Crooked Little Heart by Anne Lamott contains the following passage:
"Rae's eyes were red and swollen. They sat on the couch side by side, in silence, waiting for the doctor."
I posted this excerpt on the blog site of an agent who had written ardently about the invaluable contributions of modern literary editors: The Myth That Editors Don't Edit. Nathan Bransford responded by pointing me to a previous post in which he clarified the role of editors, who, according to him, don't have time to deal with minutiae. I don't really consider this an example of "minutiae" since my husband, reading the novel to me, and I laughed over it for several minutes and afterward repeatedly flipped back for more yuks. Eyeballs perched on furniture would seem to take something away from any suspension of disbelief.
Furthermore, I don't know about Bransford's dictionary but mine defines "editor" as the person who is "in charge of and determines the final content of published material."
Okay, so it seems grammar and syntax have slipped out of the realm of "content." (Perhaps only vampires and serial killers qualify.) The humble copy editor, or reader, is the peon who actually scans a manuscript for errors. But why, if anyone is proofing copy, are more and more works of fiction blistered by distracting typos? One plausible explanation is that publishing house readers, like other workers in today's economy, find themselves too overworked to do that part of their jobs well. In short, like their better-paid bosses, they don't have time for the minutiae. Another horrifying (to me) but persuasive reason is that no one cares.
But shouldn't an author's editor and publisher protect her from the pratfall of positioning two eyes on a sofa, side by side, in silence no less? (I shrink from the alternative.) Are editors so pressed that they will not take a pen—electronic or otherwise—and circle such a mistake to ensure that it doesn't find its way into print? Ah, as the Bard would say, there's the rub. Why should anyone bother?
I scoured the Internet for reviews of Crooked Little Heart in a vain search for evidence that some readers had noticed this, or any of the other infelicitous bits of writing in the text. I found none. Her fans and critics lavish praise on Lamott's "poetic prose." Perhaps the death of the attention span has gutted us of the will to recoil from syntactic stumbles. Perhaps "txt msgng" has deprived us of the ability. (Next week: Sesame Street and the Demise of Thought.)
Todd Walton, successful novelist and short story writer, has a theory about "The Death of Literature" (Under The Table Books). He argues that prior to World War II, publishing was the playpen of rich white males, entrepreneurs unfazed by the industry's lack of profitability. Like patrons of eighteenth century artists and composers, these rich white men published novice writers solely for literature's sake—or at least for their understanding of literature's sake, which in many cases wasn't too bad.
According to Walton, pre-WWII editors had permission to publish a first and even a second money-losing literary work. A few months ago, a successful literary agent told me that publishers today bark, "You want to stake your career on this?" at editors seeking to bring forth an iffy project by an unknown writer. Faulkner, whose first five novels did not sell well, would die in obscurity, had he been born a few decades later. Walton notes
By the early 1980’s the last of the “old school” of creative and dedicated editors, many of them middle-aged and older, had been replaced by legions of young women (21-27) who, to this day, are the “acquisition editors” for all the major houses, and who themselves last only a few years in their drudge jobs of buying books that fit the extremely limited parameters of acceptable corporate media. Books that are not essentially supportive of the status quo and instantly successful are promptly taken out of print, i.e. remaindered.
Blockbusters, hotly pursued through publisher auctions, are "page-turners," that is, editorially scoured of any passage that might give the reader pause. (This is the contribution Bransford notes.) But who reads Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe without lingering anywhere in the text? In fact, the definition of literature might well be fine writing that periodically inspires a reader to look out the window and reflect.
Walton argues that after WWII publishing became profitable, in large part because of the GI Bill (see his argument). Subsequently, the novel entered the realm of commerce and the capitalists descended, as vultures to carrion. The kingdom of rich white men disintegrated.
Like the financial markets, where a few are obscenely overpaid for the damage they do, publishing now invests megabucks in anticipated blockbusters, which, incidentally, not infrequently fail to deliver the revenue expected. This leaves little in the cookie jar for lesser work (lesser, monetarily, that is), and almost none for outright experimentation. If publishing finds itself, as it seems to, facing an increasingly bleak financial picture, it has only to look in the mirror for the origins of impending doom.