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Who will edit the editors (again)?

August 20, 2017

I’ve just been reading Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, which I picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Greenwich for £2. It’s an interesting collection of stories about life in India under the Raj – a detailed, vivid picture of an expatriate community of generals and subalterns, viceroys and secretaries, civil servants and their wives, clubmen and coquettes, as well as vignettes of Indians themselves. I feel sure it influenced Forster’s A Passage to India; and the quality and style of the storytelling, short, conversational, pointed and pithy, seem to have had a strong influence on Somerset Maugham. Amazingly, Kipling wrote all the stories by the age of twenty-one. It’s well worth reading; but for me the pleasure has been marred by Andrew Rutherford’s over-intrusive editing.

Those who have followed this blog for a long time will remember that back in 2012 I wrote a post about an over-edited version of Peter Pan. I’m going to make many of the same points here, because my complaint is identical: Rutherford has edited this book to within an inch of its life. On every page asterisks hover, beckoning you towards the notes at the back. So you flip to the back after seeing an asterisk appended to, for instance, the word ‘Clink’, to discover that it is slang for ‘prison’. No, really, Andrew? A story called ‘The Three Musketeers’ comes with a note that the title is an allusion to Dumas the elder’s famous novel Les Trois Mousquetaires. Well, blow me down. Another note, glossing the phrase “cow-devourer”, informs us that Hindus don’t eat beef because they regard the cow as sacred. What is the point of telling the reader this? It’s a sufficiently well-known fact that you might think any reader of Kipling’s stories would know it already; but if they didn’t – well, they could look it up in any encyclopaedia, or simply google ‘Hindus and cows’. It’s not an editor’s job to repair gaps in readers’ general knowledge. (A later note, by the way, obligingly informs us that Muslims don’t eat pork.)

And so it goes on. ‘Stewards’ is glossed as ‘officials responsible for the proper conduct of races’; the word ‘aphasia’ is explained as ‘loss of speech’; the difficult Latin phrase ‘magnum opusis translated as ‘great work’. If a reader was confused by any of these, all they’d have to do is look them up. It’s not an editor’s job to be a dictionary, either.

To be fair, not all the notes state the obvious. Quite a few translate Hindi or Urdu phrases, or bits of Anglo-Indian slang that would be unknown to the general reader. But many, many more tell us things that we either know already, or really don’t need to know. A reference in one story to ‘a Virgil in the shades’ comes with a gloss telling us that the Roman poet Virgil was Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory in the Divina Commedia. What’s the purpose of this note? To let the reader know how well-read Andrew Rutherford is? No doubt he is – but that’s not the point. The point is that his job as an editor is to unobtrusively help the reader appreciate the book; and you don’t do that by putting in multiple asterisks on every page. Trying to read a book under these conditions is like trying to watch a film with someone sitting beside you constantly nudging you in the ribs, explaining the plot, passing on unwanted snippets of information about the careers of the actors and the director, paraphrasing bits of the dialogue they imagine you won’t understand, and thoughtfully pointing out instances of irony for you.

Ah, but you could always ignore the notes, someone might say. But even if you don’t look them up, their very presence is an irritant, hovering between you and the text like a swarm of midges. And in practice, a kind of exasperated curiosity often impels you to look them up. Is he really going to patronise me by explaining that ‘Kismet’ means ‘Fate’? (Yup.)

The role of an editor is to elucidate and illuminate the text: something which Rutherford does well in his more genuinely explanatory notes. Editors should be discreet, sensitive, self-effacing. They are handmaids to literature. But Rutherford, as well as the pages and pages of Explanatory Notes at the back, has also included a General Preface, an Introduction, a Note on the Text, a Select Bibliography, and a Chronology of Kipling’s Life. Andrew Rutherford was one of the world’s foremost experts on Kipling; but, as Mike Skinner would say, my gosh doesn’t he know it. It’s like the Andrew Rutherford Show, with special guest appearance from Rudyard Kipling.

Perhaps it’s not quite fair to pick on Rutherford in this way, as he’s far from being the only culprit. A few years ago I wrote an article about the Penguin edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, which had more pages devoted to introduction and notes than there were pages in the novel itself; and I recall as an undergraduate reading an edition of Moby Dick where the notes ran to literally hundreds of pages, making a parallel text in their own right, like the notes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. But it’s high time this trend was stopped. Who will edit the editors?

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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5 Comments
  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Excellent article Brandon. There seems to be something about Moby Dick that attracts intrusive editors. I remember reading the Penguin Classics edition shortly after leaving university. I was so gripped by the book that I literally missed my tube stop on the way to work one morning. However, that was not enough. Oh no, the editor, always on the lookout to display how clever he was, had to keep butting in at every point to demonstrate his knowledge and his brilliant thesis of the book’s true meaning. And his brilliant thesis was that the book was really a thinly – disguised gay text. That is probably not such a bad argument as far as it goes, but I particularly remember that the most devastating reason in his argument to prove this was that at one point in the story, a preacher was wearing a cassock. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, but as our editor helpfully pointed out, a cassock is, obviously, an anagram of ‘ass – cock’. I remember bursting out laughing (again on the tube) at that particular footnote. I cannot finish, however, without praising an example of editorial excellence I recently came across, namely, the Kenneth William diaries superbly edited by Russell Davies. The diaries make fascinating, if sad, reading, but his editorial interventions are a model of discreet assistance, telling you just what you wanted to know without hitting you over the head with it. And his preface is exceptional in its perception, balance, humanity and academic distinction. A perfect example of how it should be done.

  2. That’s the same Moby Dick edition as the one I was referring to! A truly egregious case of editorial self-indulgence. I will look out for the Russell Davies-edited Kenneth Williams diaries, though.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    Agree completely about Kenneth Williams’ diaries, a fascinating but somewhat uncomfortable read; it’s sad to think that someone who provided so much laughter was so unhappy . His letters are interesting too but must also have been difficult to edit . He could be particularly waspish so there must have been a lot of material omitted . Williams was also very proud of his self taught learning and liked to show it off so some explanation would be needed for his more esoteric points.
    Public figures often fade from memory more quickly than they might like to think and minor celebrities even quicker. Imagine one of the current crop of reality stars memoirs being published in a hundred years time – it would require several volumes of footnotes to explain. Even more than now.

  4. Mark Brafield permalink

    Good point Simon, but I was interested to see that Kenneth Williams’s diaries are quoted extensively in Dominic Sandbrook’s excellent history of the 1970’s, ‘State of Emergency’. As well as personal reflections, some of them unexpectedly profound, and cutting insights into his profession, they are also full of fascinating nuggets of social history. I keep the Diaries by my bed and often dip into them.

  5. Simon Carter permalink

    Who knows, in years to come Kenneth Williams may be thought of as the Peyps of his day. Suspect he’d have liked that idea.
    Diaries have become increasingly useful sources following the publication of the Mass Observation books among other but keeping them interesting and relevant to others is a definite skill and one Kenneth Williams certainly possessed.

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