November 25th, 2007


The New Engl Ish

We've heard a lot about dumbing-down, and the idea that the decline of reading, especially of works published in print form, from back when they knew how to do it, is contributing to the appalling writing skills of today's youth. Well, heck; it's contributing to the appalling skills of today's everybody. I'm not talking about the occasional typo or brainfart; I'm talking about consistently bad writing and editing, almost across the board. Even major print publishers don't seem to give proofreading the care and attention they used to: I just finished an excellent new fantasy novel—but the author or his editor or proofreader doesn't know that "callous" is the adjective; the noun is "callus." Or the correct spelling of "all right."

And minor print publishers are even worse, it would seem. I recently came across a novel that had been published with a cover too dark to distinguish its elements, using the same font and weight throughout, including page numbers, chapter headings, etc., and literally at least one typo per paragraph all the way through the book. Self-published? I hear you asking. Well, no. The publishers are a "professional," i.e., doing-this-for-money outfit, and they are paying the author, in order to produce, at some expense, a travesty of a finished book.

What makes people enter a profession in which they have no demonstrable skill or education? Liking to read, laudable as that may be, is no guarantee that one has any skill as a publisher. Why do companies persist in bringing out books that are poorly written in the first place, and then sloppily edited? Aren't they ashamed of their product at some point? Don't their readers notice?

This is said to be worse online, which ain't necessarily so. While bottom-feeders abound, produced with a predictable level of incompetence, the problem doesn't end there. Massive spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors are certainly not what one expects to find in any journal produced by a college English or Creative Writing department—but one does, all over the place. What possesses the faculty at these places (assuming that they have the necessary skills) to let the graduate and/or undergraduate students who are editing and producing these things send them out into the world without having someone knowledgeable give them the once-over? Do they imagine that a demonstration of their students' deficiencies is some sort of advertisement for their programs?

The authors themselves have limited responsibility. Liking to write is where an author should begin, although a certain level of grammatical competence is necessary. If one is fortunate, one may find a compassionate editor or agent willing to fix grammatical and spelling errors if the rest of the manuscript is solid, but the more likely outcome is that a hasty read of a page or two will irretrievably associate the grammatical errors with a general lack of writing talent, and into the rejection pile it goes. But authors can't proofread their own manuscripts effectively, and once accepted for publication, the grammatical shortcomings of a manuscript become the responsibility of the publisher, who in turn should be judged by the quality of the product—and I do judge! I get completely turned off as a purchaser when, starting to leaf through a book I think I might enjoy, I find errors that a good editor should have decapitated in embryo.

Strangely enough, I have the same gut reaction when submitting to journals or presses. When I look at a journal, print or online, and see that they have published a poem, apparently as sent to them, with apostrophes in the possessive "its," "lay" where "lie" should have been used, and other abominations strewn throughout a piece of less than 200 words, I don't really want to see my work appear alongside this mess.

I recently did not enter a chapbook contest that, initially, seemed attractive: reasonable entry fee, generous prize money, tout comme il faut. Why not? I looked at the press's website, and a more grotesquely-designed, unreadable (black text on near-black photo background) home page has rarely been seen outside of geocities. Would I want an outfit like this to design a chapbook of mine? That would be a NO.

What press DO I want to design a chapbook of mine? That's easy. Payseur & Schmidt, she says, wistfully gazing into the distance.

I bet you're thinking, Editing is probably a lot harder than it looks. She should cut those inept bastards some slack. Well, guess what. I have edited a few chapbooks for other people, as well as a local poetry website (where helpful natives are quick to point out errors, bless their little hearts), and, more recently, co-edited and did the design and layout for the Wisconsin Poets' Calendar—a relatively large-scale commercial proposition. I do know how hard it is to spot these mistakes—but you need to set yourself up to be able to spot them. If you don't know grammar, fercryin'outloud hire someone who does! And don't underestimate volunteer labor. Lookit Wikipedia: the internet is full of folks who would like nothing better than to inform others, for free. Q.E.D.

If I can take the trouble to learn where commas and semi-colons and hyphens go, and the difference between "lie" and "lay," to say nothing of "its" and "it's," so can you-all, people.