I’m being edited. It’s as pleasurable as a massage, a long sleep-in, a sunset. It’s one of the best things ever. I sigh. I purr like a cat. I allow my bottom eyelid to slide upwards while a finger scritches the feathers behind my invisible ear. My novel, The Lucky Galah, is now in the hands of delicate and attentive editors. Do I really want that comma there? What about the repetition of the word “swirly”? Such beautiful questions. I make another cup of tea and think about them.
Editors are, like so many things I love, endangered. The Internet gives us unmediated access to audiences. Whatever brain explosion you’re having, you’re only a click away from putting it out there, complete with badly-placed commas (and worse, much worse).
I learned how to be a journalist by being “subbed” (subedited). You’d submit your work and once the paper had rolled off the press you’d grab a copy to see what headline they’d added, how they’d rearranged your paragraphs, how they’d worked out what you were trying to say and sharpened it. I had no idea at the time that subs would soon be dying out. That there would be no-one to shout your ignorance across the room, chop all your sentences in half, tell you to get on the phone and check. I had no idea that we’d be losing adult supervision, leaving everything to 20-somethings who are smart and fast but sometimes don’t know shit.
Last December I said goodbye to the best editor I ever had. Steve Painter was the editor of Direct Action when I went to work there in the late 1980s. I didn’t know anything. He was 15 years older than me, and he knew a lot. He seemed gruff but he was actually careful and sensitive. It was hard work and long – stupidly long – hours, because this wasn’t just a newspaper, it was cause. I’d sometimes work until 3am and then sleep under my desk for a few hours and wake at dawn. Downstairs, there was a proper Italian coffee machine – we were early adopters in terms of workplace coffee – and I’d steam up a hit and come back to finish my piece. My stories were at first almost completely reworked by Steve, but nicely. I learned a lot very quickly. He told me to read Orwell’s Politics and the English language. I did. We both lived in pre-gentrified Chippendale – me in Shepherd Street, he in Rose Street. I went over to his place for dinner one night and didn’t go home. A couple of years later we were in Prague together reporting on the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We broke up after we got back, and both of us moved on from that particular brand of political activity. He ended up as a sub at The Australian for 20 years. I did a lot of different things, including editing advertising features for Fairfax Community Newspapers. I was heavily in advertorial territory here, just as Steve was lurking in the belly of the beast of the Murdoch empire. By these means we were able to scrape together deposits for our respective houses. Steve got together with Rose, with whom he spent the last 25 years of his life, and I ended up with another Steve.
I was interested to hear at Steve Painter’s funeral from his colleagues at The Australian. They adored and respected him. They enjoyed the trademark giggle that would emanate from this burly man. Working on the IT section of the paper, he’d get a piece of incomprehensible technical verbiage and craft it into a sharp and readable piece. The reporter would look good.
Steve P. is no longer with us, and editors in general are a dying breed. I was reading Meanjin the other day, and saw the word “breech” used instead of “breach”. As in, “he breeched the apprehended violence order”. There’s Meanjin, publisher of Donald Horne and Judith Wright, letting a malapropism slip through the breach.
But there are still editors at Picador, and I’m in their careful hands. Nobody’s perfect; mistakes will slip through. But at least there’s a process, and I’m grateful that it still exists. I was worried that by the time I got here, novels would no longer be printed on paper and editors would no longer exist. I was worried I’d have to just lob my digital offerings at Amazon, riddled with mistakes and problems I was unaware of. But I did get here. And I’ve heard that people are going back to books, real printed dead-tree books, and maybe people will go back to editors, too, because we need them.