Regular readers know I spent the last six months of my newspaper career as a copy editor, after 26 years as a reporter and columnist. The particulars of my situation aren’t interesting, but what I learned in that time was, at least to me. I learned yet again that the desk really is the very last line of defense, and Holden Caulfield’s dream about being the catcher in the rye applies, i.e., you just can’t save everyone. A few stories are going over the cliff. When it’s all over, you realize that it might not have happened if everyone further up the line, from reporter on down, had done their best job, but the last person to sign off on any random disaster was you.
You’ve read those scenes in war novels, where some medic flips out and starts trying to put the gravely wounded back together with duct tape? Or those scenes in “ER” when the soulful patient no one wanted to lose dies, and there’s one doctor who just won’t give up and keeps pumping the chest and yelling for an amp of epi and paddles! Charge to 300! Clear! And finally someone touches the doc on the shoulder and says, “It’s over. Time of death…8:17.” Some copy editors, I think, get like that doctor, that medic, in the sense that they pay too much attention to what they can do and not enough to the big picture.
What a copy editor can do — the chest they can keep pumping against all odds — is to enforce rules of style. Style is each publication’s rule book, the one that says it’s Fort Wayne, not Ft. Wayne, or Hoosiers, not Indianans. God gets a capital-H on second reference in a religious newspaper, perhaps, but not a secular one. Paul Wolfowitz is Mr. Wolfowitz on second reference in the New York Times, but not the Washington Post.
Sometimes style rules are ridiculous. The pop star Meat Loaf was, supposedly, “Mr. Loaf” on second reference in the New York Times, although Dr. Ink over at Poynter suggests that might be an urban legend. (Wait…checking…it is an urban legend. Never mind.) My very own paper adopted the spelling “Xtreme” for so-called extreme sports. And so on. But copy editors’ job performance is judged, in large part, on how well they edit according to AP and local style, and so they can be meticulous to the point of insanity.
Here’s my feeling: All rules are rubber. There’s always a case to be made for breaking one, and if the case is good, then go ahead and break it, for God’s sake. I mean, just use your noggin.
That said, it’s nice (or not nice) to know that even legends have problems with the copy desk. Even the New York Times copy desk, or especially so.
That link goes to a Free Press story from this morning, about Elmore Leonard’s serialized novel in the NYT Sunday magazine. Apparently he’s having some problems getting stuff past the editors. Not just the stuff you’d expect — profanity, which is at least understandable — but other things, too. Like, oh…
“Arkansas.” Arkansas? In newspaper style, it’s abbreviated Ark.
But what if a person is saying “Arkansas”? You still abbreviate, because it’s in the stylebook. Even if you’re writing fiction, it seems.
(Leonard’s researcher, Gregg) Sutter fought the Times’ copy editors on that one, and you can see his victory in Chapter 2. But Sutter’s still hot about it.
“They don’t realize this guy’s got a sound. Every word. Ar-kan-saw. That’s a big word for Elmore,” Sutter says. “He sweats every word.”
The rest of the story tells us a little about Sutter, who spent some time making Oldsmobiles in Lansing. That goes to show you that you don’t need a huge amount of training to edit copy, just a damn ear for the job. His comment about Leonard’s sound — and how “Ark.” doesn’t sound, to the ear, like the spelled-out “Arkansas” — marks him as more naturally talented for the job than about 75 percent of the editors I’ve worked with. And more than at least a few at the NYT, who can’t relax the rules, it seems, even for a novelist, working in the Sunday magazine.
That’s an editor who needs a vacation. Although I don’t know if it would help.
Which sort of brings me to the second part of this post, which was the weekend, when I actually met Gregg Sutter, via his girlfriend, Amy Alkon, whom I know through e-mail and mutual blog admiration. When she e-mailed and said she’d be in Detroit this weekend, and would I like to meet for a drink in Birmingham, of course I said yes.
I didn’t realize, until we met, that she and Gregg were in town to celebrate Leonard’s 80th birthday. Says the mastah: “Eighty is the new 60.” Here’s hoping he gets 20 more.
Anyway, we had a great 90 minutes or so at the Rugby Grille, in the Townsend Hotel, in Birmingham, which looks like the kingdom in “The Princess Diaries,” or just a big mall. I wanted to bring Amy a little bread-and-butter gift, and knowing her fondness for sunblocks containing mexoryl, I swooped over to Windsor to get the black-market SPF 30.
Because yes, friends, sunblock with mexoryl is not approved by the FDA. So I went to Canada, or as we call it around here, the Great White South, to score the dangerous stuff. I confessed all to the border guard coming back, who was African American and, shall we say, puzzled:
“So this is stuff that makes you darker?”
“No, paler, actually.”
He waved me through. Crazy white girl and her contraband sunscreen.
The pharmacist and store clerk and I exchanges shrugs and chuckles over the thousand absurdities of international differences in what’s available over the counter. The clerk said American mothers of colicky babies come to Windsor to buy gripe water, of all things, and Canadians go to Detroit to buy some over-the-counter pain reliever you need a script for on the other side.
Anyway, if you need any of this stuff…you know me, I’m your friend, your main boy, thick and thin. Plus reimbursement for tunnel tolls.