Monday, July 11, 2011

Why publish? pt. 2

Elisa Gabbert was kind enough to write a post responding critically to my previous post on the subjects of Fugue Magazine's footnote scandal. This happened on Wednesday while we were still moving into the new apartment, which in Internet time means it might as well have happened ten just before they nailed Jesus to the cross, but I want to encourage more people to disagree with me publicly (I thrive on discord!) so I felt I should respond.

I should start by saying that I think Gabbert is a cool, bright writer and I think her argument makes sense. Mainly I want to use it as an opportunity to refine + clarify some of what I said in the previous post, as well as to discuss some of the differences in how prose and poetry writers approach publishing and editing, which I think are at the root of our disagreements here.

It's going to get a little convoluted now, as, for clarity's sake, I'm going to quote Gabbert quoting me and then replying to the quote:
"As an editor, I expect a lot of deference when it comes to deciding how to package and present my authors' work. For instance, if I think a certain font is best for a story, and I make the story that font, I will think it is pretty stupid for the author to say, 'Dude, I am pissed about that font. Put it back in Times New Roman.' If I want a certain piece to have different margins than the others, I want to be able to do that."

This is an unusually strawmanny argument from Meginnis. There's a distinct difference between changing the font or layout of a piece and inserting new content into it (or removing content without asking, or changing the order of the content). I also think you get more leniency here with prose than poetry. I recently had an experience with an editor who wanted to right-justify half the poems in an issue. The font is usually not an element of the poem, but the margins are, and you can't just change them to mix it up visually. It would be the equivalent of an editor changing all the paragraph breaks in a story, not for semantic reasons but to better fit the layout of the page. Adding footnotes strikes me as one of the most disruptive ways you could alter a piece of prose while keeping the original text intact, up there with inserting subheads.
These are good, useful points! There's generally understood to be a pretty big difference between choosing the font and choosing the words that go into a piece. But part of what I was trying to get at -- and I realize now I didn't make this sufficiently clear -- is that I think that difference is rather less significant than most people believe. 

Tracy and I are currently working on editing and typesetting the first print issue of Uncanny Valley and there are actually two very different processes for different kinds of content: some of the material, usually the more formally straightforward prose, is being edited strictly on the levels of sentence structure, paragraph structure, and content. For the writers being put through this process, we're using track changes on word documents and working collaboratively with the writers to negotiate how much we can and will alter their language. (Our contributors have so far been entirely professional about this, by the way, for which I am eternally grateful; there's nothing worse than a contentious editing process.) After that, I typeset the pieces, and will soon send them galleys for their approval. These people can ask for anything at this stage but I would probably regard most requests with some degree of hostility: the design really should be, I think, largely up to me. What they would need to do to convince me to make a significant change to the design is to demonstrate that it was necessary to the effectiveness of the piece.

Then for some people we aren't bothering with track changes or really even applying text-level edits for anything but obvious grammatical errors or typos -- these tend to be poems or more formally engaged prose that derive much of their meaning/pleasure/power from their presentation on the page. When I've finished the preliminary typesetting for these pieces, I'm going to send the galleys to the authors and ask them what they think of certain font choices, layouts, and etc. I'll be more open to changes in these cases as any formally engaged work must be, in its editing, negotiated in those same terms -- the terms under which it was written.

I even have one piece (by Robert Alan Wendeborn) where I wanted to change the visuals to such an extent that I sent him a document that demonstrated what I meant to do to the piece and offered him the opportunity to revise on the content level given what I was planning.

Part of what I meant to argue, and again this didn't come across clearly because it was rather tangential to the situation, is that writers often place blind trust in editors and designers when it comes to the formal aspects of their work while erring on the side of excessive protectiveness where content is concerned. This leads to writing that is less interesting on the levels of form and content. What I wanted to suggest is that we should probably be more liberal when it comes to our content and more discerning/engaged when it comes to the forms in which our work is presented. 

As an editor, I've only encountered significant negotiation on form from poets, who tend as a group to be generally hostile to revision of any kind. I would like to see some poets relax a little in this regard, but I would also like to see many prose writers become a little more like these poets.

Which brings us to more from Gabbert:
"I wouldn't publish with someone if I didn't want them to change my writing, to make it better. If it were already perfect in its little Word document, I would leave it there. I publish a piece because it is not perfect, because it needs to be improved, because I think the process of publication will improve it ... Ultimately whether Fugue was right or wrong isn't that important to me. The principle here is this: If you don't want your work changed, why do you publish with other people? If you need total control, why not self-publish?"

This is an interesting and very literal interpretation of the concept of an "editor." (In the literary world, many editors' work is 90%+ curatorial.) I sort of admire this approach to publishing, but I also think it's kind of naive. (Or, I admire it because it's naive.) Most people publish not because they want their work to be better, but because they want it to be validated by a third party and then exposed to a larger audience. This is also why most people don't self-publish: both validation and potential audience tend to be greatly reduced. Of course there are exceptions, but it's more work to find an audience when you don't have an established publicity department, and without the built-in reputation of an established press, you're fighting the biases of the many people who believe gatekeepers exist for a reason.
This is all very true! And I'm glad Gabbert finds my naivete at least a little charming, because I'm going to stick to my guns on this one. Ultimately, I'm driven by careerist concerns and my desire to be read, so if a good press or magazine wants to publish me without contributing the editorial interventions that would improve my work, I'm probably going to go for it (as I have done plenty of times in the past). But I would really prefer to be edited, because I've seen what it can do for my work (both the text being edited and the texts I will write and revise in light of the experience) and I want to have that as much as possible.

And while I understand that most people aren't interested in publication primarily as a mode of improvement, I want to make it as clear as possible to anyone considering working with us that if you don't want our help with your work, if you don't want to see it changed by publication, you probably shouldn't submit to us. There are a few pieces that we'll print or post online in more or less the form that we received them, but more often than not, we plan to interfere. 

I would generally advocate for more communication on these matters. Fugue should probably have provided its authors with galleys -- we can disagree about how much the footnotes mattered (I still think an astute reader would likely guess they weren't in the original pieces) but I suspect we can also agree that writers and editors alike would benefit from more effective, explicit communication about the parameters of their relationship: the form it will take, the burdens of each role, the goals of their union. 


  1. Thanks for the response and clarification! Natch, I respect your point of view and look forward to seeing what you do with Uncanny Valley.

    Oh, and ONE MORE teensy quibble: I hate the word "bright"!

  2. Ha, no: not unless you're submitted this post for me to improve as an editor. ;)

  3. Everything I post on the Internet has been submitted for improvement.

    (I wrote improval, by the way, before realizing my error. Jesus Christ.)

  4. "Improval" is an improvement.

  5. Mike,

    First I've ever read of your postings. You WRITE well, clearly and cleanly, and you also THINK. I've seen too many zine editors/writers who can do one or the other--or NEITHER! I appreciate your thoughts.

    I agree with your last comments about the relationship of writers and editors. The collaborative PROCESS is very rewarding, from either side. I would hope a good editor will always improve my writing to some degree.

    Sej H.