Defend Truth


COMMA CHAMELEON: Behind most good books, there’s a Merlin you’ll never meet


Tiara Walters writes for Daily Maverick's climate crisis unit, Our Burning Planet. A recipient of the South African National Parks environmental journalist of the year award, she's written for leading African and international publications for nearly 20 years, including the American Polar Society’s Polar Times, the Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica and the Sunday Times. She was the first South African woman journalist to oversummer in Antarctica with the South African National Antarctic Programme. In addition to the climate crisis, she has a special interest in the illegal wildlife trade and other global conservation issues, the natural sciences as well as space sciences. Her work in broadcasting includes environmental radio and a stint as field presenter for 50/50, the SABC's long-running conservation television show. She has also contributed widely to the publishing industry as book editor and ghostwriter. Photo:

What’s as shy as a leopard, sharp as a scalpel and helps wag the tale? A fine editor, of course.

Hottish off the press, the shortlist for the Sunday Times Literary Awards represents a striking line-up of contenders for this year’s R200,000 prize pool. Drawing plaudits such as “scholarly”, “monumentally annotated” and “finely observed writing”, the 10 shortlisted books range from Francois Smith’s The Camp Whore (Tafelberg), the true story of an Anglo-Boer War rape survivor, to Thandeka Gqubule’s No Longer Whispering to Power – The Story of Thuli Madonsela (Jonathan Ball).

At least since I helped edit the long- and short-list announcements about a decade ago, their time-honoured criteria remain unchanged.

This year the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize category once again called for a “novel of rare imagination and style, evocative, textured and a tale so compelling as to become an enduring landmark of contemporary fiction”.

Alan Paton Award judges looked for the “illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion; elegance of writing; and intellectual and moral integrity”.

Touchstones that only eminently deserving writers could satisfy.

But – in general publishing terms – let’s not discount the role of good editing, which may be overlooked more often than not, even at major industry events.

On an otherwise impressive line-up at this weekend’s Franschhoek Literary Festival, there seems to be not a single talk delving into the editor’s craft, the spine of any good book. (Sorry. My pet chameleon, Comma, lives off terrible, terrible puns like normal Old World lizards thrive on crickets. Comma would also like to challenge the Lit Fest organisers to include more editorial talks on next year’s bill.)

There are, admittedly, different schools of thought on whether the literary spotlight should even hint at an editor’s outlines: in his fine Guardian blog post on the definition of good editing, former Man Booker Prize judge Rick Gekoski shares his fascinating discovery from the biography of illustrious publisher Victor Gollancz.

The list of Gollancz’s authors is mightily impressive: Orwell, Sayers, Du Maurier, Compton-Burnett, Ayer, Amis, Updike, Ballard … And here is my interesting new fact: Victor Gollancz didn’t believe in editing books,” Gekoski reveals. Aside from rudimentary copy-editing, Gollancz viewed “such intervention as baleful”.

What rankled Gollancz was “imposed editing” that ran “counter to the impulses of the writer”.

“Yet,” Gekoski concludes, “when you look at even the best of contemporary novelists, you are often struck (that) many of them need more and better editing”.

In fact, I may venture my old, if somewhat provocative adage: never judge a writer until you’ve seen their raw copy.

In my time in production rooms, I’ve witnessed more than one Horlicks-sipping, cardigan-clad subeditor skilfully picking away at deadline copy with a swift scalpel and eagle eye.

Especially for an old-school newspaper sub, it’s at once a gratifying and discreet test to receive a gonzo exposé 30 minutes before production lines shut, and freeing it of stream-of-consciousness errors that could land the hacks, and publisher, in legal hot water. You’re also expected to jack up the pace and narrative flair, and delete the verbiage (often dramatically so).

Never an optimal scenario, but that’s the run of the newsroom plot. Those track-stopping headlines? Mostly improvised in seconds under pressure by a cunning sub with a pathological obsession for word play. The reporters get the byline. Subs are the undercover copy agents. It’s what we’re paid to do.

As for books, a sobering moment was receiving 65,000 words by an author whose work had seminally influenced my early career – with a trenchant note by the commissioning editor about the author’s tendency to molest proper nouns.

Look, a fine raconteur does not have to be a pedantic punctuator. But if you’re writing non-fiction, messing up the names of people, places and things calls into question your whole manuscript.

Can’t nail mum’s name on Mother’s Day? Why should we trust you with the rest of the card? is an ensemble of typo hunters holding publishers to account for “cavalier copy-editing”. On Book Errata’s corrigenda list, you’ll find modern classics by literary lions such as Anthony Burgess, Carson McCullers and Henry Miller, all calibrated according to degrees of sloppiness – from “slightly” (Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) to “very” for Tropic of Capricorn (eish, Henry).

Book Errata offers the “bad text” of Miller’s semi-autobiographical novel: “The presence sistence of the transverse occipital suture which is usually of this bone, so the savant went on to say, is due to a per-closed in fetal life.”

Thankfully, the good people at Book Errata struggled through this syntactic abomination and offered a correction: “ … of this bone, so the savant went on to say, is due to a persistence of the transverse occipital suture which is usually (closed in fetal life)”.

Or something like that.

But don’t take Book Errata on its word.

Any self-preserving author or commissioning editor – the house editor who leads the freelance team – will tell you how much good editing matters. Ideally, for each project, you want a developmental editor (to help the writer tease out content direction during early development); line editor (lucidity; structural nips and tucks; grammar) and copy editor (undotting t’s and uncrossing i’s).

But this is the real world. These days budgets rarely extend to include a complete cavalry of copy troopers. Once the editor gets the manuscript from the commissioning chief, they pretty much – short of the final proofread – do most of it.

The novelist and literary reviewer Elizabeth Lowry (The Bellini Madonna) is an editor’s dream. Not only because she cares whether “copy editor” should be hyphenated, split or a single compound noun (she was an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary), but because she is happy to weather the notes in the margin. (She says she prefers “copyeditor”; but the Chameleon reads Collins Dictionary for its love of compound nouns, so in this column we choose “copy editor”, but “copy-editing” – Collinss orders.)

“If you’re inordinately lucky you get someone like DH Lawrence’s editor, Edward Garnett, who rescued Sons and Lovers by single-handedly cutting it down by a tenth from a gargantuan and unreadable 180,000 words (and all while Lawrence was lying in the sun on the shores of Lake Garda),” says Lowry.

“The copy editor is the one to break it to you that your characters can’t possibly be talking about pathogens in 1833 because, actually, the Oxford English Dictionary only lists first use of the word in 1880. And why is the hero eating nettle soup in winter? Surely everyone knows that you only get nettles in the bogs of Nantucket in spring. Well, the copy editor does. Maybe if the writer wrote less, and got out more, she would know it too.”

Jonathan Ball has another title on this year’s shortlist: Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country – A Memoir of Exile and Home. Publishing director Jeremy Boraine says a “good editor is worth her weight in gold. I have seen many messy manuscripts turned into beautiful tapestries, even prizewinners. Experienced and skilled authors should also subject their work to the editor; it always improves the work, unless the editor is heavy-handed.

The editor is like a sprite, lightly dancing over the words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Fixing here, repairing there, removing, knitting, soldering and correcting. The editor is half craftsman, half magician, but should always check the ego at page one.”

But Boraine comments on what is, admittedly, “a strange new trend in some local publishing. Books are appearing with no references, no index, some even with no contents page nor chapters. Enough to make an editor break out in hives, I would think.”

Erika Oosthuysen, non-fiction head at NB Publishers – also with an additional shortlist title, Thuli Nhlapo’s Colour Me Yellow – looks for editors who make “meaning shine through”.

In my books, scalpel work should stay incognito. An editor friend once found herself inadvertently ghost writing a memoir by a first-time author with no writing experience – to save it from tanking reputations. Terrified the author would accost her at the launch, she instead found a happy virgin scribe who thanked her “for hardly changing anything at all”.

Of course, a great paradox of book publishing lies in the great parables of misprint misadventures – we give you the first edition of TV presenter Bonang Matheba’s vilified 2017 memoir, From A to B; and Penguin Australia’s The Pasta Bible, in which a recipe (mis)step suggested “salt and freshly ground black pe … ” You know. That one.

Writing on his Facebook page that HarperCollins seemed “too busy to do a proper and forensic edit … of SEVERAL typos and errors” in his 2017 memoir, Nevertheless, actor Alec Baldwin may understand too well the collective moral to all this.

That good editing is like Spanx.

You only miss it once it’s gone. DM

The Sunday Times Literary Awards winners will be announced in Johannesburg on 23 June 2018. Got feedback, faux pas or terrible puns for the Chameleon? E-mail the Chairman of the Branch here.


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