Monday, July 02, 2012

Did I praise Portis prematurely? — A view from the copy desk

I'm working on a real post to get this blog's second 2,000 posts off to a real start, but the book in question and the comments I'll want to make require some thought. In the interim, I'll follow a practice long established by those of my fellow journalists who write columns, and I'll rattle off a few paragraphs about what I happen to be thinking about at the time.
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A few paragraphs about what I happen to be thinking about at the time

by Peter Rozovsky

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

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12 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

I have a feeling that you know reporters better than most of us do, Peter...

July 02, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Reporters are syonymous with newspapers in the public mind, and how could this be otherwise? Most of them are all right, though, and they are very far from the group that a) most drives me nuts and b) is most responsible for the state of American newspapers.

July 02, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

This is funny. Since when must characterization avoid offending anyone?

If Portis is in the habit of making all of his editors ogres, you have a point.

A writer simply cannot avoid the occasional unlikeable character. And what is one to do about killers in mysteries?

July 03, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.. I missed the part where I said characterization should offend no one. Could you point it out to me?

While you're doing that, I'll remind readers that what I suggested was the possibility not that Portis was offensive but rather that he was engaging in a tired stereotype. I might have done the same had he offered a dowdy librarian (wearing glassses, of course) or a humorless German -- er, I mean Prussian.

July 03, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I know you're still not on board with the whole audiobook thing but if you ever do get into it, I rec Donna Tartt's reading of True Grit. She refuses to read her own books in her honeyed southern tones but she'll read for CP.

July 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's not that I'm not on board with audio books. It's that I'd rarely listen to them. I have such a short ride to work, for instance.

I suppose I could join a gym and listen to audio books on the exercise bike. What do you think?

You've always talked up Donna Tartt as a reader. That's interesting, an author reading another author's books.

July 04, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Well I listen to them on my bike bike which isnt, possibly, the safest thing to do but there you go.

Its tough at the gym, at least at my gym because they bombard you with that awful music.

July 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What is it with gyms and shite music? Not all music that's lively, fast, and suitable for increasing one's heart rate is loud, thudding crap. Plenty of jazz, klezmer, salsa, even Irish reels would be good, but no...

Jesus, be careful if you're going to listen to music on a boke.

July 04, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

a copy editor who, someone told me, has her own office and is assigned a story to write

Probably because the screen writer didn't know (and probably wouldn't care if he did) the difference between a copy writer and a copy editor. Heck, all they're doing is copying something, huh?

July 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My inclination would be to suspect a conscious decision on the moviemakers' part, that they wanted their featured character to seem important. Or maybe it was vanity on the star's part.

My inclination after seeing a movie crew at work in my newsroom a few years ago is that these people are not stupid.

July 07, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I'm not saying they're stupid (not caring is not the same as being stupid), but with the closing of motion picture research departments (with one exception) the help writers need to provide accuracy to their scripts is no longer available and, frankly, not always requested by the producer(s), even when the director wants it.

Whatever the source of the movie character example you are referring to, it reminds me of 1995's Party Girl which had librarians gnashing their teeth over the ease with which Parker Posey snagged a "librarian" job. No schooling and no training required!

Name the job or profession and the real-life practitioners of same will usually have anecdotes about how incorrectly they are portrayed on film.

July 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if moviemakers have ever griped about the way the movies are protrayed on film.

But yes, I suppose the closing of research departments suggest that movies were ahead of newspapers and publishers in there abandonment of concern about quality.

July 07, 2012  

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