write to win

The editor's dilemma: to be or not to be a vigilante?

How far should an editor go in telling a writer what’s ‘right’ and what’s ‘wrong’ with the story?

A young man sees a young woman. He falls in love with her, despite never having spoken to her. Well, Romeo did it, and he has been immortalised for it. Why can’t a young man in India pull the same stunt?

Like Romeo, he pursues her. Unlike Juliet, she pushes him away continuously. He is upset about this and calls her disgusting and deceitful and all sorts of other, uncomplimentary things. When she gets pregnant she turns back to him, for some reason, and he is able to show his superheroic side by helping out the poor damsel in distress, while at the same time, making sure she rues her decision to ever reject him in the first place.

As an editor, I’m faced by stories like this all the time. Someone has obviously put his or her heart and soul into writing this book, and has given it to me in the hope that I will polish it up grammatically and hand it back, sparkling and ready to go.

As an editor, that’s all I’m expected to do, you might say. At the most, I might flag up a character who changes names, or one who talks more like a runaway from a Shakespeare play set than the others, but passing judgment on what is or is not “politically correct” is not what any author wants from me.

How far the editor's writ run?

Or is it? An editor, at the end of the day, is a human being after all, and an important role that she plays (for more often than not, it seems to be a she) is to function as an unbiased reader for the author.  The editor can tell the author, perhaps better than more biased readers like friends or family can, whether a story works or not. After all, that’s what really distinguishes one of us from Microsoft Word – the ability to really make sense of and engage with the text we’re working with.

But how can you keep yourself from getting your own politics and emotions muddled with what you’re reading? Reading fiction is, ideally, an immersive activity, something that sets you thinking at the same time that it pulls you away from the world around you. For a book to work, I believe, it mustn’t offend you so horribly that you’re putting it down every few seconds and going “but that’s just not right!”

Given how the attitudes enshrined in popular culture – in our books, TV shows, music and movies – influence and have been shown to have a powerful effect on their audience, can I really let something like my hypothetical example slip by without a little warning?

As an editor, you’re allowed to make it clear to an author that some element of a story isn’t working, and if it’s something like the reductive portrayal of a certain kind of group, I feel that it’s imperative that you point it out. A lot of the time, the author is unconscious of how it looks, being so consumed by the creative process. Other times, they disagree, some more vehemently than others, and we move on.

Wrong vs Right

But with pointing out “what’s wrong” in this context, a whole other can of worms gets opened. Who am I, really, to decide what’s “wrong” about castigating a pregnant girl? Am I not operating a little like a vigilante, using my superpowers (grammatically charged ones) to operate outside of the law, forcing my morals onto someone else’s manuscript? Am I not being a censor board?

I’m sure many of my fellow editors have come across this question. What sets us apart from readers of a published work is that we have the power, however slight, to change something before it goes out into the wider world. Obviously the author has the final vote on whether to alter things, but just the chance of making oneself heard, nay, the certainty that you will be heard gives me, at least, the drive to point out what seems “wrong” or prejudiced, or downright regressive.

So I will put in my comment, exercise my right to use Microsoft Word’s handy little box, and tell the writer, “Hey, I don’t think it’s cool that your character harangues a girl for going off with another guy and calls her disgusting. Especially since he’s obviously urban, educated and kind of progressive. Not to mention that I, as an urban, educated, female reader, am supposed to like him.”

Or something a little more sophisticatedly worded than that.

I don’t think Batman ever angsts about whether or not he’s doing the right thing by stepping outside of the law to pin “bad elements” down. Being a vigilante implies a certain derring-do, a disregard for what other people might think of as “not minding your own business.” It is an editor’s business, I think, to point out things that look prejudiced, or unseemly, or downright uncalled for. But once done, the vigilante can retire, put the cape away. It’s up to the cops to hold the Joker, after all. If the cops don’t think he’s a bad deal, well, that’s not really Batman’s business any more, is it?

Except it kind of is and that’s why I’m glad I’m just an editor, not Batman.

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