Dissing the Queen: The Politics of Editing

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This week’s guest post is brought to you by Nimue. Thanks, Nimue!

I’m a white British woman with a degree in English Literature. Sometimes, I edit for people. I’ve always been careful about the individual qualities of an author’s voice; having endured awful editors whose only aim seemed to be to make me sound more like them. It wasn’t until I started editing for Cain Berlinger that I started to realise the political implications of the editing process itself.

Cain is a black American author, and a man with incredible insight into the dark places of the human psyche. He’s able to make fiction out of the human experiences that many of us would be too afraid or ashamed to name, and I think he’s an absolute genius.

Cain’s grammar, his spellings, his very language is integral to what he’s representing. There is no separating expression from subject. I know that now. When I first met him, I had no idea. I wasn’t the first editor whose initial reaction was to try and normalise him, to my standards of normal, based on the class, gender and race normalities of the publishing profession as a whole. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it needs saying, because it’s absolutely commonplace.

This defining and enforcing of a certain kind of English – The Queen’s English is a process that begins at school. It pays no attention to where you came from. In the UK, that means getting us to drop dialect terms, and local accents. Broadcast media no doubt hasn’t helped us keep our local identities, but the classroom has played its part. In culturally colonised countries – Wales, Scotland and Ireland being our immediate examples, The Queen’s English becomes part of the means of oppression. A people denied their native language are denied parts of self and identity.

British colonialism has done a good job of rolling the English language, her maj and all, out around the world. There are things you can only say in your own language. Whether we’re talking a specific, nameable language, or the mode of expression your subculture uses, we have diversity in language because we don’t all want or need to say the same things. We don’t all need the same grammars, for much the same reason. The grammar of an Oxford student turned lawyer is hardly relevant to the speech of someone involved in American street life. Someone young and hip for whom I do not have adequate or relevant words of description.

Controlling language is a way of controlling identity. Making people conform to certain standards makes it clear that one set of people have the good, right and proper language (Queen’s English, what ho!) and some of us have the wrong language. Degraded language. Unsuitable. Improper. Slang. We are to be tidied up and taught to talk proper, like. At its very worst, it’s meant the forced indoctrination of native children; stripped of family, culture and the right to speak their own tongue, so as to better conform to a notion of acceptability that belongs primarily to a small number of white British men.

The publishing industry as a whole tends to be male, tends to be white, tends to be middle class and educated and is not young. It speaks a language. It likes authors who speak the same language. You only have to look at the dominance of white, male, middle class English speaking authors to see that this is the case.

As a reader, you’re taught to see who and what is normal, and who and what is not. That middle class voice is normal – and you can tell because it’s the voice that narrates, and it’s often the main character’s voice, while ‘exotic’ characters have their speech picked out phonetically. ‘Exotic’ means not English, not middle class. I’ve not seen many examples of The Queen’s English offered as caricature, but Scottish, Cockney, anyone speaking English as a second language… bad pastiches abound and most of the time we don’t even question why some voices have to be ‘characterised’ this way and others do not. As a reader, it’s a way of keeping you aware of who is in and who is out, who is ‘us’ and who is ‘other’. It also tells us who the reader is assumed to be. The reader, dear reader, is usually imagined by the publishing industry as being white and middle class. You will be able to guess the gender of the imagined reader from the kind of language used, too – lots of emotional language for chick lit, serious, dry, hard and manly language for Men (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, who has some very gendered opinions about proper writing).

What are we doing when we edit someone? I think the answer should be helping the author do what they meant to do. It should be about making the work as readable and as accessible as possible. It does not have to mean making people conform to narrow ideas about good English. On the teaching side, we seem to be going the other way in the UK, with ever more emphasis on the most leaden and conformist approaches to grammar imaginable.

Real language is alive. Real language breaks its previous rules to say something new, to create new possibilities. It has to make sense. It has to communicate an idea from one head to another. There are ideas you can’t say in The Queen’s English. There is no hiraeth here (a beautiful Welsh word for a Welshmen’s longing for Wales when absent from it. Homesickness is not a sufficient translation.) There are words of weather and landscape that are specific to places and people, to trades and lives lived. There are certainly many ways of expressing yourself that the Queen would have no truck with but that we are, nonetheless, entitled to read.

What would happen to us, as readers, if we were used to more diversity of voice, language and grammar? Yes, we’d struggle sometimes, and have to try hard to keep up. At others, we’d all get to see words that are very much our own reflected back to us. We’d all see terms we recognise, and expressions we value. That might in turn go a long way towards helping us empathise with each other, and not assume certain kinds of people – white, western, affluent, highly educated, middle aged and older – are somehow the measure of what everyone else should aspire to. In the editing process, there is an amazing opportunity to validate and include rather than normalising, to this limited notion of ‘normal’.

I grew up in rural Gloucestershire. There’s not much left of my accent, and I don’t know as many local dialect words as want to. If I ever had a voice – an authentic, peasant, female, voice of my own, I lost it a long time ago. I learned to ‘talk proper’. It’s a small loss compared to those who have lost whole languages, and the concepts imbedded in those languages. We can stop editing out diversity, and difference. We can stop othering people whose voices are unlike our own. We can stop with the dodgy caricatures of other people’s speech patterns, and make more room to hear each other’s voices.

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