A discussion of a weird grammar quirk: tense and Mark McGurl’s The Program Era

In Mark McGurl’s excellent The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, he writes this about Vladimir Nabokov:

In fact, one of his best-known quirks was a scientific passion for a certain family of butterflies, the Blues.

The word “was” is interesting, because Nabokov’s quirks are still well-known, in the present. But Nabokov’s quirks happened in the past—he’s obviously dead. So there’s a moment of verb tense weirdness in this sentence, which might otherwise read something like, “In fact, one of his best-known quirks is the scientific passion Nabokov had for a certain family of butterflies, the Blues.”

There’s no particular point to this post other than a writer’s duty to notice language, and the opportunity to observe a specific example of language’s sometimes bizarre ambiguity.

(Those of you who are reading the last sentence and thinking about its own weirdness, be aware: that is intentional.)

Do editors still edit? A response in part based on Mark McGurl's The Program Era

Betsy Lerner tries to answer this reader query: “Is it true that editors no longer edit, and if so, why?” Her basic answer: “I think most do, and some quite brilliantly.” But it’s hard to say beyond anecdote: I’ve read various answers that range from hers to simply stating “No.” One letter to the editor in The New Yorker has a perceptive comment on the issue—the author is responding to an essay about Mark McGurl’s The Program Era:

The days of editors like Maxwell Perkins shepherding talented young writers through their early years are long over. With publishing houses now expected to turn profits of around fifteen per cent, as opposed to the three to four per cent of Perkins’s day, what editor can afford to give a latter-day F. Scott Fitzgerald the devotion, time, and professional advice needed to hone his talents? Creative-writing programs have stepped in to fill this void by teaching young writers, in effect, to be their own editors––an essential skill in the current publishing climate.

In the absence of hard figures, it’s difficult to tell whether this is true, and if it is, how true it is. McGurl does write about the “… wide distribution… of elevated literary ambitions, and the cultivation in these newly vocal, vainglorious masses of the habits of self-conscious attention to craft through which [their writerly ambitions] might plausible be realized…” I doubt this makes editors superfluous, but it might mean that, in the face of layoffs, increased workloads, and so forth, editors might be more likely to rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the skills that universities and other writing programs cultivate. Granted, this is based on speculation from someone peering in through the glass rather than someone with direct experience inside of publishing, but it at least seems plausible.

Furthermore, it might be easier for writers to learn some of what editors once might have provided because of the wide availability of pretty good books on the craft parts of writing. This doesn’t mean reading such books will automatically make one a good author, or that any book can substitute for good secondary readers (or editors), but they still might occupy a small part of the function professional editors once held.

(Incidentally: The Program Era is a wonderful book I keep meaning to write a post about. One reason I don’t is because there’s so much to talk about that I get overwhelmed. At some point, however, I’m just going to write that post, completeness be damned.)

%d bloggers like this: