a matter of opinion

Some time ago Alyssa Rosenberg (filling in for Ezra Klein) linked to a piece by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal about authors’ voices and authorial voice. I didn’t particularly like the piece, but Teachout brought up Raymond Chandler and I like Chandler and I have an anthology of Chandler’s letters lying around that I’ve been meaning to read since college. So I decided to pick it up and I’ve been reading a few letters at a time, every now and then, for the past few weeks.

Last week Ari posted an exchange of letters (printed in a recent Harper’s) between a restaurant critic and his editors on the subject of word choice, among other things. Yesterday, I was reminded of that critic’s rant when I read a letter from Chandler to Charles Morton, then Associate Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, dated 12 Dec 1945, containing the following complaint (which I have broken up into two paragraphs for on-screen readability):

In case you are still planning to use this article in your anthology, I should like, if there is time, to point out a few errors. They are not very important, but we might as well get the thing right. Whom do I address? Some of them are probably actual typographical errors of a sort. There is one I should like to mention, because it is the kind of thing I never can understand. It is the 9th line from the end of the piece. It reads: “and not examine the artistic result too critically. The.” What I wrote was; “and not too critically examine the artistic result.” I believe, but am not certain, that it was this last way in the original proofs, perhaps not in the revised proof.

[paragraph break added]

It is obvious that somebody, for no reason save that he thought he was improving the style, changed the order of the words. The length is the same, therefore that could not enter into it. I confess myself completely flabbergasted by the literary attitude this expresses. Because it is the attitude that gets me, the assumption on the part of some editorial hireling that he can write better than the man who sent the stuff in, that he knows more about phrase and cadence and the placing of words, and that he actually thinks that a clause with a strong (stressed) syllable at the end, which was put there because it was strong, is improved by changing the order so that the clause ends in a weak adverbial termination. I don’t mind the guy being wrong about this. That’s nothing. It could even, within limits, be a matter of opinion, although I do not agree. But here is somebody who apparently decided in his own mind that Chandler was using a rhetorical word order, which he was, and that he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, didn’t even know he was being rhetorical, and that he, Joe Doakes with the fat red pencil, is the boy to show him how wrong he is, by changing it back to the way the editor of the Weehawken County Gazeteer would have written it in his weekly editorial about the use of steel floss to clean chicken dirt off Grade AA eggs. Christ!

Morton’s reply, if there was one, is not included in the anthology. But you can find the article on the Atlantic‘s website. The offending edit appears at the end of the second page (oddly not linked from the article first page). Here is the entire paragraph with the edit in bold:

I have kept the best hope of all for the last. In spite of all I have said, the writers of Hollywood are winning their battle for prestige. More and more of them are becoming showmen in their own right, producers and directors of their own screenplays. Let us be glad for their additional importance and power, and not examine the artistic result too critically. The boys make good (and some of them might even make good pictures). Let us rejoice together, for the tendency to become showmen is well in the acceptable tradition of the literary art as practiced among the cameras.

Here it is as Chandler wanted it:

I have kept the best hope of all for the last. In spite of all I have said, the writers of Hollywood are winning their battle for prestige. More and more of them are becoming showmen in their own right, producers and directors of their own screenplays. Let us be glad for their additional importance and power, and not too critically examine the artistic result. The boys make good (and some of them might even make good pictures). Let us rejoice together, for the tendency to become showmen is well in the acceptable tradition of the literary art as practiced among the cameras.

I’m not sure Chandler was right. To me, “artistic result” sounds better than “artistic result too critically” but “not examine” sounds better than “not too critically examine.” Would I have thought the same in 1945? I don’t know. Word order conventions with the times change.

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