Monday, April 16, 2012

Charles Portis' (non)fiction: The update

I've received an exciting update to this post I first put up earlier this month. I was told today that Charles Portis is a long-ago former colleague of my newspaper's former managing editor and was best man at his wedding. More to the point, this former managing editor brought the Inquirer's copy desks into the modern age, converting them from pre-retirement way stations for burned-out reporters into a unit with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. Did my ex-M.E. get his interest in copy editors from Portis? Did Portis learn to respect copy editors from my ex-M.E.? Or did they imbibe together from a wellspring of respect for copy desks that runs deep beneath the Arkansas soil?
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  I first heard of Charles Portis' 1979 novel The Dog of the South from a Detectives Beyond Borders reader who thought I might be interested because the book's protagonist is a newspaper copy editor who has recently quit his job.

Here's the paragraph that persuaded me to buy the book:
"I had sat next to Dupree on the rim of the copy desk. In fact, I had gotten him the job. He was not well liked in the newsroom. He radiated dense waves of hatred and he never joined in the friendly banter around the desk, he who had once been so lively. He hardly spoke at all except to mutter `Crap' or `What crap' as he processed news matter, affecting a contempt for all events on earth and for the written accounts of those events."
Now, what the hell does Charles Portis know about newspapers? Why would a copy editor complain, especially about the news matter he processed? That sort of thing can only foster disunity in the newsroom.
***
(Portis is probably best known as the author of True Grit, which became the basis for two movies. Read more at the Unofficial Charles Portis Web site.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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31 Comments:

Blogger Bill Crider said...

I'm a big fan of all Portis' fiction. This one's a hoot, but then they all are.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It shapes up as a hoot all right. I suppose Portis is also an answer to that question I've asked about Western writers who might also appeal to crime fans.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I bought this when Borders went under along with a hundred other books. Be interested in whether I should move it up.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sorry to hear the book's association with a bookstore's demise. I don't know yet how much crime there is in the book, though the cross-country pursuit is the stuff of lots of crime stories. I bought the book because of the delicious association with my beleaguered profession.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Check out Masters of Atlantis. It gets my vote for the Great American Novel.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I just took a look at the beginning of the book. I especially like "He walking around Chaumont one night with his hands in his pockets ..."

Thanks.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I read Master of Atlantis. I wanted to like it better than I did. But I have a feeling it wasn't the best place to start and that I might get it more after some others. Definitely reading more.

Peter, no, that fictional copy editor doesn't sound someone you could relate to at all...

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the only warning sign I can see in my browsing of Portis has been that the joking might prove a bit relentless for some readers. But there's something somehow understated and even sweet about the joking. I have a feeling he won't go over the top.

The protagonist is not the copy editor who sat around complaining that everything was crap. But either possibility is bizarre: that a copy editor would grouse or quit.

But just to see an author use the word "rim" in connection with copy desk is a pleasant surprise. (The rim is where I work.) I'm surprised by such a rare mention because, for all the former frequency of newspapers as a former subject of American movies and popular fiction, copy desks are about as little acknowledged by moviemakers and authors as they are in real newsrooms.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I bet he worked as one at some point.

Groused a bit, and then quit.

I think Masters of Atlantis might be a bit outside his usual fare. I know other people who have loved it as well, but I do think it wasn't a good place to start.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

From Wikipedia:

"Portis began writing in college, for both the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville student newspaper, Arkansas Traveler, and the Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his tasks was to redact the colorful reporting of "lady stringers" in the Ozarks, a task credited as a source for the vivid voice which he created years later for his character Mattie Ross in True Grit.[3] After Portis graduated, he worked for various newspapers as a reporter, including almost two years at the Arkansas Gazette, for which he wrote the "Our Town" column.
He moved to New York, where he worked for four years at the New York Herald Tribune. His work led him to return to the South frequently to cover civil rights–related stories during the early 1960s. After serving as the London bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune, he left journalism in 1964."

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Masters of Atlantis looks as if it might veer closer to fantasy than some of Portis' other books.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

It's not exactly fantasy, but the veering probably explains why some people think its great and some don't get on board.

Karen Joy Fowler, who is a very good fantasist in her short stories, also loves this one

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Portis must have something going for him if he writes across genres. It speaks well of him, I'd say.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Come to think of it, Portis is a former reporter who imagines himself into the role of a former copy editor in The Dog of the South. I don't know if the occupations of either author of protagonist will play any role in the novel, but Portis' choice would surprise the occupants of any newsroom, especially those on the copy desk.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Not the usual trajectory, for sure.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The history of copy editing is interesting, at least to copy editors. At my newspaper. the copy desks used to be manned by burned-out reporters. Not until the 1970s did copy desks begin to be staffed by people interested in copy editing. In retrospect, copy editors and copy editing had a very short history in Philadelphia.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I bet burned out reporters were still a whole lot better than spellcheck.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For those of us who still bear the increasingly anachronistic and inaccurate title "copy editor," spell-check is an ever-larger part of what we do.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Wallace Stroby said...

My favorite Portis sentence ever, from DOG OF THE SOUTH: "In Laredo I got a six-dollar motel room that had a lot of posted rules on the door and one rubber pillow on the bed and an oil-burning heater in the wall that had left many a salesman groggy."

I think the issue with MASTERS is, unlike his other novels, the perspective drifts so much between characters that it doesn't have the narrative single-mindedness or focus the others do. Some great stuff in there though.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wallace, Portis' sentences remind me of the celebrated opening of "The Last Good Kiss," a sentence I have always thought went over the top. But to my eyes, Portis' sentences do not go so far, do not so insistently demand admiration of their own cleverness.

You're an ex-newspaperman; does Midge's profession figure prominently in the book?

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Wallace Stroby said...

It's kind of a metaphor, isn't it? He's always attending to and cleaning up someone else's drama.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never felt so proud to be a newspaper copy editor as I do now!


P.S. We mingled with my paper's new owners this week. It was a novel experience to schmooze George Norcross, Lewis Katz, and Gerry Lenfest, not the sort of thing I do every day.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Wallace Stroby said...

Good luck. I'd hoped that by 2012 things would have stabilized somewhat in the biz, but it seems like there's been a new round of buyouts and layoffs at some major papers just this week, esp. via Gannett.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I think it's time we resign ourselves to the fact that not many of this country's remaining newspapers will consistently reward the effort it takes to read them, and the New York Times is doing its best to cede its place on that short list.

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

I've read Dog of the South at least four times, and that sentence about the copy desk always makes me laugh. I can now confess that I was a bit like Dupree in that regard.

But the book is full of lines that are just as funny. Dr. Symes' rambling monologues can be read again and again and never lose their luster.

I don't get people who don't get Masters of Atlantis. Another masterpiece. And don't call it fantasy.

April 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I'm the guy about whom Dupree would have complained because "He has a bad attitude."

Somebody just posted this on another post here:

adrian mckinty said...
Peter

Well if I had to pick a favourite line from Dog of the South (of which I have many) it might be:

"There were elegant trees [in the square] of the kind that architects like to sketch in front of their buildings."

April 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To which I replied:

I don't always like yuk-it-up, 1960's-influenced, over-the-top humor, but that line captures very nicely what I think I'll like about Portis. It comes close to going over the top, but the acute observation salvages it. He's like John McPhee-meets-George-Carlin.

April 09, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Let me just weigh in on Masters of Atlantis. Nope, I dont think its quite up there with Dog of the South. Neither is Norwood.

If you're ever going to get into audiobooks Donna Tartt (she of The Secret History)'s narration of True Grit is masterful.

April 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I don't drive, I have a short commute, and I spend little time at the beach, so I have few opportunities to listen to audio books. But I'll keep her in mind, and also that guy Doyle who you say does such a good job with yours.

April 17, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

I had sat next to Dupree on the rim of the copy desk

That line went completely over my head. I thought the rim of the copy desk was the edge of the copy desk. Whatever the hell a copy desk is. Rim editors? What bizarre terminology.

I'm afraid I'd never make a copy editor. Yesterday my 92 year old mother, who has no short-term memory at all, got a card from her 12 year old great-granddaughter, who is currently living in Australia, which included the phrase 'time flys'.

I read it before my mother did and noticed nothing at all wrong about it. When she read it, the first thing she mentioned was the spelling of 'flys'.

In my own defense, I might say it's one thing knowing the 'rules'. It's another thing recognizing when the 'rules' have been broken. Not much of a defense, I'll admit. A good night's sleep must be a prerequsite to doing the job well. I'll have to work on that.

April 17, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That line went completely over my head.

No reason for you to know what a copy-desk rim is. I, on the other hand, got a great kick out of the reference, the first I had ever seen to my job in fiction. In fact, the rim was once exactly what you guessed: the edge of the copy desk. In the old days, copy editors would sit around the edge, or rim, of a horseshoe-shaped table. The head of the copy desk would sit at the apex of the horseshoe, where a notch, or slot, was cut from the table so he or she could be closer to the action and more easily hand the stories to the copy editors. Seating arrangements and technology have changed, but the terminology has survived. Copy editors who edit stories and write headlines are still said to work on the rim, and the editors who distribute the work are still called slots.

In re rules and breaking them, the key is to know the rules well and to have a good enough ear to know when breaking the rules works. Too many writers do not.

April 17, 2012  

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