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Reader: were you in on the ‘a’?

Andrew Steeds


As someone who has been on both sides of the editing desk, I feel quite familiar with the standard opening moves in the negotiating game played out between writer and editor, both of whom tend to think that they know what is best for the piece of writing they’re looking at.

If you’re lucky, you move quickly to a position where you respect each other’s expertise and input, recognising that you are both working for the greater good of the writing in front of you.

If you’re not … Well, here are two very good and different examples of what happens when the writer–editor relationship doesn’t quite go to plan. The first is a much-leaked e-mail sent to his Sunday Times sub-editors by Giles Coren, more famous just now (May 2011) for leaking of his own – and the e-mail two of his editors sent in reply. I find it impossible to read Coren’s letter (even now, when I’ve read it numerous times already) without holding a range of contradictory feelings towards the man writing it. There’s huge, foul-mouthed arrogance here, obviously, twinned with contemptuous disdain for the artisans working on his text. But there’s passion and pride, too, the kind of belief in and dedication to his writing that every editor and every reader longs to find in the writers they read. And he’s right, too, ungainsayably right. What the editor has done is change the way in which the final sentence reads, away from Coren’s original intentions.

And then, what about the reply? Much though I would like to support what the Sunday Times sub-editors say, being much more of an editor myself than a writer, they’ve got it wrong, from their first sentence’s opinion-as-fact to their failure to address the matter of having, ahem, made a mistake. Just because so much of the raw copy editors have to work on is presented in such a poor state, it doesn’t entitle any editor to treat all raw copy in the same way. That kind of assumption is exactly the lazy subbing that Coren, more colourfully, claims it to be. And just because he is (on the evidence of his letters) an obnoxious, arrogant prima donna doesn’t mean that the editors shouldn’t have had the guts to put their hands up, regardless of the history between them, and say ‘Fair cop, you’re right. We got it wrong. Sorry, Giles.’

That seems to have been the reaction of Jonathan Cape to the huge (almost 40 pages of the Penguin Modern Classic I bought in the mid-1980s) and hugely self-defensive letter written to him by Malcolm Lowry in response to a number of critical comments made by readers of Under the Volcano. [1] (Sadly, that letter doesn’t appear to be available on the internet but it is reproduced at the front of several editions of Lowry’s magnificent novel – it provides a fascinating accompaniment to the novel.) True, there’s arrogance in Lowry’s letter, as there is in Giles Coren’s e-mail, and there’s the same self-importance and sense of his own uniqueness that at times threaten to spoil his novel. More significantly, Lowry seems unable to accept that, if people reading his book didn’t understood it as he intended, the fault might not necessarily lie in their reading, but possibly in his writing of the book.

But the passion and the pride of the letter must have swung it for Lowry, causing Jonathan Cape to publish the book unabridged and virtually unedited. It’s one of those gestures of faith and bravery that must happen relatively infrequently in publishing, else we’d hear more about a lot more of them.

But, half a century apart, both these pieces of correspondence also raise one interesting and unanswered question. What about the reader? If the subtlety of the author’s writing is going to be lost on the reader (how many of us knew the Soho slang of ‘a nosh’, for example?) wasn’t the editor’s instinct broadly correct? And, if editor and writer had agreed to lighten the architectural density of Under the Volcano, would the benefit of its being read and appreciated by significantly more readers possibly have outweighed the loss of the original’s artistic purity?

[1] Its first sentence is a gem and indicative of the elliptical style of this writer! ‘Dear Mr Cape: / Thank you very much indeed for yours of the 29th November [1945], which did not reach me, however, until New Year’s Eve, and moreover reached me here, in Cuernavaca, where, completely by chance, I happen to be living in the very tower which was the original of the house of M. Laruelle, which I had only seen previously from the outside, and that ten years ago, but which is the very place where as it happens the Consul in the Volcano also had a little complication with some delayed correspondence.’