Last week, Mike Meginnis of Uncanny Valley blogged about a recent happening that I missed while traveling: Fugue Magazine published an issue with footnotes inserted into all the writers' pieces. The footnotes were not written by the authors, but by Michael Martone, and the writers weren't asked for approval or otherwise informed this would be happening. It was presumably meant to be taken as a playful surprise; instead, at least some of the authors were pretty pissed. Mike links to a post by Sean Lovelace on HTML Giant covering the same topic, as well as a letter to the editors of Fugue by Lia Purpura, expressing her disappointment/dismay/outrage/etc.
Mike Meginnis is a writer and video game nerd with unconventional, unpopular opinions and I rarely disagree with him, when I know what he's talking about. But I find myself disagreeing with Mike's take on this issue, or at least quibbling with it. First, let me say that I have an irrational bias against Fugue because they once rejected a batch of poems so fast it was hard to believe they hadn't sent the rejection before the poems actually arrived.
Here are some of Mike's points, and my responses:
"As an editor, I expect a lot of deference when it comes to deciding how to package and present my authors' work. For instance, if I think a certain font is best for a story, and I make the story that font, I will think it is pretty stupid for the author to say, 'Dude, I am pissed about that font. Put it back in Times New Roman.' If I want a certain piece to have different margins than the others, I want to be able to do that."
This is an unusually strawmanny argument from Meginnis. There's a distinct difference between changing the font or layout of a piece and inserting new content into it (or removing content without asking, or changing the order of the content). I also think you get more leniency here with prose than poetry. I recently had an experience with an editor who wanted to right-justify half the poems in an issue. The font is usually not an element of the poem, but the margins are, and you can't just change them to mix it up visually. It would be the equivalent of an editor changing all the paragraph breaks in a story, not for semantic reasons but to better fit the layout of the page. Adding footnotes strikes me as one of the most disruptive ways you could alter a piece of prose while keeping the original text intact, up there with inserting subheads.
"It is widely accepted that editors can and will change our writing in a number of rather important ways."
True, but usually editors have the courtesy to run changes by the authors prior to publishing.
"I wouldn't publish with someone if I didn't want them to change my writing, to make it better. If it were already perfect in its little Word document, I would leave it there. I publish a piece because it is not perfect, because it needs to be improved, because I think the process of publication will improve it ... Ultimately whether Fugue was right or wrong isn't that important to me. The principle here is this: If you don't want your work changed, why do you publish with other people? If you need total control, why not self-publish?"
This is an interesting and very literal interpretation of the concept of an "editor." (In the literary world, many editors' work is 90%+ curatorial.) I sort of admire this approach to publishing, but I also think it's kind of naive. (Or, I admire it because it's naive.) Most people publish not because they want their work to be better, but because they want it to be validated by a third party and then exposed to a larger audience. This is also why most people don't self-publish: both validation and potential audience tend to be greatly reduced. Of course there are exceptions, but it's more work to find an audience when you don't have an established publicity department, and without the built-in reputation of an established press, you're fighting the biases of the many people who believe gatekeepers exist for a reason.
The Birds LLC model entails a close writer-editor relationship, and the goal of the process from both ends is to produce a better book. Working on The French Exit with Birds was a great experience, because the editors knew me and my work well, and vice versa, and I trusted them completely. But when it comes to publishing single poems, I'm more averse to heavy editing, because that mutual trust and experience usually isn't there. Like Mike, I try to be accommodating when editors make requests, but I have refused requests if I felt they didn't improve the work, and I think it's fair to insist at least upon the opportunity for refusal.