Wednesday, April 20, 2005

"The Most Unheralded Job in Publishing"

Adam Langer on copyeditors:

"They perform one of the most important jobs on manuscripts, saving authors from their misspellings, their grammatical errors, their logical and stylistic flaws, and yet, their efforts remain largely anonymous."

I mean, really, when was the last time you saw a copyeditor credited on a book jacket? Every now and again, an author will thank the copyeditor, in the acknowledgements. More often, the reader will never really know who saved them from dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, unclear antecedents, idiosyncratic spelling, factual errors that throw the reader out of the book, jarringly, and sentences that go on for lines and lines without stopping, just like this one does.

Not only does Langer sing the praises of good copyeditors, he also introduces us to several. I've never met these people, and I may not be in their league, but some of what they said sounded really darned familiar:

Steve Lamont: One needs to be fairly neurotic to copyedit—you have to be willing to spend time worrying about whether something’s a restrictive participle or a nonrestrictive one, and you actually have to care. Relatedly, it has to make a difference to you whether the name of the song is “I Want to Hold You Hand” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
Yes! Yes! It so makes a difference!

Judit Z. Bodnar replied to a question about the most difficult parts of the job with

The toughest part is a toss-up between an author’s insisting on keeping wording that makes no sense or is just plain wrong (and the editor’s allowing it) and some people’s insistence that I not do fact-checking on projects in which I know things are inaccurate.
Ayup. Or when the publisher tells you "Please make this more clear without changing any of the words." I adore that.

Really, Judit Z. Bodnar sounds like a kindred spirit:

I work in fits and starts, bitch and moan to others in the business, toy with the idea of leaving everything just as it is, walk around the block when I find myself sarcastically reading passages aloud to myself. When the deadline looms close enough, I sit down and do what I’m being paid to do. You just do your best and wonder why you didn’t make a career of grooming poodles or putting wheels on toy trains when you had the chance. And why you didn’t have the business sense to whip out a piece of trash and sell it to a publisher for a huge advance.

Bitching and moaning? We never do that at the Comma Mines. Sarcastically read passages aloud? Not that, either.

We IM each other some of the more impossible sentences, take latte breaks, consume dark chocolate, and amuse ourselves by replacing every vague noun string with "giant, carniverous, flying wombat" to see whether it changes the meaning. But we wouldn't ever sarcastically read passages aloud.

It might disturb someone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Everyone's Third Choice Wins

A nicely balanced WaPo article on book prizes—the Pulitzer, the Booker, and the like. It captures a lot of the ambivalence I tend to hear about prizes: they boost an author's profile, give librarians and bookstore employees something to recommend, lend strength to a publishing program, and sometimes baffle everyone involved:

Publishers love winning prizes because a strong backlist is their bread and butter, but it doesn't follow that they take the awards too seriously. "When the judges choose your book, you think they're geniuses," says Simon & Schuster's Rosenthal, "and when they don't, you think they're drinking too much Jack Daniels or smoking bad weed or something." His wry ambivalence is hardly unique. "Crapshoot," "lottery," "game" and "joke" are words that recur often in discussions about prizes, even among jurors. A closer look at the judging suggests why.
Often, when a prize is announced, a certain segment of the population will vocally wonder "Who gives these things out, anyway? They may well ask:

Two-time Booker fiction panel head John Carey, an emeritus professor of English at Oxford and chief book reviewer for the London Sunday Times, remembers a "not particularly literary" individual who, once chosen for the jury, asked Carey to lunch to learn what makes a good book.
I'm not certain I agree with James English, entirely, but I do see his point:

People familiar with the publishing industry can't help but see the prizes "if not as a joke, then an error-riddled and rather embarrassing sideshow," in the words of James English, chairman of English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on cultural prizes. Part of the problem lies in the arithmetic of compromise. For the Booker Prize, for example, each juror ranks the finalists, says Carey, and the prize goes to the book with the lowest (best) average score.
Embarrassing or not, the article makes it clear that those most intimately involved with the publishing industry—the authors and publishers—are quite happy to capitalize on the publicity, notoriety, and increased interest that winning a major literary prize brings.

Frazzled Editor

A Magic, The Gathering card for us! Hooray! Behold the power of the red pencil—this card affords the bearer "Protection from Wordy" [**ED: Should there be a noun after "wordy"? What does it modify. Pls. clarify.***].

Notwithstanding the missing noun, I could use some of that right now.

via Making Light.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Happy (Belated) Birthday English Spelling

Friday was the 250th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, nine years after the Good Doctorand therefore of modern spelling.

The Guardian has a nice bio. of the Good Doctor, "An established man of letters, famous for his epitaphs, his parliamentary debates, his translations of the Odes of his favourite poet, Horace, numerous essays written for the Gentleman's Magazine and for his epic poem, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'."

While not the very first dictionary of the English language, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary can justifiably be called the first modern English dictionary. It redeemed English language and English scholarship, which had lacked lagged behind in creating a modern dictionary. Johnson's dictionary was the first Engish dictionary to use quotations to illustrate its usages, with terms "illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best authors." It defined more than 40,000 words, a number paltry by comparison with the

Here, pulled from World Wide Words, we present a selection of Dr. Johnson's more idiosyncratic (and famous) definitions:

EXCISE: a hateful tax levied upon commodities.
DISTILLER: One who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits.
OATS: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
LEXICOGRAPHER: A maker of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A 'dandy' fallacy?

An article in the Scotsman bears a headline proclaiming Research finds a Dandy way to help young boys improve literacy. Apparently, giving boys comic books to read will encourage them to read more.
Research published yesterday revealed that while 17 per cent of boys aged between seven and 11 do not read books outside school, 60 per cent regularly read comics.

The survey also revealed that just 5 per cent of boys read for more than an hour a day in their spare time, compared to 17 per cent of girls.

Last night, experts said that encouraging youngsters to read comics could be a vital tool in the fight to improve literacy rates.
So this study posits that young boys will read comics, which are low on description and vocabulary and high on action and dialogue, in addition to offering pictoral support to the action, more readily than they'll read more girl-oriented books.

The low-male-literacy question is the other side of the why-don't-more-girls-do-math question that got teachers all hot and frustrated when I was at school. Examining the problem of girls and math led to changes in teaching methods, and a gradual closing of the gap between boys' and girls' performance on math tests. Gradually, educators started to consider how social conditions, intrinsic ability, and performance were connected:

Many now believe that traits that seem intrinsic – meaning those grounded in the brain or shaped by a gene – are subject to cultural and social forces, and that these forces determine how a biological trait actually manifests itself in a person’s behavior or abilities. An “intrinsic” trait, in other words, does not mean an inevitable outcome, as many scientists had long thought.

And, to be sure, in most countries, the gap between girls' and boys' performance in math has vanished.

But, according to this WaPo article, the question of boys, reading, intrisic traits, and cultural forces has educators baffled.

Apparently, despite a historical bias towards men in education (remember, folks, universal literacy is a relatively new idea; universal literacy that includes women is even newer.*), boys are, in general performing increasingly poorly in literacy tests. It appears that with respect to reading, paedogogy favours girls.

Exactly what should be done, however, is unclear, because there is no consensus on how much genetics, environment and culture are responsible for the gap. And it is not strictly a U.S. phenomenon: Stephen Gorard, education professor at the University of York in England, reviewed scores for 22 countries and discovered gaps in every one, despite differences in school setups and curricula.

What is known is that boys generally take longer to learn to read than girls; they read less and are less enthusiastic about it; and they have more trouble understanding narrative texts yet are better at absorbing informational texts. Those findings are from a literacy study done in 2002, "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys," by Michael W. Smith, a Temple University professor, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Boise State University English education professor.

Scientists have said that boys are born with smaller language centers in their brains -- and larger spatial centers -- than girls and that boys develop language abilities at a slower rate, though eventually they catch up.

The WaPo article presents several theories, some of which make sense:
The notion of confidence in reading is central to the issue, said Smith, the Temple professor. He said that people like to do what they are good at and that when boys stumble early in learning to read, it is often a skill they never warm to.

So also with girls and math. It's no fun to work on things you suck at.**

Other theories make less sense to me:
Another factor, said Hoffman, a reading specialist at Pattie Elementary School in Prince William County, is that it is more difficult for many boys to sit still for classes, much less to "cuddle up with a book."

I mean, back in the boys-are-better-at-math-days, teachers taught math to children seated at desks or tables. We didn't learn multiplication by doing jumping jacks. And, statistically, boys performed better at math. I know it's more difficult for very active children to manage school—I used to have to take regular wiggle breaks with some of my tutoring students, and vary the pace of the sessions in order to get them to focus a bit. So I've no doubt that in some cases some boys have a difficult time sitting still.

I do wonder, though, how studies can take into account the less easily quantifiable question of parental and social expectations, and how these affect boys' proclivities for reading and girls' proclivities for math.

How many boys' parents give them books, comics, and magazine subscriptions as presents? How many girls' parents do so? How many girls' parents give them chemistry sets? How many girls grow up under the assumption that they'll learn how to repair a bike? How many boys grow up under the assumption that they'll learn how to tell a story? How many boys grow up in reading families, where people think that curling up with a book is an admirable way to spend a Saturday afternoon, for boys as well as for girls? How many families will listen to a boy who doesn't want to play hockey, or baseball, and
does want to read comics, science fiction, or books with scatological humour?

Children who grow up in environments that support, celebrate, and value a particular skill will often display aptitude in that area. Witness the Bach family.

The math gap came to educators' attention during the seventies and eighties, at a time when society in general (meaning, of course, the western society in which I live) was looking at women's performance in various math-and-science-related fields, and asking why more women weren't involved in business. The culture that set the expectations for women had changed, and the educational system had to change too. I don't see a similar shift in culture that would create an expectation that literacy among boys is good. And I hazard that until we see a social shift, neither comic books nor phonics will significantly affect boys' performance.

Yes, I know that "universal" de facto includes women. Unless, like the ancient Athenians, or early Americans, you don't believe that it does. Allow me my sarcastic rhetorical point, please.

** Completely statistically invalid anecdotal case in point: I dropped math as soon as I could, not because I couldn't do it, but because it was more difficult for me to do, and I thought I sucked at it. I greatly preferred working on subjects at which I didn't suck.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Where the Big Kids Play

Publisher's Lunch turned me on to the litblog co-op, a collective of the "leading literary weblogs" created "for the purpose of drawing attention to the best of contemporary fiction, authors and presses that are struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace."

Their mission: a quarterly selection of one underrepresented, literary jewel (i.e. a work of "serious fiction") to recommend to the blog-reading literary masses. Their goal: "serve notice to publishers and to the editors of book reviews and magazines that this audience exists."

Hey, anything that encourages publishers to take more risks and recognize the significant midlist readership constitutes a worthy endeavour, in my book. Read on, guys—over here, in our corner of the playground, we'll watch what the "leading literary weblogs" get up to.