4 May 2012

Rhetoric and Composition

Alfred A. Knopf (1892-1984) remembers the halcyon days of publishing, when authors submitted their manuscripts and they were printed as written, without editorial fussing. From the first installment of his essay Publishing's Last 50 Years, which appeared in The Saturday Review, November 21, 1964, pp. 53-4:
So when I think of what publishing is like today I realize how spoiled we were. And not only because most of our authors trusted us to give them fair contracts but also because they were competent professionals who wrote their own books. We read their manuscripts with pleasure and admiration and they cherished our enthusiasm, but we never thought to tell them how to improve on what they had done. (Once in a while we might come up with an idea -- never for a novelist -- but somehow the resulting books were usually their authors' less successful ones. Logan Clendening's The Human Body was a notable exception.) Of course there are such writers on our list today -- the names of John Hersey, Elizabeth Bowen, Conrad Richter, Jon Godden, Ross Macdonald, Hammond Innes, John Updike, Robert Nathan, and Shirley Ann Grau come immediately to mind. These, you will notice, are all novelists. 
What about writers of nonfiction? Here the literate publisher soon becomes bored stiff by men and women (and there are so many of them) who have good material but can't organize it or write decently. I am not speaking of the public figure, say a great industrialist -- we have no right to expect him to be a writer as well -- but people who think they can write books and really want to write them but simply have not mastered competent straightforward English prose. 
Now, while I have no clear recollection of what publishers' advertising was like half a century ago, today much of it seems to be calculated to act on the reader more as an emetic than as a persuader. Everyone knows that masterpieces are few and far between. Yet the reader of Publishers' Weekly or the New York Times Book Review is asked on every hand to believe that they are a dime a dozen. No one feels embarrassed to buy Grade B rather than Grade A milk. But cows are not as vain as authors, and it is hard to imagine a publisher admitting frankly in an advertisement that one of his books by a living author is only Grade B -- as if that were not most of the time clearly the case. 
When I complained about the horrible style in which a manuscript had been written by friends of his, the late Walter P. Webb told me that these were simple folk while I was a sophisticated city slicker who wanted elegant prose. I told him he could hardly have been more mistaken, that I had given up years and years ago any hope of finding elegant prose where it didn't exist in the first place. In my insanely quixotic days I have worked over manuscripts by friends and suffered that most painful and infuriating experience of having to read sentence by sentence very slowly to make sure that the author had at least made his meaning clear. And these were manuscripts by men whose letters and speech possess all the simple good qualities that their formal writing lacks. 
How can this be so? Absence of training -- rhetoric and composition it used to be called when I was young -- the consequent lack of an ear, and laziness, sheer laziness. And above all -- and this I want to emphasize -- that ever-present editor who makes it so easy to get a book accepted for publication. The writer who can't do his job looks to his editor to do it for him, though he wouldn't dream of offering to share his royalties with that editor. However, the editor as often as not is lazy, too, has a poor ear, and is less than eager to tackle work that is boring at best and painfully slow. I have read many a book of ours with a feeling of shame for the shabby way in which the editor had dealt or rather failed to deal with the author's prose. 
On the other hand there are historians -- and people in other disciplines too; I just happen to know historians best -- who can write and with whose prose one would not dare to tamper. Samuel Eliot Morison comes immediately to mind. And Kenneth Stampp is one of the only two writers who have ever given me a typescript so letter-perfect that not a word or capitalization or punctuation mark had to be altered before the printer began to set.