Editing is one of those things that does not self announce as a political process, but is. The impact of that process is with us in so much of what we read. There are class issues, race issues and pretty much any other kind of diversity issue you care to think about.
When you edit for a publishing house, usually your primary concern is to bring the author in line with house style. I’ve had this kind of work, and the notes about what house style is. I’ve also not gone after jobs where I’ve seen the house style information and found it so suffocating that I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that to an author.
Most publishing houses are run by white, middle class people – often men. The bigger the house or the imprint, the higher the likelihood of an Oxbridge education. The rules about what constitutes good and proper writing come out of that background – it is formal and official English and conformity may well be prized a good deal more than diversity. But, that said, smaller houses often seek to emulate what they think the big houses do, and nasty editing exists at all levels.
If your background isn’t white, middle class and educated, the editing process can be one of having your voice changed. An unsympathetic editor won’t necessarily recognise what it was about your voice that was important to you. Having your voice normalised to these standards is an intensely political thing. Being discounted if you aren’t close enough to these standards is also political. And it is not, let me be clear, that standard official English makes for the best writing. It may be clearer and more familiar to people who speak it as their language, but language use itself is far more diverse than this and modes of expression matter. The right to express in your own way matters.
Slang, dialect terms and personal quirks should not be seen as inferior or inherently in need of correction. That can be all about wiping the signs of class and race out of someone’s writing. The flip side of this is the way voices are ‘characterised’ by middle class authors so that the non-middle class folk are represented in non-standard English. The way Scottish accents are fetishised and caricatured is an annoying case in point.
These days I proof read for authors. The only proof reading I’m doing for publishers is at Sloth, where I’m the second set of eyes on works in translation. But, that’s a small house, and there’s no house style sheet.
When you edit and proof read for an author, they are the only person you answer to. At this point, the job is not to standardise them, but to help them do the best possible job of doing what they wanted to do. Proof reading for an author means protecting whatever makes them unique. It means supporting their voice and helping it carry. This is the work I prefer to be doing.
There isn’t enough diversity in publishing. This is not an accident.