By the Book: Spell check can’t replace a good editor

08/03/2011 5:11 PM |

Let us now sing the praises of editors. I am the daughter of two of them, sister to one and friend of several, so I have a personal interest in the profession. There are many different kinds of editors, but most of them would not authorize hacking into personal email or cellphones, as some of the minions of Rupert Murdoch apparently did. Most of them work honorably on newspapers, magazines and books, working as liaison between writers and publishers, hiring and managing people, reading and choosing, coming up with ideas, being responsible for the finished product.

What if editors are becoming an endangered species? Maybe there aren’t enough good ones left and the economic downturn means no new ones are being hired and developed. I have these gloomy thoughts when I am reading “A Dance with Dragons” by George R. R. Martin, which I loved, but it definitely could have used a sharp editorial pencil to eliminate some of the repetitions and keep things rolling along. The first book in the series, “The Game of Thrones,” was better and much tighter. In a case like this, do the publisher — who is making pots of money — and the author — also making pots of money and perhaps in love with the sound of his/her own voice — conspire together against the lonely editor? The lonely editor who is trying to give George a deadline for the last book, “The Winds of Winter,” so we won’t have to wait six years to find out what happens next?

This editorial absence might also be the case with a popular prolific author like Peter May. I remembered enjoying one of his books from the China Thrillers series, so when a library patron asked for a recommendation for a new mystery, I suggested his newest, ‘Blow Back,’ from the Enzo Files, a series of seven books featuring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo MacLeod, who lives in France, teaches at a university in Toulouse, and is working on solving France’s most famous cold cases by applying the latest scientific techniques. I hadn’t read it myself, but I thought it was a safe bet. The patron brought it back, complaining bitterly about typos, grammatical errors, sloppy changing of character names and generally lackluster writing. Whoops.

Maybe everybody thinks now that computers have spell check, we no longer need intelligent, passionate people to read manuscripts carefully. I just finished a really wonderful book by Tom Franklin called “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” which deserved better editing than it got. On page 3 I was brought up short by this sentence, “The chickens sure liked it, and their egg yokes had become nearly twice as yellow as they’d been before, and twice as good.” My contention is that, even in rural Mississippi, it is the oxen that have yokes, not the chickens. I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere, folks, but I’m fixated on the spelling of yolks, Y O L K S, and it’s not funny to be distracted from really fine writing by sheer carelessness.

I had just about gotten over it when on page 123 I encountered this: “Now Cecil, he’s sacred of heights, right, don’t even like going up the steps on the school bus, and wouldn’t be caught dead in that tree.” This is not right. The fact that the author is so good at writing the speech patterns of his southern country people doesn’t mean that someone shouldn’t have been watching over him like a guardian angel, making sure that Cecil was scared, not sacred — a word spell check is perfectly happy to accept — since spell check is just a machine and not a human being who knows the difference.

If the Tom Franklin novel, which is really worth reading despite the two little typos, is about relationships between men, then the book we just finished for the book discussion at Floyd Memorial Library, “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, also set in Mississippi, is about the relationships between women. “The Help,” which takes place in the 1960s, is the story of an awkward young white woman who wants to be a writer. She interviews and writes the stories of some of the black maids she knows because they are the maids of her friends and her mother’s friends in middle-class Jackson. While the civil rights movement is starting to be heard from around the United States, the white women of Jackson play bridge and decide that they must all put separate toilets in their houses for the help to use, because these black women who cook their food and care for their children should not sit on the same toilets that white people use.

“The Help” was on best seller lists for over a year, has sold over three million copies, has been published in 37 countries, and is soon to be released as a Hollywood movie.

Most of the readers in our book discussion group loved the book. What’s not to love? It has great characters, pathos, humor and that great southern way with language. There was the usual bit of controversy, and even an abortive lawsuit, having to do with whether the story was fiction, as purported, or the true story of a black maid with a similar name to one of the main characters. But really there is some kind of meta-fiction going on here about a white woman writer writing about a white woman writer who is writing about black women’s lives and it all works out pretty well in the book, so why not in real life? If the book helps people to examine, discuss and understand our country’s not-so-distant past, that’s a good thing.

George Orwell said, “Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion.” After being rejected by 45 agents, “The Help” was edited and published by Amy Einhorn, an imprint of Putnam under the Penguin umbrella. Amy Einhorn says she tries to hit the sweet spot between literary and commercial: intelligent writing with a strong narrative and great storytelling. She sounds like a good editor.

Ms. Johnson, of Greenport, is assistant director at Floyd Memorial Library and moonlights as an artist and newspaper columnist.