Losing the author’s “voice”

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.


6 Responses to “Losing the author’s “voice””

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    This reminds me of the editor who changed my “Cranmer it ain’t” to “Cranmer it isn’t,” thus wrecking my whole point.

  2. John Cowan Says:

    This business makes me think of Tolkien’s view on selling his work to the movies (while he was alive, though of course the movies themselves weren’t made till much later): his policy was “Art or Cash”. I presume Horner got Cash from the NYT. Given that they paid for it, they can do whatever they want with it; those who want Art can still look at the original.

    Anyway, what’s so wonderful about saying “dude” all the time? It’s a cliche.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      In reverse order. First, on saying dude “all the time”. That’s not in fact what was going on here. There were only four occurrences in the original, all referential rather than vocative or exclamatory (the uses that elicit the most criticism) — one of them referring to Horner himself, three referring to other men. This against two occurrences of referential guy, one of referential man, and one of predicative man (Horner describing himself as being “a very happy man”). This is not using dude “all the time”.

      Calling referential dude a cliché strikes me as a nasty way of criticizing it because of the people who use it; guy is equally vernacular, but less socially marked (and therefore less persona-characterizing) than dude, but no one criticizes it as “a cliché”. If you want to complain about Horner’s use of dude, then you should look at his text and not issue a blanket criticism based on the way other people use — in your judgment, overuse — the word. (Or do you think that all uses of dude are tainted and should be eliminated?)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Second point: Art or Cash. I find the attitude you express here insulting to writers. Are you really saying that if someone pays you for your writing, you are simply handing over the material to the buyer and no longer have any say in its form or content in print? (Selling a book to the movies is quite a different matter, since a movie isn’t a form of publication, and anyway, movies are elaborate, messy productions made by many many hands.)

      Some publications do in fact treat submissions this way, and I’ve heard enough horror stories from friends and colleagues about them that I’d never consider submitting material to them. Other publications have editors who negotiate with their writers on details of form and content, and it’s a delight to work with them.

      Newspapers (and some other publications) are a special case, since they run on tight deadlines, so that editors are accustomed to re-shaping material, usually without much consultation with the original writers. I suspect that the editors of theNYT Magazine have a newspaper-editor mindset, especially with respect to unsolicited material, like Letters and the Lives columns.

      (Note that I’m not saying that Lives submissions should just be printed as is; that would be silly.)

      By the way, it turns out to be remarkably difficult to find out what the NYT pays for Lives columns. (Interestingly, some sources of advice for writers recommend those columns as models for short-length personal stories.) From parallel cases, I’d guess $100 – $250 a story, but I could well be off.

      • John Cowan Says:

        A little googling turned up a specimen freelance writing publication contract. This was prepared by an organization of freelance writers, so it is evidently the terms most favorable to the writer that they thought publishers would accept.

        The terms of the contract on editorial changes state:

        13.1 The Editor shall inform the Writer of changes in the edited version of the manuscript while there is still opportune time to discuss and reach an agreement on such changes.

        13.2 The Editor will give the Writer an opportunity to read the final edited version of the manuscript with reasonably advance notice of its publications.

        13.3 The Publication/Client must withdraw the Writer’s name for use in connection with the published version of the manuscript, if the Writer so notifies the Editor in writing.

        So if you don’t like what the publisher does to it after they buy it, you can protect your reputation by removing your byline, but that’s it. You don’t get control of what they actually print. Again, these are the writer’s version of the terms, not the publisher’s.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To John Cowan: the topic has become deeply distressing to me. Apparently some organization I know nothing about, representing “freelance writers”, has somehow bargained away our rights to negotiate, and we must just accept the boot on our neck.

        I reject all of this, which pretty much means I accept being beggared as a scholar, a scientist, and an artist. Surely there’s something wrong with a system that offers me only this choice, or serving my masters.

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