Did I praise Portis prematurely? — A view from the copy desk
A few paragraphs about what I happen to be thinking about at the time
My pathetic need for professional approval may have led me to impute to Charles Portis a sentiment he never intended.
I was so stunned by a brief but believable sketch of a newspaper copy editor in Portis' novel The Dog of the South a few months ago that I neglected to consider that Portis, rather than paying my profession the honor of a rare mention, may have been indulging in an old, tired prejudice.
The Portis passage told of a copy editor who
"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."The description was accurate and clear-eyed, much more so than the typical depiction of copy editors in newspaper novels and movies (Just kidding. You've never seen a copy editor depicted in a novel or movie, except maybe the one in which Drew Barrymore plays a copy editor who, someone told me, has her own office and is assigned a story to write. And that shows how much those filmmakers cared about getting newspapers right.) Portis made me so grateful to see a copy editor's point of view recognized, as it never is even in newspapers' coverage of newspapers, that it never occurred to me I may have been duped.
The critical words are "processed news matter." I assumed that was the narrator (and hence Portis) sympathizing with the ill-tempered copy editor. But what if I was wrong? What if "processed news matter" is meant to reflect what Portis regards as the copy editor's objectionably cranky tone? What if Portis indeed regards copy editors as contemptibly negative and, like some newroom folks, mistakes analysis for criticism and criticism for subversion?
If I see him, I'll ask. In the meantime, I'll recast the passage and ask how you'd feel about it if you were a reporter:
"He was not well liked on the copy desk. He radiated flabby waves of laziness and arrogance, a vacuous verbal chameleon who riddled his unpunctual prose with the jargon of his beat, a self-dramatizing, self-imporant, questionably literate prima donna who thought nothing of demanding the most trivial changes to his copy long past deadline."Now, would that be fair?
© Peter Rozovsky 2012