Thursday, February 01, 2007

Remake, remodel, rewrite

Chasms of the Earth staggers on, and if you haven't pitched in yet, there are still seats in all parts. As I grind my way through The Da Vinci Code, feeling a bit like a gigolo who's drawn a seriously short straw, I begin to wonder if the problem is not so much bad writing as bad editing. At various times I've had to edit the work of people I'd previously admired as decent wordsmiths: reading their raw copy, I realised that their reputation was at least partly down to outside help. So maybe Brown really isn't as hopeless as he seems in comparative terms: he's just been let down.

But Dan Vinci is not alone. Increasingly, I find that writers that I've admired for some time are coming up with some absolute horrors. Are they losing their touch? Am I getting more picky, more Lynne Trussy? Or are the invisible editors upon whom these writers rely becoming more slapdash, more ambivalent about leaving their charges on the literary equivalent of a Spartan mountainside? Here's a sentence - yes, a single sentence, of 104 words - from Alan Bennett's most recent prose collection, Untold Stories:

"When I do perform - and it is a performance, as Larkin, who refused as he put it to go round pretending to be himself, pointed out - I generally read from some of the stuff I've written, with my diaries the most popular (plenty of jokes), and then I take questions from the audience before finishing up with five minutes more reading, almost always ending with a speech from my 1980 play Enjoy in which a character describes the contents of a mantelpiece in a working-class household, a passage I have read so often it has become almost like an old-fashioned parlour recitation."

I know Bennett's an excellent nostalgist, but does he think rationing is still in force, and that it's been extended to cover full stops?

PS: Ian Hocking also considers editing, in all its various flavours.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

When Bennett grinds me down, I imagine him reading out loud. I was disappointed with the lack of biscuit-type anecdotes in that book.

Anonymous said...

I like a nice long sentence, but mostly when it's done for comic effect. In which case it's usually the length and tortuousness of the sentence itself that readers are supposed to focus on, rather than its content.

Thanks to my day job, I also find it impossible to read anything without wanting to edit it. It makes reading very painful, as I have to think about every sentence and 'how I would have written it'.

The only way round this is to read stuff that's so well written you forget you're actually reading words on a page. Lawrence Durrell used to do that for me, although he was no stranger to the prolix sentence.

Now I'm agonising over every word in this comment, argh.

Tim Footman said...

Billy: Didn't the stuff about Thora make up for that? But I'm still awaiting Bennett's definitive Me and Morrissey reminiscences.

Patroclus: But do you never wonder the extent to which Durrell's words were touched up, however lightly, by other hands?

Anonymous said...

I read the sentence and just imagined Bennett reading it like a monologue. It sounded OK in that context with Alan's prim Yorkshire tea-shop tones in my head.

Anonymous said...

I gather Durrell like to do the touching-up himself ... arf, arf (yes, I'm sorry ... I'll go quietly).
I'm very fond of a long sentence ... Proust was the master of them - but then again, he was a genius of the prolix and could go on for a whole page, whereas isn't Bennett more a 'brevity is the soul of wit' type?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't have minded touching him up a bit.

Anonymous said...

Durrell, that is, not Proust. Or Alan Bennett. Brrr.

Dr Ian Hocking said...

On the subject of the help of editors, I was rather disappointed to a see TWO DAY'S TIME in my copy of McCarthy's 'The Road' - and on the page before there was a missing word. Shocking. Otherwise, McCarthy's prose is tighter than a duck's arse, though.

Tim Footman said...

Murph: It does sound better like that, with the punctuation implied rather than imposed. Maybe it's best to regard Bennett's prose work as the print version of the talking book, rather than vice versa.

Anthony: As Patroclus suggests, someone like Proust can pull off long sentences because we know he knows what he's doing is slightly contrary. There's even an element of self-parody about it. But with Bennett, it just seems like lack of self-control. (And I really like Bennett; I wouldn't have highlighted this in a writer I didn't rate.)

Patroclus: We believe you, really we do.

Ian: That's exactly the sort of thing I mean. Whether it was down to a poor grasp of grammar on the part of the author or (more likely) a straightforward slip of the finger, this is the sort of thing editors should spot.

Incidentally, I recently discovered that the person who was editing my book has left the company. I've blithely waived the chance to check out the final PDF, because there were very few changes even suggested to my original manuscript, and it will just hold things up. Now I'm a bit less sure...

Thought any more about your own book, Patroclus?

patroclus said...

Oh, gahh, my own book will never get written - I don't have the confidence, plus real life keeps getting in the way.

Bloody 'real life'.

I'm starting to feel very guilty about soliciting everyone's input now.

llewtrah said...

Is it the result of more automation? Writers churn out words and rely on spellcheckers. They don't go back to read their own writing so often and, therefore, miss their over-length sentences.

However, go back to some of the Edwardian and Victorian writings and you will find equally lengthy sentences. It's not so much slipping standards as a return to an older style, discarding the short punchy sentences we have become accustomed to.

Having spent many lunchtimes typing some Edwardian books into electronic format (the quality was too poor for OCR), I can say that long sentences are nothing new. What is new, is the use of the comma as an all-purpose punctuation mark. The Edwardian authors used the full array of commas, dashes, brackets and full- and semi-colons. Elsewhere they fail to use commas with their clauses.

Perhaps you should post about the use, misuse and abuse of the humble comma?

(The Edwardian books were cat-related non-fiction)

Molly Bloom said...

Long sentences can be lovely they can twist and turn and twinkle and joy(ce) we learn to punch the punctuation with our fingers interject funnel ideas complex compound parenthetical leading to new ideas and closing in brackets hyphensdashesandallthingsneedcontrollingandthenwelosemeaningandsometimesitdoesn'tmatterifwelosesense because sometimes what we have to say is more important than having the constraints of grammar and sometimes never-ending is wonderful.

Oops...they say the repressed will out.

Anonymous said...

The Professional Writing MA I'm doing at the moment has certainly opened my eyes to what an amazing job some editors do. One of our lecturers has shown us some jaw-droppingly awful pieces she was given to edit before publication. We had to edit one of them for an exam; I just sat there for the first five minutes overwhelmed by the sheer wrongness, trying to work out where to even start. And that was after reading just the first paragraph.

Anonymous said...

Holy fuck, it's Molly! Yay...

Forgot was I was going to say now.

Spinsterella said...

"When I do perform (and it is a performance, as Larkin, who refused as he put it to go round pretending to be himself, pointed out) I generally read from some of the stuff I've written. My diaries are the most popular (plenty of jokes), then I take questions from the audience. I finish up with five minutes more reading, almost always ending with a speech from my 1980 play Enjoy in which a character describes the contents of a mantelpiece in a working-class household. I've read this passage so often it has become almost like an old-fashioned parlour recitation."

I'm surprised no-one else has had a go. Does this make me *really* sad?

Anonymous said...

Is there something in the focus of publishers becoming, like Hollywood's is, that of the sale rather than the customer? This leads to the habit of buying the proven bull — even if the proven bull's been shooting blanks lately — over the unknown. I do see a constant stream of 'spin-off' books (a similar theme, topic or plot to one that sold well — or where the topic was recently in the news), and authors pushed to the wall to churn out another book when really, one or two good ones might have been all they had in them.

Anonymous said...

It's my worst sin. Whenever I write anything I have to imagine the mental equivalent of a great big post-it, saying FULL STOP! YOU DON'T NEED THAT HYPHEN/SEMI-COLON!

From my 'real' world of retail catalogues I can confirm that absolutely no-one cares about good English, except for me.

Tim Footman said...

Patroclus: So the grand total of really good books inspired by blogging still stands at...? Real life. I know.

Llewtrah: the spell-checker and, worse, the grammar checker, are bloody menaces. We've now got a generation or two of 'writers' who, effectively, haven't been potty-trained. But don't get me going on commas. I'm not Ms Truss.

Molly: Hello, gorgeous, glad to have you back for a moment. Yes, long sentences can be wonderful, as can hundred-letter words, but sometimes they're not appropriate. And this is an example. As Murph suggested, read it aloud - the punctuation will happen.

OPC: Oh, every editor keeps a collection. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's deeply sad. And the worst thing is that writers are often quite oblivious to the problem. Maybe if we stopped calling them writers, and referred to them as 'primary producers' or something, they wouldn't get so high and mighty.

Billy: I know. I spilled my Tizer as well.

Spin: No, I was rather hoping someone would take up the implied invitation. That's pretty much what I would have done, although the second stop might have been replaced by some sort of conjunction. Anyone else?

Valerie: The spin-offs and copycats are just a function of economic reality, and laziness on the part of publishers. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be competently written, surely?

OA: No one cares, because no one knows. Again, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try.

Anonymous said...

Tell ya what, you kids are going to poke an eye out playing like this. TDVC is one of those subjects I have to stay far, far away from.

Poor editing was NOT the problem.

Going to force myself to stop
right
there.

Anonymous said...

Tim — I entirely agree that they should (and could!) be competently written (or at least competently edited). I just think the publishers don't have their attention on that aspect of the process; they seem to think it's not necessary. As if selling the book were more important than it being good... and I think that's true in a way. Publishers aren't like brand names. Say I buy TDVC and think it's crap; that won't stop me from buying another Doubleday book. Or if I buy The Long-Legged Fly and find it marvellous, will that make me look for another Walker & Co.? Of course not; I'll look for another Sallis, whomever publishes him. So marketwise, well, they're right.

What I can't figure out is what's changed, as this lack of market-dependence, surely, has always been so?

(Clearly I badly need editing myself, of course...)

Anonymous said...

Tim — I entirely agree that they should (and could!) be competently written (or at least competently edited). I just think the publishers don't have their attention on that aspect of the process; they seem to think it's not necessary. As if selling the book were more important than it being good... and I think that's true in a way. Publishers aren't like brand names. Say I buy TDVC and think it's crap; that won't stop me from buying another Doubleday book. Or if I buy The Long-Legged Fly and find it marvellous, will that make me look for another Walker & Co.? Of course not; I'll look for another Sallis, whomever publishes him. So marketwise, well, they're right.

What I can't figure out is what's changed, as this lack of market-dependence, surely, has always been so?

(Clearly I badly need editing myself, of course...)

Anonymous said...

Tim — I entirely agree that they should (and could!) be competently written (or at least competently edited). I just think the publishers don't have their attention on that aspect of the process; they seem to think it's not necessary. There attention's not on it. As if selling the one book were more important than it being good... and I think that's true in a way. Publishers aren't like brand names. Say I buy TDVC and think it's crap; that won't stop me from buying another Doubleday book. Or if I buy The Long-Legged Fly and find it marvellous, will that make me look for another Walker & Co.? Of course not; I'll look for another Sallis, whomever publishes him. So marketwise, well, they're right.

What I can't figure out is what's changed, as this lack of market-dependence, surely, has always been so?

(Clearly I badly need editing myself, of course...)

Anonymous said...

Tim — I entirely agree that they should (and could!) be competently written (or at least competently edited). I just think the publishers don't have their attention on that aspect of the process; they seem to think it's not necessary. There attention's not on it. As if selling the one book were more important than it being good... and I think that's true in a way. Publishers aren't like brand names. Say I buy TDVC and think it's crap; that won't stop me from buying another Doubleday book. Or if I buy The Long-Legged Fly and find it marvellous, will that make me look for another Walker & Co.? Of course not; I'll look for another Sallis, whomever publishes him. So marketwise, well, they're right.

What I can't figure out is what's changed, as this lack of market-dependence, surely, has always been so?

(Clearly I badly need editing myself, of course...)

Anonymous said...

When I perform at my blog - and don't forget that blogging is a performance of course, with me standing, metaphorically of course, in front of you, the readers and occasional posters of comments, who if we continue this performance metaphor through to its logical conclusion must therefore be the audience - I often find myself recounting in great and probably tedious detail an observation - something interesting, delighful or horrible - that happened to me, possibly when I was a student, wandering around the streets of northern Essex, looking for mathematical tomes in the sales which never came because there is no demand for such tomes, as there are not hoards of desperate mathmaticians waving crumpled ten pound notes at shop assistants in exchange for detailed accounts of Laplace, his life, his theories and his times, or more likely in the last few days, as I sat on a underground train, chewing on a samosa bought from the newsagents near to my work, earphones pumping a range of mostly fairly wussy music into my brain, some book with short chapters on my lap and the people around me read the free papers and magazines they'd bought, probably at corner shops near their own offices or homes, thinking "Oh God, oh God, what shall I blog about tonight."

Anonymous said...

Bravo Billy!

dh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dh said...

Could it simply be an attention span thing? Maybe today's publishers just assume modern audiences are turned off by long convoluted sentences?

I got through billy's no trouble.

Robert A. Swipe said...

Tim,

Thank you for the kind words about the song.

I value your opinion very much so you kind of made my day.


L.U.V. on ya,

Bob

Spinsterella said...

Lonnnggg sentences are OK if they part of the narrative voice sort-of-thing. But if this is AB's own story - he should know how to use a full stop, right?

Oh, and well done Billy - good effort there lad.

Anonymous said...

er. The comment about editing was NOT supposed to be because my comment got posted eleventy-leven times. @#($*@(#$*@ Blogger.

dinahmow said...

Editing, from copy desks to major houses, does seem to be in the Doldrums.Certainly,English grammar has slipped from editorial grasp in this country (Australia) in recent years.
I struggled through Mr. Brown's truly awful book, cursing his editors at every page and wondering what sort of tightly-written "adventure yarn" might have resulted had Frederick Forsyth been the author.
(Having written a 30+ word sentence, I'll leave!)