Friday, May 1, 2015

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Mary Norris, a copy editor at the New Yorker, has written a book that touches a range of genres from Mad Men to The Elements of Style. Personal anecdotes dating back to the 1960s, when Norris first landed a job at that stylish New York magazine, are loosely intermixed with detailed analyses of picayune grammar issues that every copy editor faces—and often enjoys.

Norris herself is a likeable sort—so much so that I have no qualms about referring to her familiarly as "Mary." She worked her way up from a cheese factory in her hometown in Cleveland to the New Yorker editorial department via hard work and a series of accidents. 

Although the magazine has been through several editors and shifts of tone since she arrived there, Mary  isn't interested in that sort of thing. Her steady points of reference aren't William Shawn or David Remnick, but Eleanor Gould (grammarian and query proofreader) and Lu Burke (proofreader). She speaks with school-girl awe of the writers she's copy-edited, which range from Pauline Kael and Phillip Roth to John McPhee and Ian Frazier. Well, who wouldn't?

One of Mary's early "catches" was to hunt down and verify a minor misquotation from a children's book in a piece by Phillip Roth. The fiction editor, Bill Bufford, sent it along to Roth, highlighting Mary's discovery. Roth wrote back: "Who is this woman? And will she come live with me?"

Thus began Mary's abiding interest in Roth's fiction—and the man himself. "I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I'm still available."

Norris's enthusiasm for language and literature is contagious. She seems to have a robust curiosity about a lot of things, in fact, which is a good quality for any editor to cultivate. She writes:

"One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey. And in turn it feeds you more experience."

Her motive for writing, she tells us, was to pass on the expertise she has acquired to us.

Early on in the book, Mary faces up to the fact that in the public imagination, editors are haughty, mysterious creatures who think they know best and always want to get their way.

"The image of the copy editor is of someone who favors a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer but got stuck dotting the i's and crossing the t's and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers."

She shatters that stereotype by example. Her tone is modest, her judgments provisional, her respect for the author's intention sincere. She describes her position, tongue slightly in cheek, as "anti-ultracrepidationalism." In simple language, she strives not to go beyond her province.

Yet the position she holds at the magazine has a force of its own.

"I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch, and it surprises me when someone is afraid of me. Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of the New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas."

This passage may be taken as a typical example of Norris's writing style: breezy, chirpy, and occasionally  daring in its use of analogies drawn from daily life,  but also prone to minor solecisms. 

The phrase "I always forget...", for example, is a little off. If you are always in the process of forgetting something, then you aren't forgetting it at all—you simply have no recollection of it. "I often forget" or "I sometimes forget" or "I tend to forget" would have been better.

Then again, in the last sentence of the paragraph,  "as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen" is brilliant, at least to my mind, and corresponds perfectly with the "jumping back" she describes, while the second simile is hard to visualize and dulls the force of its predecessor.

In offering these petty suggestions for improvement, I'm obeying a sort of Murphy's Law, described by David Marsh of the Guardian (and quoted by Mary) as follows: "If you write anything criticizing editing or proof-reading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written."  

Alas, the more technical sections of subsequent chapters, such as when Norris tries to explain in detail how nominative and accusative positions affect word usage, can be pretty dull. And I suppose some subjects, such as word-breaks, are going to be dull no matter how you approach them. Then again, I had never considered the fact (until now) that where a word is broken may depend not only on how it's spelled but on how it's used. Thus, when I fire someone, I "ca-shier" him or her; but if I take a job behind the register, I become a "cash-ier." By the same token, a beer that I order might arrive in a "bum-per," but someone who bumps into me at the bar is a "bump-er." That's what Mary says, anyway.

Norris includes a long section on the relative merits of various dictionaries, and a slightly-too-long digression into the life and character of Daniel Webster himself. Her discussion of gender and pronoun issues is garbled a little oddly with anecdotes about her brother's first efforts at cross-dressing. And there are a few analogies to automotive repair that fall flat.

As for hyphens, the book presents us with numerous opportunities to challenge the positions she endorses, after she's finished weighing the pros and cons of her colleagues opinions against her own judgment.

"Eleanor Gould seemed to hyphenate everything," she writes, "and Lu Burke hated anything extra." So, where do you put the hyphen in "baby back ribs," "bad hair day," "bright red car," "blue stained glass"? Or is a hyphen necessary?

Norris settles on bright-red car, but that seems odd to me. I don't think a hyphen is necessary. Why not? Because "red" and "bright" are in two separate categories of attribute already. One refers to a tint, the other refers to a degree of luminosity. These two naturally go together to form a adjectival phrase, which is not quite the same thing as a compound adjective. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with describing autumn leaves as red-yellow, rather than merely orange.

She goes for blue-stained glass, which is once again a little bizarre. The phrase conjures an image of a piece of clear glass that someone has subsequently smeared with blueberries. In fact, the staining of the glass is coterminous with the production of it. The result of the process is stained glass. What color? In this case, it's blue stained glass.

You may not agree with these assertions of mine, but if you don't find such quibbles at least mildly interesting, you probably won't like this book.

Norris has an aversion to the semi-colon, for no other reason, I guess, than that she feels she's not the type of person who would use them. They're too rich for her blood—as my dad used to say about Jack Daniels. (He also thought semicolons were pretentious.)

But Mary admits she has an abiding appreciation for Henry James's semicolons.

"...Henry James uses semicolons for timing. They accumulate in a way that can make sentiments appear simultaneous, although it's impossible to read two things at once."

Of course, anyone can use semicolons for timing; it's like a rolling stop that keeps the reader moving ahead, while remaining cognizant of what came immediately before.

In the end, what Mary Norris passes on to us, more than any particular rule or concept, is her love of the language—its power, its logic (and lack thereof), its nuances. She also conjures the anxieties that haunt any conscientious copy editor. "Why didn't I query that?" "Why did I let that blooper through?"

Most writers, and many substantive editors, too, have the same feeling about a text as the one that biographer Nicholas Delbanco (quoted by Norris) describes Herman Melville as having regarding his masterpiece, Moby-Dick:  

"The proofs...were replete with errors, but ... he became impatient of such minute, gnat-like torments; he randomly corrected the worst, and let the rest go; jeering with himself at the rich harvest thus furnished to the entomological critics."

Both writers and editors depend on copy editors (and proofers) to alleviate their own anxieties on this account—and hope and pray that their publisher can afford such luxuries.

The New Yorker can. It has copy editors and proofers and fact-checkers galore. Mary Norris wrote a book about it. And it's a lot of fun to read.  

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