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Data Dumping

I met my next door neighbor in the Laundromat, the perfect venue to talk about the struggles of the writing life—yes, we do our own laundry—and what we are currently working on. He didn’t have a book with him, which was unusual, because his most recent writing gig—when he is not casting Broadway shows—has been as a book reviewer for a well known newspaper which shall remain anonymous to protect the identity of my writer neighbor. I wouldn’t want him to lose his gig because of some of his remarks. He reviews nonfiction, mostly books about New York, because he wrote two books about New York himself, so now he is an expert according to his editor. I began my writing career in the same way: writing book reviews for The Times Educational Supplement in London. My husband got me the gig; he was writing feature articles. My editor, like my neighbor’s editor, was relieved to have an expert (an American teacher) in his stable of writers, in my case to review all the books about America, particularly American education, that arrived in his office. I didn’t consider myself an expert—far from—but my editor thought I was an expert. I did develop a vocabulary to talk about education and, after a while, this vocabulary and the subject itself, important as it is, bored me. As grateful as I was for the gig and the discipline of deadline and word count, I moved on, as I am sure my neighbor will also.

My husband was a movie reviewer for The City magazine in New York, and had to go to two or three movies a day for a couple of years. Having to sit through mostly terrible junk movies, he lost his appetite, his enthusiasm, his perspective and his sense of humor about the business. After he got thoroughly burned, he began to write his own screenplays, which was healing. He sold one and he is about to sell another. Screenplays have their own frustrations and challenges, however. They become, ultimately, so collaborative that the original writing gets lost. There are no editors in Hollywood, only producers, aka money men and women. Will the original script still convey the original writer’s intention? Will its armature disappear?

Books that don’t have decent editors can have the same de-humanizing, emasculating effect; they become junk books. Says my neighbor: “I feel as though most of the books I’m reading these days aren’t edited at all. Data is collected and dumped into the text. I am supposed to comment, to write something intelligible and informative, but all I want to do is dump them in the dumpster.”

I suppose that is no surprise given the bottom line malaise of the publishing industry these days. Where have all the editors gone? Outsourced to Dubai, unfortunately. I had a fabulous, attentive editor in Robert Ellsberg (Daniel’s son) for “Another Day in Paradise,” but that was nearly a decade ago now. Sometimes my agent tries to edit, but she’s a literary lawyer whose expertise is negotiation and contracts. I have to take her advice if I want her to try to sell a project, but she’s not an editor. I ask writer friends to edit, but they are not editors. I ask my husband. He’s a fabulous editor—in fact we have a small publishing business—Mediacs—and he is Editor in Chief, a real editor—but he is very busy with other projects and his time is limited.

I anticipate more changes in the industry, big versus small, small consortiums of writers, designers, editors, and publicists, small businesses that care about their clients and the quality of the books they write. Conglomerate publishing houses won’t wipe us out because what matters is the work itself, the attention we give to the words on the page, and the writer who put them there.

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