Monday, December 27, 2010

do editors do anything?

As a blogger, I don't have an editor. Which means I write exactly what I want, but it means I don't have a second pair of eyes to vet what I've written. But having an editor doesn't prevent professional writers from including absurdities in their work.

Technically I am a professional writer - I make a living as a technical writer. And I've even made a tiny pittance from plays of mine. You could even argue that since I do make money through ads on this blog that counts as professional too, in that vague 21st-century way. But in spite of all this, I usually don't think of myself as a professional writer.

And in any case, I hold Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights, and New Yorker writers to a high standard since they presumably do have editors. But the things that get by these editors...

I've already blogged a couple of times about John Lahr's turn of phrase for his review of Adam Rapp's RED LIGHT WINTER in the New Yorker - "(Rapp) brings memorable news about the heart, telling us both how it fools itself and how it kills itself."

First off, I hate when reviewers presume to use the royal "we" - reviewers should speak for themselves, not try to implicate others in their often ill-considered opinions. But I digress.

There is a metaphorical tradition of giving the heart, and the brain and other body parts independent agency. And I can maybe accept "the heart fools itself" as a workable metaphor. But kills itself? A broken heart might lead to suicide, but the heart does not kill itself. To say the heart kills itself is just overwrought portentousness.

But I can imagine the New Yorker editors being intimated by John Lahr, since he is the son of the Cowardly Lion; has written a book/movie about Joe Orton; collaborated with (and sued) Elaine Stritch, and generally hobnobs with the famous and well-connected, of both historical and contemporary varieties. Who would have the nerve to laugh in Lahr's face over the heart killing itself metaphor, when it could come back and bite them later (the fact of them laughing, not the heart.)

I adore ANGELS IN AMERICA and was prepared to love everything by Tony Kushner, but that didn't work out. I bought his book "Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness: Essays, A Play, Two Poems and A Prayer." I was underwhelmed by most of it. His essays have good stuff in them, but they also ramble and repeat.

But it is the best essay in this collection, the foreward to ANGELS called "With A Little Help from My Friends" that has the most annoying passage. Kushner notes his relationship to friend and artistic collaborator Kimberly T. Flynn - very nice and well done. But then there's this bit, and I'm not sure why it's there:
...I was introduced to Elizabeth I. McCann, who said to me: "I've been worried about how you were handling all this, till I read that you have an Irish woman in your life. Then I knew you were going to be fine."

I assume he put that in there to curry favor with an important theatre producer, which McCann is, especially at that time, but ye gods it's such an annoying thing for anybody to say, I half expected he was deliberately trying to make her sound stupid by reporting those words.

I'm Irish (mostly) myself, but I hate all that ethnic-identity crap. And what a simplistic sentiment. But I could see somebody saying that to make small talk, because small talk is a form of communication that has a very different set of rules from all other forms of communication. Inanity is perfectly acceptable in small talk. But there's no reason to share such inanity out of its small talk context.

You'll be fine with an Irish woman in your life? Why? Because she'll brew you a big ole jug of poteen??? What the hell?

The final straw that prompted this blog tirade was in the New Yorker too. I happened to read an article by Adam Gopnik, a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker called "What Would Jesus Do? that was fine - better than fine, interesting and well written for the most part, but the entire effect of excellence was ruined for me when I got to this:
as the Bacchae knew, we always tear our Gods to bits, and eat the bits we like.

He says "THE" Bacchae so presumably he's talking about the one by Euripides. But no gods are torn to bits in The Bacchae - Pentheus, the king of Thebes who refuses to believe that Dionysus is actually the son of Zeus, and therefore a god, is torn apart by Bacchants at the instigation of Dionysus.

So a king is torn up, not a god. And even more - Pentheus is not eaten, his body parts are flung around and his mother takes his head, bewitched by Dionysus into thinking it's the head of a mountain lion:
Scattered lies his corpse, part beneath the rugged rocks, and part amid the deep dark woods, no easy task to find; but his poor head hath his mother made her own, and fixing it upon the point of a thyrsus, as it had been a mountain lion's, she bears it through the midst of Cithaeron, having left her sisters with the Maenads at their rites. And she is entering these walls exulting in her hunting fraught with woe, calling on the Bacchic god her fellow-hunter who had helped her to triumph in a chase, where her only prize was tears.

So the Bacchae tells us no such thing that Gopnik claims. I would argue that rather Euripides is saying that gods are monsters who will devise needlessly cruel punishments for skeptics.

But even if Euripides did write a play about a God who is torn up and eaten (and what the hell kind of sorry excuse for a God is that?) Gopnik's observation would still be ridiculous because it contains "we" and "always." What do you mean "we" white man?

And what's with the "always"? Gopnik is clearly trying to make a connection between the story of the Bacchae and Jesus's invention of ritual cannibalism ("take and eat, this is my body") but it doesn't fly, and not only because Pentheus is a king and not a god. When The Bacchae "knew" anything, it was long before the magic Jesus myth was invented, and no other Greek gods - and why would Eurpides be acquainted with any others culture's mythologies - were being torn up and eaten. And even if there is some instance in some mythology of mortals tearing up and eating a god, there would certainly be no justification to say "we" always do such things. More like "almost never."

So why both the inaccuracy and the idiotic "we always" claim from a well-paid New Yorker name-brand staffer?

Here's what I think happened - Gopnik saw a production of the Bacchae years before he wrote this article, and somehow had the impression that Pentheus was a god. And then he just invented the "we always eat the God we love" angle, because he thought it was an important piece of human psychological insight. And was too lazy to Google "The Bacchae" and nobody bothered to check his work - or couldn't bring themselves to correct such an important New Yorker insider. And certainly Gopnik would have no motivation to ruin Gopnik's Wicked Kewl Theory Concerning The Bacchae and Our Persistent Theophagy.

But at least somebody, somewhere, is paying attention to some of Gopnik's carelessness - at the bottom of the article (the article was written in May 2010) is this :
*Correction, August 13, 2010: Not all the Gospels are named for disciples, as originally stated.