I’ve been sort of keeping up with the comments on The Sexist post that mentioned this blog, specifically my take down of first paragraph of God’s Brain. A few people are sort of mad about it. This one, in particular, stuck out at me:
The writing itself is only packaging for the ideas and research, secondary and kind of irrlevant, unless you are looking for a strawman to attack.
The commenter also suggests that Hess and I are criticizing Tiger because we think boys are icky, but I don’t plan to address my fear of cooties on this blog. I’m also resisting the temptation to digress at length here on the definition of “straw man,” but I think I may cover logical fallacies in a separate post. Instead, I want to address the substance of this critique, which is that when the ideas are good, the packaging (i.e. “the writing”) doesn’t really matter. This sounds an awful lot like a classic lazy student defense: MY IDEAS WERE GOOD WHY DOES IT MATTER THAT MY PAPER WAS ONE 6 PAGE PARAGRAPH!!111!!1 But isn’t there also sort of a statement about privilege going on here? Some people are required to make themselves congenial to their audience in order to hold their attention and have their ideas validated but some are not? I think I’ve heard that before.
Truth is, I think all of us need editors, people who can tell us how to best shape our message, how to make ourselves intelligible, how to present our work in the best possible way. Western culture is deeply invested in this idea of The Author whose genius is special and individual and must break free from the constraints of “Society” or “Other People” in general in order to find his or her most authentic mode of expression. But this obscures the fact that creative work is an inherently collaborative process, that no matter whose name gets put on the project, there are a legion of other people who helped bring it into the world.
The dissertation chapter I’m working on right now is on Theodore Dreiser, who wrote some of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, novels like Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Dreiser’s relationship to the world of publishing was a fractious one. Some publishers refused to print his works because of the sexual frankness (frankness that would appear decidedly tame now), and his work was frequently censored. Recently, we’ve seen a variety of “uncensored” editions of Dreiser’s work come out with the juiciest stuff put back in (again, “juicy” is relative here). The problem is that the difference between what was actually censored in his work and what was culled in order to make the prose more readable gets confused sometimes. The additional 80 pages of Sister Carrie are a bit more sexual, but they are also pretty repetitive and do not add very much to the story itself or the development of the characters. The truth is that Theodore Dreiser, left to his own devices, is difficult to get through. Raised by working class parents without much in the way of formal education, he was a terrible speller and barely had a working knowledge of punctuation. But more problematic than that was his tendency to ramble, to repeat himself, to make his novels perhaps a bit more bulky than they absolutely needed to be. Dare I say that in spite of his difficult relationships with his editors and people like H.L. Mencken, who helped bring his work in to the spotlight, Dreiser really sort of needed them? That they maybe contributed to making his work precisely what we know and love today?
Another strong example of why accountability is important is George Lucas and the cinematic atrocities that were the three Star Wars prequels. If you have never seen the YouTube video critiques of these films by RedLetterMedia, you must set aside a day to watch them ASAP (disclaimer: There’s kind of a bizarre slasher film parody running alongside the commentary, which definitely warrants a trigger warning). They are hilarious and presented from the perspective of a true Star Wars fan who was disappointed by the tonal inconsistencies, plot contrivances, and overall sloppiness of the way the films were written and put together. In the the final video on The Phantom Menace, the narrator looks at the DVD special features to try to determine what went so wrong:
TRIGGER WARNING: There is a very weird moment at the end that might be upsetting (see above). I think this video series is kind of a cool lesson in narrative technique, and there actually are some excellent points about gender and race fail in Star Wars, so I sort of scrubbed it from my brain. Stop the video around 8:00 if you want to get the gist without being surprised.
The gist of it is that when Lucas was creating the first three films, he was a young, unknown, and untested filmmaker. He had to constantly make a case for his trilogy to skeptical studio executives and the experienced filmmakers who were more or less “put in charge” of him. Many of his original ideas–including bizarre concepts for the main characters, who were originally supposed to be aliens–were scrapped. When Lucas was creating The Phantom Menace, he had a free hand. As the narrator says, everyone in the room seems scared of him, of questioning his judgment. You can actually see how really, really, awful ideas like Jar Jar Binks and a bloated, six part ending are getting a pass, because no one wants to question George Lucas of the George Lucas Empire. As such, “The Phantom Menace is the biggest case of blue balls in cinematic history.”
I know that alot of people liked Avatar, but I have to say that I found James Cameron’s work to be a hell of alot more compelling when he was doing Aliens and Terminator, before he became the King of the World. And here’s the thing: unlike a lot of people, I do not believe that Lucas or Cameron are hacks. At bottom, I think that they are gifted, creative individuals capable of producing both important and enjoyable work. But, EVERYONE NEEDS AN EDITOR. Theoretically, I like the idea of creative people being given the freedom to just create, but I also know that some of the most important art has been created when the artists had to fight for their vision, when they had to overcome adversity and naysayers and budget constraints. Adversity and accountability don’t always go hand in hand, but sometimes they do. When your colleagues are so terrified of challenging you and so intent on impressing you that they are no longer capable of delivering honest feedback, your work is probably going to suffer.
I think that happens sometimes to famous academics as well. Publishing houses are so excited just to sign them, knowing that they could have gone elsewhere, that they do not challenge them as much as they would a previously unpublished scholar. Given the state of academic publishing right now and the extent to which it may become dependent on its ability to produce material accessible to the general public, that is a real shame. And it’s also sort of perplexing. I realize that Lucasfilm, which has to consist of more people in authority with substantial stakes in the company’s future than just George Lucas, made gobs of money off the prequels. I wonder how much more they might have made if they had been good. Because academic publishing barely clears the costs of printing some books (though to be clear, marketability and the profit-motive shouldn’t be the only concern here), can publishers really afford to print ones that are poorly written?