Noodling Around: Editors I Have Known and Loved

Joel J. Gold

Chronicle of Higher Education, March 7, 1997, page B7

I once thought -- foolishly, as it turned out -- that when I left the adverstising game for academe, trading in my copywriter's cubicle for a faculty office, I was through forever with copy chiefs, account executives, and clients "noodling" with my writing. It had been a painful couple of years for me, regularly submitting my sparkling prose to a copy chief who would glance briefly at my words and then say, "It looks all right. But let me noodle with it for a while." Then he'd finger my metaphors, sully my syntax, and meddle with my meaning.

Although he almost always sharpened my copy, I hated the whole process. The problem was compunded by the account executive, who, having caught the bug from the copy chief, would do a little noodling of his own. Of course, then the client, who was paying the bill, improved the final product in his or her own fashion. I became so sensitized that I began to noodle with my own prose even after I thought it was finished, hoping to anticipate the later noodlers with a few pre-emptive strikes. It never worked.

In my new career, I quickly realized how foolish I had been in hoping to escape the ministrations of editors. Scholarly journals required me to get past their editorial committees and outside readers, who had both helpful and not-so-helpful suggestions. Academics like myself who occasionally publish beyond the ivy walls must run yet another gauntlet of hard-eyed editors.

Naturally, what any writer wants to hear is simple: "A wonderful article: informative, crisply written, a delight. We shall publish it tomorrow."

As all experienced contributors know, an article is never published tomorrow and rarely even next month. And an author's dream of sending in a story or an article so brilliant that the only possible response -- outside of a chorus of "Hosanna!" -- is against the Editor's Creed: "Well, Dr. Freud, it's not bad. With a few changes in this section ..." Noodling with other people's prose is a universal pastime, in and out of academe.

My first scholarly article was a distillation of my doctoral dissertation. Nervous lest my examining committee discover, after the fact, that the whole thing could have been boiled down to article length, I sent off a generous number of words to the journal in my field. The editors liked it but thought it rather too long. Only later did I realize how gentle they had been with me, suggesting that, while a 71-page article on Dr. Johnson's translation of a French translation of a Portuguese Jesuit's manuscript might well appeal to their readers, wouldn't it be better to cut the article in half so that other aspiring authors might get to see their work in print?

Reluctantly, I cut 35 pages, all the time worrying about my graduate-school committee spotting the essence of my dissertation as a slim 36-page typescript. Even worse, the printed version came to a mere 12 pages. On the other hand, the publishing process took so long that half of my committee had retired by the time the article appeared. The others had forgotten me and my dissertation.

The editor of another journal was less restrained and less accepting. I wrote the story of Benjamin Franklin's finding three flies drowned in a butt of madeira, managing to revive one of the three, and then wondering how it would be to be "bunged up" in a cask of madeira wine for 50 years, whereupon one could come back "to behold the flourishing state" of America. The story itself was less remarkable than the fact that Franklin, the rogue, had repeated the performance years later -- complete with fly -- at a dinner party in France. Same punch line -- to presumed applause. The skeptical editor sent the piece back. Among other objections, he said he doubted that Franklin would do that sort of thing.

I wrote to the editor of Yale University Press's edition of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, who assured me that it was exactly the sort of thing that Franklin would have done.

Occasionally, the less-high-powered journals provide insights into their editorial processes. The editor of another journal also rejected the Franklin piece. but the returned manuscript was accompanied by a note from the secretary: "I loved it." Below that, in pencil, was added: "Me, too -- the night cleaning lady."

An editor of a Dickens journal struck a nicely non-judgmental note in his letter accepting a short peice of mine. "I am not sure your surmise is correct,"he wrote, "but it is certainly persuasively argued." I think most of us could live with that.

A more personal editorial approach to acceptance or rejection compounded my anxieties in a tense moment at a scholarly conference. I had sent the Harvard Library Bulletin a long essay on the radical politics of John Glynn, an 18th-century English sergeant-at-law. Afer a month or so, the editor wrote to tell me that the first reader had recommended publication. Normally, he explained, he would send the article out to a second reader, but he had just discovered that I would be delivering a shortenend version of the paper the following month at a conference that he planned to attend. He would, he announced, listen to the paper, check out the audience response, and then make his decision.

Nervously, I read may paper and answered most of the questions aimed at me, all the while trying to spot this editor. Somebody in that audience was the editor of the Harvard Library Bulletin. Was it the man who was skeptically shaking his head all the way through my talk? I hoped not. The one dozing? Maybe.

Could it possible be the one who queried me -- to my great horror -- in the discussion period: "You know what you are/" Then, pausing long enough for me to envision my brief academic career disappearing in smoke, he pronounced me "a storyteller" -- a label that I doubt any serious scholar covets.

As it turned out, the editor was none of the above. Afterwards he introduced himself, and we had a pleasant cocktail together to seal the bargain. But I do not ever want to go that editorial route again.

I suppose my favorite editor was Redmond O'Hanlon, an editor at the Times Literary Supplement in London, who commissioned me to review a translation of that same Portuguese Jesuit's manuscript that I had dissected in my dissertation. I was living in London at the time, so we discussed length and deadlines over the telephone. A day before the piece was due, I was sitting at the typewriter going over my just-completed third and final draft when the telephone rang.

It was O'Hanlon. "I merely wanted to find out how you are doing,"he said. "Do you think you'll be able to meet tomorrow's deadline?"

I told him that I had finished the piece, was checking the copy one more time, and was just about to drive to the Times office in St. John's Lane. There was a long pause.

"You are going to deliver it here this afternoon?"

"Yes,", I said, "within the hour."

"Oh, my," he said. "You are a splendid fellow!" I wish I could capture in print the inflection of that splendid "fellow." Never have I met a more astute editor. I was almost tempted to send back the cheque for £70, but in the end I took the pounds and the "splendid" and made a nice weekend out of them.

I'd like to conclude on that positive note, but a more accurate, if oblique, appraisal emerged -- or so I've been told -- from a meeting of senior editors. On vacation in Chicago one July, I was surprised to receive a telephone call from an assistant editor at a weekly newspaper chronicling higher education. I had written a few comic pieces for her, so she knew how to trace me even on vacation. She apologized for the timing but explained that the paper ws planning a special back-to school issue for early September. "The senior editors," she added, "haven't told us much about it but we do know there'll be a number of sections looking at the year ahead -- for teachers, students, legislation, and so on."

I was interested but couldn't see where I fit in.

"They were talking about the back page," she said, "and how it might be good to have some academic heavyweight write a serious piece on the same theme."

I waited.

"But then," she went on, "someone said, 'That might be a bit dull. Let's see if Gold will do one instead'"

In all fairness, I don't think she ever considered the implications of what she had said. And I do not remember the headline that actually accompanied the essay. In my family, though, the piece has always been known as "Requiem for a Lightweight."

Joel J. Gold is a professor of English at the University of Kansas.


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Edited by: wilkins@mps.ohio-state.edu [March 1997]