In the “Lives” feature of the NYT Magazine on March 6, an affecting piece by Justin Horner, “The Tire Iron and the Tamale”, about three roadside breakdowns and the people who stopped to help Horner (Mexican immigrants who didn’t speak English, every time, including the occasion he recounts in this column). In the story, Horner not only gets help with his flat tire, the daughter of the family gives him a tamale to slake his hunger, and her father refuses to accept payment for his services, telling Horner, in effect, to pass it on. (I’ve had experiences like this myself, several times.)
Then comes the information at the bottom of the page:
Justin Horner is a graphic designer living in Portland, Ore. This essay was adapted from a message-board posting on reddit.com.
Considerably adapted, as it turns out, with some alterations that are predictable for the NYT (prudishly replacing or omitting shit and fuck), others that alter the tone of the piece (eliminating dude and other vernacular expressions), and some more subtle.
The reddit original is here, with quite a few comments, many telling similar stories of the kindness of strangers. Then a friend pointed me to two critiques of the adaptation: on The NYTPicker site (“On Language: Hugo Lindgren’s New NYT Magazine Rewrites “Lives” Column, Cuts Use Of “Fuck,” “Shit” And “Dude””) and in a Joe Coscarelli piece (“Message Board Post Makes New York Times Magazine in Full, Minus “Fuck” and “Shit””) on the Village Voice blogs.
Coscarelli cites the longer, more detailed NYTPicker critique and focuses on “the neutering of the language” in Horner’s original. Despite its head, the NYTPicker piece concentrates mainly on the alteration in the tone of Horner’s piece, on the loss of Horner’s distinctive “voice” during the editing process — of which the avoidance of taboo vocabulary is just one element.
The description that The NYTPicker (“A daily look inside the newspaper of record”) provides for itself:
This website devotes itself exclusively to the goings-on inside the New York Times — the newspaper and the institution itself. Written by a team of journalists who prefer to work in anonymity, The NYTPicker reports on the internal workings of the nation’s top newspaper, and comments on its content.
The site calls Horner’s essay as it appeared in the NYT “sweet” and “charming”; I called it “affecting” above, and no one seems to view the piece, as printed, as badly written or anything but moving. But there’s plenty of room for complaint about the editing, and The NYTPicker launches into the editing savagely:
On the back page of Hugo Lindgren’s newly-remodeled NYT Magazine — you know, the one that unceremoniously axed the “On Language” column after 32 years — there’s a sweet little essay in the “Lives” column from a dude named Justin Horner.
We say “dude” because Horner likes to say “dude.” He said “dude” several times in his original version of the essay — along with several other turns of phrase that made his writing distinct and wonderful and fresh.
That was before Lindgren’s pencil-pushers had their way with it.
It’s still a charming little yarn about a family of Mexican immigrants who stopped along the side of an Oregon road to help a man change a tire. Nothing much special about it, except the raw truth of the moment conveyed by Horner — who isn’t even a writer. He’s a graphic designer. He just happens to have a terrific natural voice.
Which was largely effaced by the editing. As The NYTPicker puts it:
… in going through the two Justin Horner pieces carefully — his has been referred to as “Today You, Tomorrow Me” [what Horner's roadside savior said to him as the family drove off] on the web, while the NYT’s version has been less effectively titled “The Tire Iron and the Tamale” — we found ourselves disillusioned by the unnamed editor’s excessive blue pencil.
The piece isn’t ruined; far from it. But it sure ain’t better, dude.
Detailed comparison of the two versions follows. From this comparison, I’ll cite just one piece, the editing of the original
I start taking the wheel off and, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones and I wasn’t careful and I snapped the head I needed clean off. Fuck.
to the “NYT-speak”
I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.
If the original text had been mine and an editor had been working with me (as opposed to just changing my text without consultation), I would have had to concede on the change of fuck to damn, since the Times is so fuckin’ inflexible on this point, though I think the stronger vernacular fuck is much preferable to damn as an expression of internal speech in this context. But I would have been adamant about those commas, which wreck the rhythm of the second sentence, converting an immediate account that mimics internal speech into a more distanced report of events.
I’m pretty sure where those commas came from — style sheet rules for punctuating the coordination of sentences, turned into absolute requirements — and I wouldn’t (necessarily) dispute about them in a news article, but this is an personal essay, an account of personal experience, and the “rules” for commas (which in any case shouldn’t be treated as inviolable) should bend for narrative effect. Inserting those commas is just tin-eared by-the-book editing.
So Horner loses most of his authorial “voice” in the editorial process. No doubt the editor(s) involved felt that they could take whatever liberties they wanted in re-working Horner’s story, because Horner, after all, isn’t a professional writer. They would have done better to appreciate the freshness of his writing and worked not to meddle with that.
And from that loss, another: much of the persona that Horner projects in his account of the event — much of the picture of the writer that we construct from the way he talks — is lost as well. What we’re left with is a moving story, but not nearly as much of an authorial presence as in Horner’s original. That’s a tremendous loss in a column that announces that it’s about Lives.