Stet! Stet! Stet!
It started pleasantly enough. The copyeditor for my nineteenth book, a memoir called My Germany, emailed me that he wanted me to get a feel for his work on the book and was attaching the three-page Prologue with his changes. To see what I thought.
That sentence you just read was a fragment. Deliberately. For emphasis.
In the marked up pages I opened, not only were the fragments gone, but the sentences were rewritten and the vocabulary was altered to be more formal. There was hardly a paragraph that didn’t sound different from the original. It was as if someone had run a word processing grammar and style check and anything unstandard was gone–the rhythm of my prose was completely changed and the effect was an etiolation of my voice in that book.
I blew up. I’m not like the over-territorial writer a mystery writer friend told me about who wrote across the front page of his manuscript; STET THE WHOLE GODDAMNED THING. I know there are lots of problems even the most careful readings can miss, especially repetition, and that it’s annoying for readers to find errors in a published book, so I welcome careful copy editing. But this was something very different.
I’m the son of Holocaust survivors and My Germany charts the idea of Germany I grew up with, the evil ghost country that haunted our family, how that affected my life and my writing, and then what happened when I was actually, surprisingly invited to travel to Germany on two book tours after a German publisher bought three of my books for translation. The Prologue focuses on a reading I gave in Magdeburg (in former East Germany), a city where my mother had been a slave laborer in a munitions factory. Looking at my entrance into the city vs. hers, I reflect there on the general fear and loathing of Germany that I had grown up with. It was a country that had not just murdered millions of Jews but had plundered everything they possessed down to common personal goods and household items like wallets, combs, candlesticks. I wrote that one thing I had always dreaded about the possibility of being in Germany myself was that “Anywhere I turned in that country, I might face something that had belonged to a murdered relative.” How horrible to be in the presence of a trace of my lost family and not know it, given that all that survives of dozens of my relatives is only their names.
The copyeditor changed that line to “Anywhere I traveled in that country, I might encounter something that had belonged to a murdered relative.” At first glance, these changes might seem superficial, but they’re not: “turn and face” offers you the immediacy, the physicality of a dreadful moment, which his change eliminates. But worse than that is the diction: “travel and encounter” are slightly more formal, more distanced, and the entire Prologue read that way. As Talking Heads might have sung in a similar situation, “This was not my beautiful book.”
I got angry and emailed him that he was doing much more than copy editing, he was rewriting the book and that was unacceptable. I wanted him to confine himself to obvious questions of grammar, punctuation, and clarity, and to leave my voice alone. He replied that my point was taken and I thought the wrangling was over.
Then a month later the full manuscript came by mail and while I welcomed all the places where he’d caught repetitions or problems with punctuation, once again, I started to seethe. His touch was somewhat less intrusive, but he was still rewriting the book, trying to smooth out my writing according to his apparent standards, making my diction more formal and more clichéd. He also made substitutions I didn’t understand. If I wrote that people “retreated,” why would he suggest “withdrew”? If I chose “polite,” why nudge me with “proper”? And if I described someone at a reading having asked me a question “softly,” how could he come up with “hesitantly”? I had been there and the question wasn’t hesitant, it was soft–those aren’t the same things.
And not only that, he was wrong on one point after another. Our family had always avoided German products but I have come to enjoy Jakobs Krönung coffee. His note on that was that Google said there was no umlaut over the letter “o.” Well, I knew he was wrong, but I had a bag of those beans in my freezer and double-checked. Of course there’s an umlaut; that’s the German spelling. Had he bothered to click on one of his Google links he might have seen an actual photo of a bag of Krönung beans. Is this petty? Yes. And that’s what happens too often with copy editing–you find yourself in an argument over small points with a total stranger who you’ll never meet. It's a weird mix of intimacy, hostility, and distance.
Mr. Google, as I started thinking of him, was also sloppy. I spoke in Heidelberg at a German American cultural institution housed in a mansion called Palais Eskeles (the Americans don’t have an equivalent, but the English would say Eskeles House). He wanted to know “why the French spelling?” for Palais. The answer was simple: because it’s the German spelling, too. But the problems extended beyond spelling to questions of fact. My father was a slave laborer for the Hungarians and survived the 1943 Battle of Voronezh in which a Hungarian army was routed and destroyed. My doughty copyeditor once again claimed Google as his source and said the Battle of Voronezh was in 1942. But there were two battles of Voronezh, the second in 1943, hence my careful dating of it. This sort of thing went on page after page and I broke the point of my red pencil over and over writing STET or NO to his questions and suggestions.
It brought back memories of working on the manuscript of my first collection of short stories, Dancing on Tisha B’Av, where many of the characters are European Holocaust survivors whose English is heavily inflected by Yiddish. The copyeditor for that book tried rewriting the dialogue throughout to make these people sound like Americans. I wasn’t just outraged, I was dumbfounded. And that’s occasionally how I felt with this new book.
I know that for many people, being published is a dream that will likely never come true for them, and they would love to have the problems I’ve been describing–or so they think. But going over a copyedited manuscript is always difficult; it requires breaking down something large and organic into its smallest constituent parts and a work that was imbued with excitement and enjoyment, something you dreamed about, comes to seem mechanical and prosaic. Worse, when you encounter a copyeditor like this one who even changed direct quotes from non-native speakers of English to make them sound more “correct,” what happens is that the book you treasured working on becomes a site of contention, something to wrangle over. It leaves you feeling sour and cranky, eager to be done with the project and get the offending manuscript off your desk and out of your house as soon as possible.
I suspect that may be one reason so many errors still appear in finished books and readers complain, “Why didn’t somebody edit this?” The answer might be paradoxical. Somebody did. Too much.