Bloggers and editing

Someone asked me about how much time I spend editing posts for The Story’s Story, and I answered simply: more time than I should but less time than I need. I don’t think this blog is a typo-strewn, incoherent mess, but I’m also not the New Yorker: I don’t have a squadron of typing-catching wombats at my disposal to savor every word. It’s me, sometimes friends who I can press into proofreading service (sometimes through plying with beer, tea, or other favors), and sometimes readers (who send me e-mails or leave comments with typo warnings; thanks!).

This is the part where I say something like, “I do the best I can,” and it’s true: but there’s a point of diminishing returns when dealing with one’s own work. Someone else who’s familiar with the piece needs to read it, which applies to fiction writing too: with the possible exceptions of Nabokov and Joyce, everyone needs an editor. If you look at Melville’s manuscripts, you’ll find someone who really, desperately needs a copy editor. I’m neither Nabokov nor Joyce nor Melville; I’m just a guy who writes and imagines that what he produces is of sufficient interest to others that it belongs on the Internet where it might be of some use to someone, somewhere. At least as measured by traffic, that appears to be true, despite typo problems that I can’t solve using reasonable amounts of time, energy, money, and concentration.

How bloggers are made:

“A person whose financial requirements are modest and whose curiosity, skepticism, and indifference to reputation are outsized is a person at risk of becoming a journalist.”

That’s Louis Menand, in “Browbeaten: Dwight Macdonald’s war on Midcult.” Bloggers come from somewhere similar but adjacent—like the relationship between Vancouver and Seattle—though too few have well-developed senses of curiosity and skepticism.

The rest of the article is boring and historical, but one reason to read the New Yorker is that one never knows when a fabulous sentence worth stealing will appear. The article about Timothy Ferris, for example, says of his dwelling: “There was, inevitably, a framed arty photograph of a naked woman.” He sounds capitally tedious. That word, “inevitably:” it’s perfect. We get the author’s skepticism. We know exactly the kind of person Ferris is (and, I wonder: the kind of person I am?). The skepticism of the word “arty” is perfect; so is picking “naked,” which makes one sound merely revealed and pornographic, over “nude,” which glistens with the sheen of art instead of the sheen of Playboy magazine. The sentence is so good I stole a variant on it for a novel (no one notices if you steal in small proportions, except for James Wood, and if I’m at the point where James Wood notices such theft, I’ll consider myself lucky). In fact, speaking of Wood, there’s a section of How Fiction Works where he speaks of “a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’:”

‘He was a gentlemen with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’ [Ford Maddox] Ford comments: ‘that gentlemen is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’

Ford is right. Very few brushstrokes are needed to get a portrait walking, as it were; and – a corollary of this – the reader can get as much from small, short-lived, even rather flat characters as from large, round, towering heroes and heroines.

Yes, yes, yes, yes: I worry so much about making sure characters are gotten in now, but it’s never quite right, is it? I can imagine Rebecca Mead, who wrote about Ferris, or Menand above, sweating over those sentences, wondering: are they right? Do you put a comma between “framed” and “arty?” Is “outsized” the right word? The comma question could go either way. “Outsized” could be “severe,” like a storm warning. But those sentences still feel so wonderfully, deliciously right, even embedded in articles that otherwise let one flip to the next, searching, as a surfer will flit from blog to blog.

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