Henry James: Not Impressive

After what I consider a smashing start (you can call it whatever you want), I feel as if the well has run dry already. How can that be?! Did I really only have one blogworthy thought? Two days ago the thoughts were all silvery and slick, swirling around in my head, waiting to be plucked out with a pensieve. And today? The thoughts are on vacation. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing, then, until I come up with something . . . nah. That’s no fun.

So, Audra, what is fun? you ask.

I’ll tell you what’s fun: disclaimers!

After thinking long and hard, I have decided not to use the name of my company on this blog. The reason for that is that this is not a professional blog. It is not a tool for authors to use to become better writers. It is meant to be a behind-the-scenes, sarcastic, and humorous glimpse into our world. Its intent is neither to encourage or discourage. A lot of authors, before (and after) signing with us, research our company name to find out the buzz on us. I would hate for someone to find this silly, lighthearted, non-company-endorsed, not-to-be-taken-seriously blog and decide not to publish with us because of it. So, no company names. No author names. No book names. That said, let’s get on with it.

Being an editor is tough. Sometimes I have to let people down gently. Here is one such example of something I had to tell one of my authors on the phone recently, after she shared with me her vision for her book and why she wanted it edited perfectly (apparently, it’s headed straight to the top).

“The marketing phase of our production schedule is just as much of a partnership as every other phase leading up to it. Your marketing representative will have lots of resources available to help you find your niche market and set up book-signing events. However, you’ll have to do some work too. If the White House is your destination with this book, you’ll need to do a lot of the legwork to get there because we do not actually have a phone number or e-mail address for President Obama.”

Of course, those were not my exact words. I did more encouragement than that, along the lines of, “I think that’s great,” and, “I hope that works out for you,” and, “Good luck!” But this author is serious. She wants this to be a book that the president of the United States reads to his daughters. While that is a nice thought (they’ve got to buy books somewhere, don’t they?), I just don’t know that it’s a feasible dream in this case. However, our training teaches us not to squash their dreams in the editing phase – that’s for the marketing reps to do!

So yes, being an editor can be tough. Apparently, however, there’s a whole other tough dynamic about me being an editor that I don’t fully understand: People seem to think it’s tough to be an editor’s friend. My friends don’t like to e-mail me or comment on my blog, for fear that I’m judging their typos, misspellings, and carelessness. So I’d like to address that and get a couple of things straight.

1. I’m not the highest order of command on the grammar chain. (That’s Jim Wilcox, one of my professors from college. I’m second-highest.)
2. Even if I were the top dog, it’s not like it’s a law enforcement organization (though that doesn’t mean Jim and I wouldn’t like it to be)!
3. We can be friends even if you have bad grammar. (It just means I probably wouldn’t consider marrying you.)
4. Sometimes I make mistakes too (though not often).
5. I don’t know every rule there is to know about grammar. (But I do know all the ones you’re breaking.)

When people spell things incorrectly in letters or e-mails or online comments (or any other writing avenue), I never think it’s an accurate indication of those people’s intelligence. I almost always write it off as carelessness. It’s not like I’ve got this mental perception of people’s IQs that vacillates daily based on their communication skills. Really, it’s not.

My friend Crissy and I have a funny joke about this very issue. One time she said something disparaging about someone’s lack of proper English.

I admonished her, “Now Crissy, God doesn’t judge people just because they have bad grammar.”

She said, without a hint of sarcasm in her voice, “No, I know. But we do.”

Of course, I had to laugh and agree that it was true. But it really wasn’t. I choose my friends based on factors like connection and chemistry, not whether they know the difference between when to use its and when to use it’s (more on this later, though). If I only ever associated with people who are of the world’s elite in English grammar, I’d not only be shutting out much of the world, in addition to much of my own country, I’d be cutting off some of my own fellow editors (and sometimes myself)! And that just doesn’t seem like a way to live. People who have sub-par grammar can still be hilarious, or kind, or sensitive, or good listeners, and they all can certainly still purchase my dinner! (On the flip side, people [such as myself] who have consistently excellent grammar can also still be hilarious, kind, sensitive, and good listeners! But I’d rather not purchase your dinner, so don’t ask.)

The truth is, it’s tough to adhere to the million and one rules of grammar every second of every day, even for me. When I was a kid, I used to speak using the vernacular the other kids at my school used. I knew it was wrong, and I knew what was right (thus, the difference between why I got As on my formal papers and they didn’t). However, they were my friends, that was my world, and I wanted to fit in. When I would bring such blasphemous speech home to the dinner table, my dad never hesitated to correct me.

My response would always be, “I know what the right way is to say it, Dad.”

And he would always answer, “Then why don’t you do it?”

And then I’d roll my eyes, sigh, and say, “You just don’t get it.”

And he didn’t. And I was then torn between the need to prove to my dad that I was smart (though my grades were probably doing that for me) and the need not to alienate myself even more from a group of people that judged its peers on every superficial detail possible, including whether you pronounced the l in cool. (Back then you weren’t supposed to. Things were only ever coo.)

Even now, when I say the word cool, though I do pronounce the l, the word as a whole still comes out as only one syllable. I remember cringing with shame when I began to hear my parents try to pronounce it coo-ul. That’s right. They had the audacity to make it two syllables. And not just at home. Everywhere. It was so embarrassing for my brother and me. We always reminded them, “C’mon, guys, it’s the ’90s. Get with it!” (Does anyone else remember that phrase? C’mon, it’s the ’90s! Oh, the ’90s.)

Anyway, back to my point, which is that my friends should not balk at my grammatical abilities. I promise, I’m not judging you (harshly). However, as I alluded to before, potential mates should take pause. I probably will not turn down a date based solely on poor grammar and language (because come on, a nice dinner is a nice dinner). But I will draw the line somewhere, probably at second date or first kiss.

I don’t want to marry an editor. But I have to admit, a well-written letter (both grammatically as well as stylistically and lingustically) would probably win my heart before a vase of flowers would; however, a poorly written letter would probably quell the romance just as swiftly.

Once, about six months ago, a potential suitor identified his lingual inferiority all on his own and broke off the budding romance himself. Here’s what happened.

I own a brilliantly witty and well-written book on grammar. Many of you (especially if you’re in the industry) have heard of it: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. (Because she’s British, there is actually no serial comma in the title. Because I’m American, I add it in.)

The aforementioned potential suitor (PS) was an English minor in college. Not major. After PS and I had been on one date, he was brave enough to ask if he could borrow this book of mine, which stays on my coffee table. I was surprised, both at his desire to read it (he hadn’t struck me as the grammatical type [remember – minor]), and at his audacity to ask such a thing so early on. However, I try to be optimistic, so I took this as a good sign and handed it over with the strict understanding that he was to read it and get it back to me as immediately as possible.

He returned it within a week, along with the resignation of his romantic advances. He admitted that he realized I was too much for him when he came across a comment I’d written in the margin of the book.

In her second chapter, “The Tractable Apostrophe,” Lynne Truss engages the reader in a rousing discourse about the difference between its and it’s. After a smattering of thoughts and words, in the margin next to which I’ve written, “yes!”, “amen,” and “indeed!”, Truss continues on the next page and writes the following about the concept:

This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.

In addition to the AMEN! I wrote in all caps at the end of the paragraph, here is my comment from the margin next to this excerpt, the comment which sent PS running with his tail between his legs:

No one who has read Henry James twice is going to get any respect from me anyway!

He pointed this out to me as he handed the book back, admitting that at least the pompousness of my statement had made him laugh. But we still agreed to part amicably.

It does make my life easier when the young men figure these things out on their own. If I ever drove one away who was really worth trying to keep, however, don’t think for a second that I wouldn’t swallow my pride, kick off my flip flops (because I don’t tend to wear heels), and run after him. I’m not above a good chase.


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