We were sitting at the pub down the street from the office. We’d just printed out the Book – a whole manuscript of The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists – and sent it off to the proofreader for final checking. It was Friday afternoon, and we were ready to celebrate. We’d spent weeks glued to our desks until all hours of the night, poring over pages and staring at our screens, fielding queries from fact checkers and comments from translators and changes from authors. We’d met our deadline. The issue looked good.
Still, my head was full of tiny, miscellaneous, lingering concerns: Would ‘upon’ be better if capitalized in a title? Should a washcloth be described as hanging inside out? What’s the best translation ‘Why are we still talking about typos?’ for xoxota: ‘cunt’ or ‘pussy’? Can a city be dust-covered and windy at the same time? Have we been consistent in the way we punctuate maté, Sugarloaf Mountain, the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, the Candidates Tournament for chess and every one of the numerous international airports mentioned in the stories? Is it possible for a headless chicken to stare at you? Does ‘shithole’ have a hyphen in it?
For the weekend, at least, I could put all these thoughts aside. It was lovely to be able to relax with colleagues.
There was talk of ordering some food. I looked down at the sandwich menu: kiln smoked salmon and horseradish chive creme fraiche in toasted wholemeal bread. ‘Kiln smoked’ probably should be hyphenated, I thought – it’s acting as an adjective modifying smoked salmon – and ‘creme’ needs the accent. Also, does ‘in’ make sense here? Wouldn’t it be better if it was ‘on’? Was this some kind of innovative sandwich that involved salmon being placed inside the bread?
‘Why don’t we share some appetizers to start?’ one of us suggested.
‘Redundant,’ I muttered to myself. Appetizers are starters; either cut ‘to start’ or change ‘appetizers’ to ‘plates’. Then again, in some cases, people order only appetizers, and don’t go on to have a main course. So was it actually essential to say ‘to start’, to clarify that, in this instance, everyone should feel free to order more food after the first sharing course? I wasn’t sure.
I tried to concentrate on the actual conversation. The topic, it seemed, was the new Batman film.
‘It has a spelling mistake in it,’ someone said. ‘There was a shot of a newspaper headline. Spelled “hiest” instead of “heist”.’
‘Christ. Multimillion-dollar movie.’
‘Seriously. It was pretty hard to concentrate on the scene after that.’
And so we fell into another version of an old discussion, one that I’m sure is repeated all the time in editorial offices and other nerd habitations around the world. We began to recite the usual litany of complaints against the un-copy-edited, ungrammatical text that pollutes our reading environments and disrupts our lives. The unnecessary quotation marks; the over-corrections and redundancies (between you and I, the reason is because); the nouns-used-as-verbs (to reference, to partner); the ubiquitous misplaced apostrophes. I felt enormous fellow feeling, self-satisfaction and relief as I explained how oppressed I am every day by a plaque hanging on a railing in my neighbourhood that I can’t help but stare at on my way to work: BICYCLE’S WILL BE REMOVED.
All heads around the table nodded in sympathy. Then, just as quickly, they began to shake with despair.
‘We’re freaks,’ one said. ‘Why are we still talking about typos?’
‘Are we ever going to be normal ever again?’
‘Have we been ruined . . . for life?’
Of course, the question is jokey, and more than a little smug, but it also contains a shred of seriousness and uncertainty. It’s not that we doubt that crystal-clear sentences, bulletproof editing and perfect grammar are crucial to an endeavour like Granta. That’s a given. But every time I descend deep into copy-editing mode – this microscopic, obsessive, question-everything, miss-nothing type of reading – I wonder if I am becoming less and less capable of simply enjoying text (or Batman, or sandwiches). I wonder if it makes me unable to see the bigger picture; I wonder if I am ruining beautiful dashes of prose by fussing over commas and consistency.
There is a danger to copy-editing. You start to read in a different way. You start to see the sentence as machinery. You focus on the gears and levers that connect words to one another; you hunt for the wayward semicolon, the unintentionally ambiguous phrase, the clunky repeated word. You even hope they appear, so you can kill them. You see them when they’re not even there, because you relish slashing your pen across the paper. It gets a little twisted.
As with any kind of technical knowledge or specialization, it is possible to take copy-editing too far, to be ruled by it, to not quite be able to shut it off when it ought to be shut off.
Ultimately, though, I don’t actually think it diminishes the pleasures of reading. The idea of a pure reading experience is a myth, anyway, because purity is a myth. I’m not willing to believe that attending to details or reading very carefully is ever a bad thing. A sentence is, in fact, a machine, an intricate and delicately balanced equation; good copy-editing – good editing more generally – is a way to help a writer get the equation so exactly right that it starts to not seem like one at all. Many times a day, I’ll be hunched over a paragraph, wondering whether a particular pronoun has the correct antecedent, whether one independent clause should be dependent, and suddenly I’ll be caught off guard by a stunning turn of phrase or find myself jolted by a perfectly articulated insight. The power that writing can have, at these times, far outstrips the power it would have were I merely a so-called casual reader. I might be a freak, and ruined for life, but I’m resigned to – no, happy with – this fate.
Photo by Daniela Silva.