Since I've just embarked on a six month proofreading course, I was bound to be interested in Alex Clark's article, The Corrections, featured in yesterday's Guardian Review. He asks the question: Has rigorous line-by-line editing of books been lost ... a casualty of the demands of sales and publicity? His answer seems to be: partially, yes.
Clark rightly praises the skill of the publisher's editor, and recognises that a good editor is the unsung hero of the finished book. Not that the editor should be glorified in any way - the author is the person with the original, creative talent, the one who will be celebrated or reviled by the public and the critics. The editor is merely the midwife in this process, easing the way to the printed book's birth, correcting and improving in as sensitive a manner as possible without ruffling too many of the author's peacock feathers.
He cites some of the great editors of the past - Robert Gottlieb, for instance, who gave a helping hand to Joseph Heller, John le Carré, Toni Morrison and John Cheever; and Diana Athill, who editorially guided VS Naipaul, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys (and I would say you needed a great deal of skill, tact and diplomacy to edit the copy of these three larger-than-life characters!) He also mentions some of the acclaimed editors of today, such as Ravi Mirchandani at Atlantic Books, Lennie Goodings at Virago, Dan Franklin and Robin Robertson at Jonanathan Cape, Mary Mount at Viking, Sara Holloway at Granta, Nicholas Pearson at Fourth Estaste, Jenny Uglow at Chatto & Windus, Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton and Neil Belton at Faber.
However, the task of intelligent and scrupulous editing is shifting more and more into the margins of the publisher's working day as the nature of publishing itself changes. Budgets are being trimmed; book production is becoming increasingly regimented; sales and marketing departments are growing, while copy-editing and proofreading departments are downsizing dramatically (of course this may help me in my own intention of becoming a freelance proofreader). Our general view of how we consider text may be changing too, and what we expect and demand from it. To quote Clark: While most readers are understandably enraged when they buy a book and then spot spelling, grammar and factual errors, some may feel that other considerations are more important. Given the proliferation of user-generated content of all kinds, and the demand for instant gratification, it's unsurprising that speed and economy are often prioritised over care and quality. (Are there issues here for us as bloggers, I wonder?)
How we buy books, and what we expect from books, has certainly changed. Clark concludes: To buy a book, whether in a physical or virtual bookshop, is to navigate an obstacle course of special offers and money-off deals that are designed to make you buy more, not better; in the case of ebooks, the retailers' first aim is to sell you a device, with hugely discounted books as the bait. Finding out what book you want has also changed; although there is still plenty of high-quality literary criticism available, there is no doubt that there has been a shift away from the painstaking analysis of words and sentences and towards straightforward plot recital and a speedy thumbs up or down. If these peripheral factors are not directly linked to standards of editing, they are surely indicators of the extent to which books have been commodified. The word may still be the thing; but it isn't the only thing.