norbert blei | notes on the publishing life…continued

2 10 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 155 | October 1, 2008

“Notes on The Publishing Life” …Continued

I guess it would be in my best interest to put a WARNING LABEL on this one, as the language gets a little rough in places. So those of you who may be uncomfortable with ‘street language’ in print—take a pass on this one. (Or re-read yesterday’s dispatched Underground Notes, #154).

But for readers appreciative of style and cogent content–and writers, especially, who have ever (or too often ) been at the mercy of questionable editing—this little exchange between a writer and his sub-editors is beyond priceless.

Bear in mind as well, that this appeared in the esteemed English publication, the Guardian. And you have to admire the English and their way with words. Norbert Blei



From two letters published, in July in the Guardian. The first, from Giles Coren restaurant critic for the London Times Magazine on Saturdays since 2001 to his subeditors at the Times, was leaked to the Guardian. The second is a letter to Coren from Times subeditors Mia Aimaro Ogden and Joanna Duckworth.


I am mightily pissed off. I have addressed this to Owen, Amanda, and Ben because I don’t know who I am supposed to be pissed off with (I’m assuming Owen, but I filed to Amanda and Ben, so it’s only fair), and also to Tony, who wasn’t here if he had been, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have happened.

I don’t really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn’t going to happen anymore, so I’m really hoping it wasn’t you that fucked up my review on Saturday. It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. They are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend.

I wrote: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rose and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh.” It appeared as: “I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rose and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh.” There is no length issue. This is someone thinking, “I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and I know best.” Well, you fucking don’t. This was shit, shit subediting for three reasons.

1) “Nosh,” as I’m sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardization of the German naschen. It is a verb, and can be con¬strued into two distinct nouns. One, “nosh,” means simply “food.” You have decided that this is what I meant and removed the “a.” I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it. Because the other noun “nosh” means “a session of eating” in this sense you might think of its dual valency as being similar to that of “scoff.” You can go for a scoff. Or you can buy some scoff. The sentence you left me with is shit, and is not what I meant. Why would you change a sentence .so that it meant something I didn’t mean? I don’t know, but you risk doing it every time you change something. And the way you avoid this kind of fuck-up is by not changing a word of my copy without asking me, okay? It’s easy. Not; A. Word. Ever.

2) I will now explain why your error is even more shit than it looks. You see, I was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as “sexually-charged.” I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y. I have used the word “gaily” as a gentle nudge. And “looking for a nosh” has a secondary meaning of looking for a blow job. Not specifically gay, for this is Soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. “Looking for nosh” does not have that ambiguity. The joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you’ve fucking stripped it out like a pissed Irish plasterer restoring a Renaissance fresco and thinking Jesus looks shit with a bear so plastering over it. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking Christ, don’t you read the copy?

3) And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittiest of all, you have removed the unstressed “a” so that the stress that should have fallen on “nosh” is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, meter is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for the Times, and I have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

I am sorry if this looks petty (last time I mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word I got in all sorts of trouble), but I care deeply about my work and I hate to have it fucked up by shit subbing. I have been away, you’ve been subbing Joe and Hugo, and maybe they just file and fuck off and think, “Hey ho, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips”— well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on Sunday and fucking lay there, furious, for two hours. Weird, maybe. But that’s how it is.

It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. I’ve got a review to write this morning, and I really don’t feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the payoff, and I’m going to have another weekend ruined for me.

I’ve been writing for the Times for fifteen years, and I have never asked this before I have never asked it of anyone I have written for but I must insist, from now on, that I am sent a proof of every review I do, so I can check it for fuck-ups. And I must be sent it in good time in case changes are needed. It is the only way I can carry on in the job.

And, just out of interest, I’d like whoever made that change to email me and tell me why. Tell me the exact reasoning which led you to remove that word from my copy.

Sorry to go on. Anger, real steaming fucking anger, can make a man verbose.

Dear Giles,

Subediting is a noble profession. It is also a thankless one particularly when your writers call you a “useless cunt.”

There was a sharp intake of breath when your email hit the inbox of subs throughout the in dustry this week that was after we’d stopped laughing. Not that we didn’t think you had a point. Yes, tinkering with copy just for the sake of it and without consultation is wrong. It is disrespectful and arrogant. And we can see why you’d be furious at the loss even of an indefinite article.

There is nothing more irritating than a subeditor who thinks he knows better than a writer, particularly one who cares deeply about his work. But did you really have to be so rude?

If you could only see the state of some of the raw copy we have to knock into shape. It’s badly structured, poorly spelt, appallingly punctuated, lazily researched. We’re not saying your writing falls into that category on the contrary, your journalism is highly accomplished. Never having worked on your copy, we can only take your word for it that it is beyond improvement in its pre-published state. Strange as it may seem, many writers do not possess your grasp of language; indeed, it is sometimes difficult to believe that English is their mother tongue, and they don’t give a damn about what they produce because they know that a good, often highly educated subeditor will correct it, check it, and turn it into readable prose.

None of this can excuse your nasty, bullying, “know your place, you insignificant little fuckwit” email. Yes, it’s funny, in a way that pieces that use “fuck,” “shit,” and “cunt” so liberally often can be, but, please someone made a mistake. He surely had no intention of sabotaging your deathless prose. So you don’t like what happened to your piece have a word with your editor. The hapless sub will no doubt already have been soundly thrashed and had his dictionary privileges removed.

Some years ago, a colleague of ours had a T-shirt printed up with the legend XXXXXXXXX XXXXXXX IS A CUNT, which he wore every week when having to deal with the writer to whom it referred, because he, like you, became so disproportionately abusive when his use of language was questioned. We’d hate that to happen to you, because you can actually write, and having GILES COREN IS A SANCTIMONIOUS LITTLE TWAT WHO NEEDS TO GET OVER HIMSELF could be quite costly in T-shirt lettering. Subs are no more infallible than writers. So let’s all try a little mutual respect, shall we?

All the best, Mia Aimaro Ogden, Joanna Duckworth

from HARPER’S MAGAZINE October, 2008



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: