Authors, Editors and the Ownership of Texts

This is a response to my friend Chitralekha on her post, "Does an editor own the text?"

To tackle this issue as Chitra lays it out, I feel the first thing we can dispense with is the titular question. Asking if editors own texts leads inevitably to asking if authors own texts (as Chitra does) and so on. I feel that ownership is completely the wrong word to use so I’m going to avoid this question entirely.

The second and more interesting question in the article is: "To whom do you owe the greatest allegiance: the text or the author?" I’ll take a crack at this. First, as Mukunth originally pointed out, this question misses a third option – the public.

Or to put it another way: Which one of the following is the editor?

a. the enforcer of aesthetic standards (i.e. allegiance to the text)
b. the actualizer of authoritorial intention
c. the guardian of public interest

Most contexts involve some degree of all three but there are also instances where one need not be considered. For example, avant-garde literature doesn’t usually speak the language of public interest though utilitarians will always try nonetheless. Journalism, on the other hand, is typically about public interest (despite some of us asking for more aesthetic standards).

I think that within each context, an editor’s priorities vis-a-vis the three roles mentioned above can be elaborated in a reasonably straightforward manner. (Really!) Regardless, it’s far away from the current idea of editor as service provider (rather than careworker). A situation, which in my opinion, where everbody loses. The editor is rendered mechanistic. The author is never challenged. The public’s interest isn’t considered.

Post-script on authoritorial intention: The important of the author’s intention depends on whether the author can be trusted. And whether the author can be trusted is often dictated by the type of text. In literature, the author I feel must be trusted to a large extent. I find it hard to understand the confidence with which major editors would ask writers to make large-scale changes to their texts. Doesn’t this reduce aesthetics to boxes to be ticked (even if the boxes are mysterious)? I have the feeling I’m wrong about this but I still haven’t worked it out why in my head. In journalism, editors don’t trust authors as a matter of principle. In academia, everything is fucked.

(I wrote many more words but had to delete them because they were a rant on the state of academic scholarship on the humanities and had nothing to do with the subject and also because I was possibly very wrong.)

Photo Credit: Hilke Kurzke on flickr.

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