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Vladimir Nabokov’s Disdain For Editors

What did Vladimir Nabokov think about editors and the editing process?

Here’s what he had to say in a 1967 interview with The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER

And the function of the editor? Has one ever had literary advice to offer?

NABOKOV

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”

Now, I think some of that might be tongue-in-cheek, but it still comes across as pompous to me—which is ironic since he accuses his editors of the same thing.

Whether tongue-in-cheek or not—and, granted, Nabokov’s tone through the entire interview is in somewhat of a joking manner—he doesn’t appear to be a big fan of editors.

Not sure that Nabokov would have ever envisioned a day when people could so easily self-publish a book—when these “proofreaders” would be so vital to the quality of a novel.

When people like this guy, who are basically the anti-Vladimir Nabokov, could slap some words on the screen, pay a few bucks for some online vendor to bind it all together, and call himself a published author.

I don’t have a problem with self-publishing, but too many people throw crap out there without anyone so much as scanning over it for typos. Sounds like Nabokov would’ve been okay with that.

Unlike Nabokov, I love editors. Have you hugged your editor today?

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21 Comments Post a comment
  1. USAGISAF #

    Reblogged this on hah? and commented:
    this is epic.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
  2. Brandon #

    As an editor, Nabakov can kiss my *

    *butt

    Like

    January 22, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on Ajoobacats Blog.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
  4. I side more with Mr. N. on this one. I’ve written quite a lot for the non-profit I work for and I’ve clashed with the editors on a couple occasions. If they’re fixing my typos, that’s one thing. But, more than once, I’ve had an editor completely miss the point of what I was trying to say and subsequently completely obliterate that point by rewriting the sentence.

    Partly, that’s a failure on my point. But, as a writer, it’s hard for me (and Mr. N apparently) to get past the idea that editors often “miss the forest for the trees.” They concentrate so closely on the minutiae of the piece that they miss the bigger themes being developed.

    On the flip-side of that coin though, it’s been an awfully long time since I’ve read any kind of news article or blog post online that couldn’t have benefited from a little editing/proofreading. …uh…present blog excluded of course 🙂

    Like

    January 22, 2013
    • Ha, well, yeah, you have no idea how many times I’ve published a post and then noticed a typo 2 hours later.

      But I think what you are talking about is the difference between a content editor and a copy editor. The content editor should be more focused on the big picture stuff, while the copyeditor will be focused on the details.

      Like

      January 22, 2013
  5. Correcting typos is generally not the focus of an editor. And you’re not necessarily more likely to find fewer typos from books published by major houses than from those who self-publish.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
    • On point 1, yes, but Nabokov isn’t talking about typos. He’s talking about the semi-colon. A copyeditor would be very much involved in proofing for grammar, typos, sentence construction, etc. A content editor would be more big picture.

      On point 2, it’s entirely based on the author and how willing he or she is to take the extra step. In the book I linked to, it obviously never went past an editor of any kind.

      Like

      January 22, 2013
  6. This should be a mantra: which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”. Haahaa.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
  7. Robert, your statement about self-publishing is becoming more and more out of date. The real pros knew from the beginning that their self-published work needed to be as well-edited as their traditionally published work was, if not more so. The learning-to-be-pros are figuring it out. The rank amateurs? Well, that’s what one-star reviews are for. There’s an evolutionary winnowing process underway that will, over time, improve the overall quality of indie-published work. It’s already happening.

    Don’t go all elitist on us. We’re in a period of transition and it’s not fair to expect all of the work in this new publishing medium to be at the same standard of quality in its first five years as the work in the one that’s been around for 150.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
    • This isn’t about self-publishing. Like I said, I have no problem with it and have even considered it myself. I think right now, though, about 2/3 of self-publishing is the rank amateurs that you referred to. I agree that will change and evolve, and sincerely hope it does. I know I’m probably sounding snobby and elitist, but this really isn’t about self-publishing versus traditional. It’s just about quality. Traditional can put out crap, yes, but self-pubbed does much more of it, in my opinion. And that’s just from what I’ve seen. Self-pub authors need to be more willing to put a little more money into editing and design. That’s just my impression from the many examples I have seen. Like I said, I do hope that changes.

      Like

      January 22, 2013
      • There IS more poorly written stuff right now in the self-pub world because it’s so easy to put it out there. So far the only way to week that stuff out is the online review process but I’ll bet that’ll change. Who knows what tools will be out there five years from now? Mean time, there needs to be more focus on the well-written work that’s been self-published to counteract the impression that’s out there that all self-pubbed work is crap. You’re not saying that but the more it’s repeated that “most” or “lots of” self-pub work is bad, the harder it’s going to be for the good work to get the attention it deserves.

        Like

        January 23, 2013
  8. I am a writer AND an editor. I think part of what Nabokov is saying is that there are good editors and bad ones–whether their jobs are copy, line or developmental editing. But clearly, he puts himself in the visual artist camp where there is no equivalent. What goes on the canvas, stays on the canvas.

    He appears to have a distinct appreciation for copy editors, though, calling them “limpid creatures of limitless tact.” I think it’s also safe to say that he has an amazing command of the English language, something many writers who self-publish today do not. In any case, I believe that all writers, no matter how talented, need editors.

    As an editor, I know that I cannot edit my own work once the heavy lifting is done. Fresh eyes find inconsistencies, errors in logic, needless repetitions, lapses in diction, darlings that distract, etc. The list is endless. A good editor is worth his/her weight in gold.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
    • Agree 100 percent. It’s impossible to do a quality job of editing your own work.

      BTW, I appreciate your ability to both write and edit. I’m more of a writer myself, but I serve as a backup to the backup editor at my day job, so I have to do it every now and then, and it’s just hard for me to connect to that part of my brain. Thought I know it’s in there somewhere!

      Like

      January 22, 2013
      • Yes, you do have to mentally “change hats” to be effective. I think the more you do it, the easier it gets. But if you don’t enjoy it, don’t force it. Cheers!

        Like

        January 22, 2013
  9. jmato012 #

    Editors are usually annoying for any self respecting writer. Authors like to be reviewed and proofread but not changed. After all, editors mostly care for the sells, not the art!

    Like

    January 22, 2013
  10. If you get the chance, do some research on Faulkner’s sparring matches with his editors. Talk about sound and fury (ba dum dum). I understand Dr.Seuss wasn’t too fond of them either.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
  11. I think Nabokov probably had the same problem DFW did (and probably many other authors)–sometimes you purposefully want a sentence or a paragraph or even a few words to sound a certain way, and what happens when the editor messes it up because they “don’t get it”? This wouldn’t happen all the time (unless you’re DFW), but I understand the frustration and the angst.

    Like

    January 22, 2013
  12. Proofreading focuses generally on writing mechanics, an important area for a final copy but not so much of the holy work of an editor. Content and structure need those second pair of eyes for many writers. We see things in our writing which are often not there, connections writers understand but that are not actually on the page. Additionally, writers often have difficulty choosing which of Hemingway’s “darlings” to be “Killed.” Writers tend to love all their words, all of them, even when there are way too many of them for the purpose of the work. Sure, writers can claim that they alone understand their purpose and reject an editor’s advice. But editors are the filter between the artistic process and the consuming audience. Writers do not and should not focus on their audience, but editors should. The newsprint as well as the journal editor must cut for space considerations with which a writer may only vaguely concern herself, for example. A genre editor must shape a writer’s work to fit the expectations of the genre readers– and genre readers have some very strict and explicit expectations. But god help the editor whose friend turns over a manuscript and asks for a read and response. This is often the breaking point of the relationship, at least for a good while until the writer friend’s ego’s bruises heal. No artist welcomes harsh criticism, even for the purposes of making a work more accessible or just plain better by cutting for efficiency or better by requesting further development in sections of a writing. Ultimately, editing is a psychological wrestling match between writer and editor. Good editors can either manipulate writers for the common good or bulldog writers for their own good. Bad editors are like bad anything; say what you will about them. Nabokov was a brilliant writer and thinker and probably pretty damn good at self-editing. Writers in general delude themselves about their abilities to self-edit, however. That is a genetic skill coming with genius in the field, or a hard-won skill developed over years. Either way, like a good electrician or an auto mechanic, having a good editor to depend upon is a nugget of gold in a writer’s life. Not having one, or believing a work is perfect as is without an editor’s vision and advice is, as has been said, the reason for a one star review category.

    Like

    January 23, 2013
  13. I love editors, too, since I used to be be professionally, but I have worked with difficult editors, so I can see his point!

    Like

    January 23, 2013
  14. Sounds like VN. He certainly made it hard on editors. There’s a story … I think I’m remembering it correctly … that his editor for “Ada” search for a long time for some comment he COULD make. All the hidden puzzles and patterns would make anyone hesitate, I think. The Afterward to “Lolita” has some hilarious examples of suggestions for re-writes from editors. Keeping in mind all of this is reported by VN.

    Like

    January 23, 2013

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