one or two dickheads I would never want to edit again.

They're probably self-publishing now.

10:51 AM, August 14, 2011  
Blogger Guillaume said...

I also think people often forget how rewritten are famous and critically acclaimed books. Any work of fiction really. Reviews and rewritings are part of the creative process, they are not a side effect of publishing that can be bypassed.

3:53 PM, August 18, 2011  
Blogger David Andrews said...

Its sad to see a detective go -

8:35 AM, August 24, 2011  
Anonymous Dan from Oz said...

This article is an instant classic, a rollicking tour-de-force, un-put-downable in fact, & I couldn't help but take it a bit personally.
Just discovered this blog via your article on Murray McLauchlan - also a real page-turner - Excellent work.
Correct me if I'm wrong.

10:06 PM, August 27, 2011  
Blogger The Eclectic Geek said...

The ironic part of the modern disdain for editors and critics is that significant editors and critics have been so instrumental in the "discovery", development, and success of writers. John Campbell's tenure at Astounding/Analog helped turn a slough of wannabe pulp sci fi writers into the veteran pros who, as novelists, would make people sit up and take science fiction seriously. Lester Del Rey, as editor of Ballantine's sf/fantasy line, was instrumental in helping a couple generations of young novelists move beyond being Asimov or Tolkien wannabes and find their own voices.

My professional "career" has thus far been confined to a bit of sports journalism in a monthly boxing magazine. My editor gave me an opportunity and put a great deal of individual time and effort into helping me improve my writing.

I can see why someone in a hurry to be published might get frustrated with rejections and demands for rewrites but the simple fact is that the editing process makes a writer better.

For instance, think how much an editor would have improved the above sentence. ;)

9:44 AM, September 13, 2011  
Blogger Dave Barnett said...

Having massacred language on more than one occassion myself, I entirely endorse everything you've written here.

9:39 AM, September 23, 2011  
Anonymous Private Investigator said...

Hello; great publish for me. Your publish has pretty good quality. I need to has pretty good posts like yours at my website. How don’t you arrive around these posts?

11:17 AM, December 15, 2011  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

I was going to just delete the last message, like all the others this turkey recently posted to this blog, but I think his message has amply proven my point: that a lot of self-proclaimed writers and other self-promoters are barely literate, parasitic bottom feeders who can't even promote themselves without embarrassing themselves.

4:41 PM, December 15, 2011  
Blogger The Passing Tramp said...

A point you mention that indeed is of concern is that many publishers themselves are getting lax about editing these days. There have been some major scandals of late that should not have happened, but additionally there are the numerous unheralded examples of more minor, but certainly not benign, neglect. I suppose modern writing/publishing trends encourage laxness all round.

9:30 AM, December 17, 2011  
Anonymous sbo said...

Hello there, simply become alert to your weblog thru Google, and fosbobetund that it’s really informative. I’m gonna watch out for brussels

12:22 PM, March 18, 2012  
Blogger JH Gordon said...

Old crank? Maybe- Old guard, definitely. The publishing industry is in transition and you're blog is proof that people love progress but they hate change.

Who was it that wrote; "a critic is a perfect son of a bitch in an imperfect world."? I dunno, but truer words were never written.

Before the advent of e-books, the old guard publishers were surrounded by a mote of agents who secured the publisher's castle. They helped enslave the 'lucky authors' while the old guard kept a white knuckled grip on intellectual discourse from their ivory towers. The public was well served; waiting for the affordable paperback or hoping for an estate sale.

Then WalMart, in the form of the internet came to town and publisher's are learning what monopoly feels like in reverse.

Look, before e-books, everyone and I mean everyone thought Americans just didn't read anymore. Sound-byte-hell had prevailed thanks to TV and top 40 radio. Then came twitter and txtng chngd com totally man. Americans were changing written language into runes and comunication into information nobody wants to know.

But, look at the numbers-

Millions of e-books are being downloaded every month. The old guard is selling off their as-yet un- denuded forests and pulp mills.

They have to compete and they're going the way of all species according to the Charles Darwin School of Business. Things change, deal with it.

As to the crap one finds on the internet, I hear your complaint and I sympathize. I too long for the days when printed books were sacred (I was taught respect for them in elementary school despite their contents) and they were all great works because... well because they were in print. No crap was ever printed. You only find crap in e-books... Say it isn't so.

Well, lots of crap was published and there's no denying it. Or, there'd be no need for critics.

Sure, the pool of writers has increased. But that just means there's better access since somebody (was it really Al Gore?) slayed the publishing giant monopoly.

So now the peanut gallery is heard from and no critic can say it's all crap. Based on common sense and gravity-still-works odds, there is bound to be more good stuff to read than there was before the advent of e-books and there's more access to it for more people. And they are buying. You can't dispute the numbers.

So, the big publishers are getting eaten by the Amazon warriors and they can't hide in the nooks of an ivory tower with thin sensitive skin on a Sony day. The seeds of creativity have been kindled by e-books. And it's here to stay. Random tears will have to learn to love change or learn to beg for it on a street corner.

Lucky for critics, there is an even greater need for them now. But they may need to be a little less snooty about it.

Authors who can't afford an editor (and any critic knows nobody should be their own editor)will put out a product that is less than picture punctuated perfect.

It means those critics will have look at the function of the ideas rather than the form a professional editor might polish the pearl of an idea into. They'll have to be able to read instead of just reacting to cover art of a publishers good will.

To ere is human, and thank God for Spell-check, but machines will never replace humans or that other group of bipeds called critics.

Now, I just discovered your blog (because I just published a 7 book series on Smashwords) and I found it delightful once I got finished running to the sink and washing the Doritos stains from my fingers.

I'm going to 'favorite' your blog and come often. It gives me a sense of belonging; as in next to the stove in the scullery.

Thanks for an enjoyable read, I am humbled and have learned my place.

JH Gordon

Joe Detective

10:54 AM, April 02, 2012  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

JH, Your rap on "old guard" publishers forgets one thing. Quality. Readers want books that were published based on merit; not the author's ego or sense of entitlement.

Yes, the old guard was responsible for some real dreck, but they also managed to squeeze out Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, Parker, Westlake, Block, Grafton, and almost every other great crime writer of the last century. Who has self-publishing given us?

And you're fucking deluded if you think Amazon and the other self-publishing enablers give a damn about writers, except as a cheap source of product. Once they have a monopoly, their generous royalty raters will slowly wither. I've been an affiliate of Amazon for years, and after their spat with states over sales tax, I know just how much they value loyalty.

8:34 AM, April 14, 2012  

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