By Chelsey Shannon, editor
The longer I work as an editor, the more I see myself as not a corrector, but a collaborator. In the beginning I took comfort in the protective screen of email, in the belief that a “perfectly” crafted comment could neutralize any feelings of affront or frustration for my recipient, nullify the need for further discussion. The process, though messy in my own mind, had to be orderly and hemmed in when it came time to involve the author. Product-oriented, even though editorial work is fundamentally relational, and relation is nothing if not a process.
The primordial school-days definition places the editor in the role of adjudicating what’s “working” or not, what needs to be changed and what’s benign enough to evade the red pen of judgment. With this blueprint indoctrinated into place—along with widely metabolized New Critical and postmodernist ideas about the irrelevance or even death of the author—it can be easy to forget that editors aren’t engaging with fossilized pieces of text, but with other people. Or, maybe, it’s impelling to remember.
The point of that remembering isn’t to go all nanny-editor, treating authors with kid gloves. The point is to bear in mind that every work of writing signifies far more than just the characters of its text; that the editor and writer are among its invisible characters, influencing it from the wings. In a November 2021 interview with Tressie McMillan Cottom, Kiese Laymon notes that he “…actually like[s] the collaborative part of writing, which is the editing part.” But/and, that part doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it exists against a whole tapestry of context that the shy part of me once wanted to avoid.
Suppressing that context undermines literary production, emotionally, interpersonally, and politically. Laymon continues:
“[…] in this so-called awakening, if we think about how it relates to publishing, I think we finally see lots and lots of people who look like us who are getting opportunities that they should have always gotten. My hope is that they get three and four and five and six opportunities, like some other people do, right? But the flipside is that I think we need to talk about editors who for the longest just haven’t edited people who are not white and don’t have the skills necessarily to edit people who aren’t white.
So sometimes I feel like the collateral damage is the writer, sometimes, who is the guinea pig.” [emphasis added]
For Black and brown writers traversing white literary space, the best of intentions too often amount to disservice, or worse. As Tony Diaz, one of my esteemed author-collaborators, puts it in The Tip of the Pyramid (June 2022), when it comes to mainstream publishing and Chicano writers, “They don’t know how to edit Our Terms on Our Terms.”
Guinea pigs make all kinds of sounds, but they don’t talk; people do. So, how can editing be grounded in communication, instead of the pedantic abstraction instilled in many of us from the time we’re first taught to compose prose? How can editing be more humane and more humanizing, especially when it comes to a.) actively honoring differences in identity within the process of the work and b.) refusing to conform to dominant power differentials along the lines of gender, sexuality, ability, class, culture, race?
As it is, the few BIPOC-authored books that major houses even publish are held against whiteness’s epistemic assumptions and aesthetic values. This affects white supremacist erasure through the course of the publishing process:
- Which manuscripts transcend the slush pile with presumptions of excellence, artfulness, worthiness, and which are left to mire due to the “non-normative” name closing the cover letter, or the “other” cultural inflection of the manuscript’s pages?
- When the manuscripts of BIPOC writers land on the desks of (more than likely) white editors who have been trained to never consider the cultural bias of their judgment, what happens, and doesn’t, with the text itself? What gets stifled or read over; what potential goes unexplored?
- Lastly, how is the book dressed up and sent out into the world—how is it marketed, and how consciously is identity—and the systems of power that underpin identity—brought into that process?
But even in a lit world of perfect racial parity, more BIPOC editors alone wouldn’t resolve the need for socially just editing—the problem of how to identify the respective knowledges and perspectives of a given writer and editor, and then cohere them into constructive creative fusion. Though editors of color are primed to address how race is being crafted, the question of differing knowledges, assumptions, political priorities, and literary values would still be in play.
I mean, how can anyone say for certain what’s “working”? So asks Helen Betya Rubinstein, another Press author whose writing and conversation shape my writing and conversation on these fronts.
Editorial situations that fail to countenance the multiplicity of story-ways exalt work that is aligned with the cultural norm and suppress, or malign, work that departs from it. Aesthetic power in writing isn’t some rarefied, essential truth. It shouldn’t be predetermined by elusive, and exclusive, ideals. The question should not be, “How well is this text working when compared to the norms of an exclusionary canon?” but, “How well is this text working on its own terms?” This question alone chips away at the illusion of universal literary standards.
Divesting from the false imperative of convention is critically important for writers of marginalized identities, writers who may be working from entirely distinctive literary traditions. As Rubinstein puts it, “When a student is asked to move away from value-laden language in conversations about creative work, she is being asked to resist a set of nebulous, arbitrary, class- and culturally-coded aesthetic values, to study the reading process, and to define her values for herself.”
Of course, in publishing rather than pedagogical scenarios, understandings of these values need to be held in common between author and editor. I want more explicit, operational conversation with writers about their literary or aesthetic values, intentions, concerns, and hopes for their work—before I dig in. The creative partnership of editing is no joke, with its bidirectional and sometimes conflicting currents of culture, personality, power, knowledge, and of course craft. I want to ask writers what they’re going for, what’s beautiful and powerful to them. I want to ask them what they want me to know going in. I want to ask them what they know, who they are, what stories are theirs, so I can cultivate the proper respect, or circumspection, as I encounter their work. I want to denature my personal literary values and preferences; I want to denature the values and preferences of whiteness, of the MFA. I want to embrace the queer expansiveness of the field between language, knowledge, values, and art.
All of those questions and yearnings, I’ve tried to distill in the form of an editorial questionnaire. But even the most carefully honed tool can’t displace the ongoing work of interaction, interrogation, intuition, and, yes, sometimes discomfort. Even if I can’t promise I’ll edit authors totally on their terms, I commit to knowing and communicating about the terms of the authors I work with—and I commit to knowing, stating, and sharing my own. I doubt this kind of front-end communication will circumvent identity-based issues in my relationships with authors—but at the very least, I hope it will help articulate these imbalances, locate them, move them from the realm of the ambiguously felt to something solid, shared, and workable.
In a culture that encourages us to turn everything we say, feel, and do into some kind of deliverable, I commit to editing as a process grounded in respectful relation, with each edit as experimental as a good conversation.