So I read two books the other day. One of them was Ian Hamilton's A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold (Basic Books, 2000), a solid, straightforward, occasionally graceful account of Arnold's life up thru his abandonment of poetry. It reads in part, inescapably, like the first half of a biography (Hamilton himself speaks in the preface of abandoning his plans for a full-scale Arnold book), but it is, so far as it goes, quite a satisfying read. A book for generalists, indeed, but one from which even Victorian scholars are likely to glean more than a few useful insights.
I read the Hamilton in blocks as relief from another book – a recent study of modernism and the FBI, what I'll call simply "The Academic Book." The Academic Book was published by a fairly solid scholarly press; its author is a Full Professor somewhere, who's published several other scholarly works; and TAB, as I recall when it was released, was promoted pretty intensely both to scholarly and general markets as a ground-breaking study that would appeal both to members of the Modernism Industry and to readers who were interested in J. Edgar Hoover & his multifarious, nefarious interventions in American culture.
And it's so depressingly awful. Page after page of flat-footed, lumpish prose; factoids and anecdotes repeated verbatim from page to page; a general conceptual squishiness, a kind of blob-think that overwhelms any insights that might attempt to rise up from the page. And I couldn't help thinking, who the hell was responsible for editing this thing?
And my answer was, of course: it's an academic book; nobody edited it. It got two reader's reports, each of which suggested some changes. The author made those changes (or didn't make them); then it got sent out to a freelance copy-editor, who checked the punctuation and usage against hir copy of the Chicago Manual; and then they printed it and sent it out – like a brand new Ferrari that happens to be missing its clutch, its left front wheel, and the whole of its suspension – to hit the road.
Ian Hamilton, I suspect, is a pretty solid writer from the get-go; but I also suspect he's got good editors, & the grace and smarts to let them have their way with his prose. This recent blog post on the Chronicle made me think over the whole business, in which an Editor-at-Large at a major magazine recounts hir experience with young wannabe editors: "The students were stunned into silence as their copy was returned, with questions, comments, and lots of red marks (instructors were still permitted to use red pens then, however much they highlighted students’ errors). ‘But it’s no longer mine,’ said one of them, whose copy in fact bore fewer rather than more marks."
My heart bleeds for that poor snowflake, beginning the long process of realizing that putting one's prose before the world in a readable form is almost always a collaborative undertaking. I make no great claims for my prose. But I do know that much of the best prose I've written looked pretty damned weak in comparison to what some fine and ruthless (magazine) editors made of it; and that the pieces I'm proudest of are ones that got Rolfed, Alexander-Techniqued, and sliced-n-diced all over the operating theater at the hands of those editors.* It's a shame that the economics of academic publishing – and this is true all the way from bottom-feeder Toadspittle Bend-in-the-Road University Press up to intellectual powerhouses like Cambridge and Harvard – have made real live editors so scarce in the world of academic publishing.
*E.g., Herb Leibowitz, Ben Downing...