I can't say that I feel completely comfortable here at Touchstone/Fireside. I'm surrounded by wonderfully intelligent people which is a welcome respite from my usual days surrounded by immature students giggling about boobs and pot. For a while, I couldn't quite put my finger on the source of my discomfort, but this week, I've finally realized it: I'm inadequate. All of the people I work for here are infinitely smarter, more diplomatic and more accomplished than I am. They use words that I don't understand, like "writerly" (according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of this is of, relating to, or typical of a writer. Now that seems really obvious.) and they are all so darn graceful. I often feel like I'm working with a bunch of Jackie Os! But despite how stupid and childish and clumsy and awkward they make me feel, they are all so wonderful. They are each a personification of a quality I wish to have. The editor-in-chief is power and influence, Danielle is intelligence, Michelle is grace, Lauren is style, Shawna is friendliness and tact, Zach is this accomplished coolness (if there exists such a word), Alex is composed competence. My problem, of course, is that I see these people not for what they are, but for what I am not. This must stop. I'm sure that these people have insecurities and shortcomings they have filed down along the way. I imagine them at home. I see Michelle crying hopelessly on her sofa, watching Sleepless in Seattle while eating ice cream in her pajamas. I see Zach standing in front of his fridge eating lo mein out of the carton with his fingers. Not because he's a slob, but because he's a guy. I see the EIC, the mega-editor, gardening on her hands and knees. I see Danielle in a very ungraceful fit of giggles while shopping with her friends. I see them all in situations that do not involve books and intelligence. Does it help? No. I'm still the one who didn't go to Wesleyan or Columbia or wherever. I'm still the one who turns red anytime someone speaks to me. I'm still the one who knows nothing.
Where, you ask, do these feelings come from? Zach read my reader's report on that awfully offensive manuscript with the trashy sex and unbelieveably cheesy dialog. In the email to which I attached my report, I told Zach that I found the entire manuscript incredibly offensive. I also wrote that despite my scant knowledge of the legal intricacies of book publishing, I didn't think it was legal to publish something that offensive to that many groups of people. That was seven days ago, exactly. Today, Zach called me in to Michelle's office to talk about my report. Nervously, I stepped into the office and had a seat. Michelle sort of sat and watched while Zach very diplomatically attacked what I had to say about the manuscript. Zach said if I was offended by what I was reading, I should not have read it. I told him it was my first project and I didn't want to be a complainer. He then proceeded to say that before I deem something "illegal to publish" I should check my facts. The first ammendment is the foundation of journalism and publishing. Of course, he's right. I was once the news and features editor of my school newspaper. Why hadn't I considered this most basic of publishing tenets? Now, I feel incredibly stupid. Now, I can't believe that I actually thought something would be illegal to publish. I wanted to jump out the window into Michelle's beautiful and well-earned view. What an idiot!
Then, he told me that many published books contain profanity and are offensive to different races and different types of people. He had brought books along with him to show me. One was a joke book that was full of racial humor and profanity. Another was a book about lesbians. I wanted to tell Zach and Michelle where I was coming from, but I thought it would probably be in poor taste to argue with two senior editors. I still feel sort of bummed out, though, so I'll just tell my argument here.
To me, the offensive manuscript was unacceptable because it wasn't very obviously supposed to be offensive. The book Zach showed me, and other humor books of its kind are not offensive exactly because their covers and titles say to the reader, "Hey! Looky here! I'm a book that's going to say offensive things in order to be funny!" The offensive manuscript's title, as an example of how it's not supposed to be funny, refers to one part of the book in which the children of the main character learn about decorator crabs and how they use pieces of their environment to cover up their sameness. The title is a metaphor for human behavior. That's not funny. The book was about one man's journey from uncaring attorney to avenger of social injustice. Also not funny. The profanity and offensiveness that peppered the manuscript, and probably amounted to at least half of the book, was out of place and therefore offensive. To exemplify my point here, let's use a non-book-related example. If someone said "fuck" in a show like South Park, which is designed to be offensive, I can't say I would be offended by it. In fact, I love South Park and own eight seasons of it. However, if I went to court for a parking ticket and the judge said "fuck" during the proceedings, I would absolutely be offended and confused, just like I felt while reading that MS. Damn! Why couldn't I find those words? Where were they when I was stupidly nodding my head and mm-hmming while Zach looked down his nose at me and forced Michelle to watch?
Of course, later on, when my embarassment has cooled, it will occur to me that this experience is valuable. Next time I write a report - and Zach said he would send some my way - I will keep these things in mind and write a smarter, more educated and informed report.
Of course, my learning experience here - what Zach was trying to teach me - is that an editor can't worry about his own personal feelings when reading a manuscript. He can't let that sway his decision to publish the book because ultimately it doesn't matter if he thinks its entertaining or stimulating or whatever. What matters in the end is whether or not it will sell. That's why Zach brought the other books with him into Michelle's office. Because he wanted to say that profane and offensive books absolutely do sell - to a certain audience. An editor, I've learned from this experience (thanks, Zach!) has to be completely objective, just like he would be on jury duty. If you're part of the jury on a case in which someone is accused of rape, and you're a rape victim, it is not appropriate for you to be on the jury and you most certainly will not be allowed.
Although this experience was embarrassing for me, I have to say I would not have it any other way because I've learned more in those five minutes than I have learned during my entire college career. And I hope all of you don't make this mistake!
Timely writing tips from George Orwell
5 weeks ago