Thursday, August 18, 2011

Thomas Kaufman on the streets of Georgetown

Yesterday's post was full of serious discussion about humor. Today you get a sample of the stuff.

Willis Gidney, protagonist of Thomas Kaufman's Drink the Tea, is lying low in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood in a disguise that renders him virtually invisible — the ragged clothes of a homeless man. The vantage point affords him ample leisure to observe the passing foot traffic:
"Mostly young people, Georgetown students who were wealthy and seemed to be born with an innate sense of how to enjoy themselves. ... All the young men were robust and trim, all the young women were shapely and smiling. And if they had a thought among them, it was on a time-share basis."
That, it says here, is a nice observation. It's the sort you or I might make, only it's just a bit funnier, with hints of envy rendered poignant by the character's rugged backstory.
***
Thomas Kaufman will be part of my “CRANKY STREETS: WHAT'S SO FUNNY ABOUT MURDER?” panel on Saturday, Sept. 17, 11:30 a.m.-12:30, at Bouchercon 2011.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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34 Comments:

Blogger Yvette said...

I adore funny murder mysteries, Peter. I've read tons of them.

Wish I could be at that panel. It will probably be a hoot.

The thing with funny mysteries is this: they must not 'tell' you they're funny. They must just show you. This is so damned important in humorous writing.

Don't tell me the characters are laughing or giggling or whatnot - show me why they're laughing.

NEVER use 'he laughed' or 'he chuckled' in place of 'he said'.

Never alert me that a joke is coming unless, as in Don Winslow's WHILE DRIVING IN THE DESERT, it's part of a character's shtick.

Just a few rules I like.

August 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or don't have the characters laughing at all. And try not to have them react in ways that tell you they're supposed to be funny.

Don't send a hail of machine-gun fire past your protagonist's head, and have him think, "That was annoying."

August 18, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Affluent they may be, but gentlemen they are not.

Well, at least some of them.

I'd like to say it's only a basketball game, but it seems like sports often has larger ramifications.

August 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, that goes on a long time for a sports "brawl." Mr. Kaufman's acidic protagonist might have suggested that those players are even dumber than the average Georgetowner out for an afternoon's promenade.

August 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Slate article that includes that clip also includes this:

"The Hoyas, which are in China..."

Yep, the quality of English to which Americans are exposed every day will be just fine when the last newspaper shuts its presses.

August 18, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I have to agree that it wasn't the clearest piece of English prose that ever came down the turnpike.

August 18, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It wasn't especially unclear; it just contained that ghastly mistake. The writer, probably fancying him or herself clever, reasoned that Hoya is a thing, not a person. Wrong.

Slate is put together by smart people. So, I assume, was the Daily Kos. When they and the New York Times start making basic mistakes, well, we may not be a poorer world, but we are a less literate and, eventually, a stupider one.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I thought it was unclear because I did not know what the Hoyas were. I kind of got the idea that they were the Georgetown team, but equally they could have been a Chinese ethnic tribe that a team was named after. "The Hoyas, which are in China" doesn't make that much clearer, especially since the Chinese team are called the Rockets.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a good point. People who know about sports tend to assume that everyone shares their knowledge and interest.

A good copy editor would have made it "Georgetown's Hoyas, who are in China" or, if necessary, "...who are on a basketball tour of China."

August 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Thanks--your copyediting of your comment made it much clearer. Which is of course the reason for copyeditors.

Here's a question. I presume that when people were just printing the news in flyers and placards and announcements posted on a wall, they didn't have copyeditors but just did the best they could. Gradually, there must have been a realization that something like a copyeditor was sorely needed. I'm wondering if that same realization will dawn again, and if history gives us any clues as to how that will happen.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I think the idea of standardized spelling entered the English language in the eighteenth century, so copy editing is harly likely to have been around before then. I would also imagine that before widespread literacy, no one would have thought such editing necessary. Anyone who knew how write, I would think, would have been expected to do so accurately and well without having someone inspect his work.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It isn't the spelling so much as the things we think we spelled that turns out to be the problem.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I would imagine that city folk have been making fun of rustic speech for as long as there have been cities. I'm guessing that copy editing is tied up with some degree of mass literacy, with social status, with the professionalization of publishing and newspapers ....

August 19, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The widespread adoption of copyediting in the US was one of the responses to the explosion in publishing following the Civil War, when advances in printing technology and new recipes for making of plenty of cheap paper from wood pulp made it possible for US publishers to print hundreds of new newspapers, magazines, and "dime novels" every week. This site has a useful overview of the rise and fall of the copyeditor.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Thank you, Elizabeth. That was concise but informative, although it leaves me dubious as to whether the masses (meaning people like me) will really see the need for the editing that an overarching organization does.

And if they/we will be able or want to pay for it...

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that information on the rise of the copy editor. I have firsthand experience of the fall.

I wonder if Merrill Perlman, quoted in that article, was brave enough to make public statements about the necessity of copy editing before she retired. She, incidentally, was the person who had the bad sense not to hire me at the New York Times.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The people will never see the need for copy editing, Seana. It is, in fact, a luxury. But then, so is any literacy above the minimum needed to survive.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

She was nice about it, though!

August 19, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

...any literacy above the minimum needed to survive.

Or, as Mark Twain said: A person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read.

We periodically have to justify the need for copyediting the abstracts we include in our database. "What difference does it make; people could still figure it out." Of course, management hasn't read the "English" abstracts in the Chinese, Polish, Czech, etc. journals we cover. The work of our copyeditor results in a uniform, controlled "tone" for our publication. It would read like reports from the Tower of Babel without her.

Peter, I understand that, after leaving the NYT, La Perlman started her own consulting business. A job lead?

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I shall keep my thoughts about "management" to myself, but in your case, copy editing is necessary because readers might not, in fact, be able to "still figure it out."

As for the quotation you e-mailed me, my boss, a working copy editor himself, has an excerpt from it taped to his office door. All I can say about proclamations of the importance of copy editing is if one really believed and practiced it, why would one have to run around saying it all the time?

What kind of consulting does Merrill Perlman do? If she consults for newspapers, I'd rather see those newspapers hiring copy editors than paying consultants. But I shall investigate. Thanks.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I think people do see the need for copyediting, though. They just don't see the need for copyeditors. I mean they just don't think about it in those terms.

When I was a kid, the San Francisco Chronicle had a certain notoriety for all the mistakes in it, copywise. My dad in particular used to get a lot of pleasure out of reading these aloud. But I'm pretty sure he never said, what a terrible copyeditor they must have. He just thought the Chronicle was a mediocre paper.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that's a good point. Readers probably assume that anyone getting paid to write should do it well. I have often said that no one picks up a paper and says, "Wow, this is a well (or poorly) copy-edited paper."

The problem I have to work out is that of mistakes on the one hand and just plain awful writing on the other. It's not unheard of for a reporter to thank a copy editor for catching a mistake, and I always appreciate such compliments. But acknowledging the presence of bad writing (and, by extension, of a copy editor's role in mitigating its effects) is quite another matter. I've counted the number of times a top editor at my newspaper has suggested that the paper's writing could be better: one time in almost 22 years.

August 19, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I think people do see the need for copyediting, though. They just don't see the need for copyeditors.

Seana, I think you are spot on. As Peter replied: "Readers probably assume that anyone getting paid to write should do it well."

Case in point... A former colleague had abstract-writing among his assigned tasks. His abstracts were, almost without exception, poorly written grammatically, syntactically. They often didn't even offer the reader an overview of what the source was about, let alone cover the article's/book's essential points. It was up to our harried copyeditor to try to correct them, to make sense of them, to reshape them for our specialized audience. She wound up rewriting about 15% of them completely.

At a conference one year, one of the database's field editors, a subject specialist, told the two of us who were representing our project at the conf.: "Be sure to tell XYZ that his abstracts are excellent; they almost never need any changes of any kind!" After I got my jaw back in place, and knowing it would be really unprofessional to bad-mouth the guy back in the office, I put in a plug for our copyeditor by saying that she is the person responsible for ensuring the accuracy and quality of all the abstracts we publish each quarter and that she makes all the contributors look good. But I know this person still thinks XYZ is a master of the art of abstract writing...

August 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Elizabeth, your story reminds me of one of those old stories of holy men or sages, who create beautiful scrolls, but without credit or glory, but end up polished into wisdom by their zealous attention to craft.

Or something like that.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, that reminds me of my long-held theory that no copy editor on the rim (that is, who spends all his or her time editing, proofreading and writing headlines) will ever win any internal awards at my newspaper for his or regular work. I believe this because an honest recitation of such a person's accomplishments, as is typical of my newspaper's little employee-of-the-month award ceremonies, would embarrass too many other people in the newsroom.

August 19, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Don't get me started on employee of the month awards, Peter.

August 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, transforming sub-high-school-level prose into something approaching elegance, drawing sense from the previously incomprehensible -- that's what I love.

That is not the only sort of pleasure a copy editor can take, nor the only kind of good work he or she can do. But those of us who get our kicks from that part of the job had better end up polished into wisdom like that of your holy men, because we sure as bloody hell will get no recognition for it other than that afforded by occasional bull sessions with similarly afflicted colleagues.

August 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I may not devote a chapter of my memoirs to employee-of-the-month awards, but I'll include a paragraph or two.

The short version is that they're not a bad thing, and my newsroom's award has gone to some worthy recipients. But no one has ever been recognized for doing what I do, nor will anyone ever be.

August 20, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

In general, they are not bad becaue of who gets them, but because of who doesn't get them.

August 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The odd thing about copy editors is that it's hard to figure out who among them would deserve such an award. About the only way for a copy editor to get recognition for the kind of work under discussion here is to demand it, and most of my colleagues shudder at the thought of doing that.

August 20, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

It's a little like being a bodyguard. Only the bad ones get recognition.

August 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure how far I'd carry that analogy. I don't know many of Barack Obama's bodyguards would make better presidents than Obama.

August 20, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I mean the only way you ever prove yourself is when something goes wrong.

August 20, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Heh! And I meant that some copy editors might be so bold as to presume they were better writers than the writers.

August 20, 2011  

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