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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Booklife / Shared Worlds

Little mini-essays written for "Shared Worlds" are starting to pop up on the Booklifenow site. I pass something in, and Jeremy Jones writes a nifty little introduction and slaps a title on it. Other writers respond to the questions, producing varied results. New topics include questions on good and bad advice and writing about the Other.

And Jeremy has also done an interesting interview with Michael Curtis, longtime editor of The Atlantic. Here's a sample question and answer:

What has been your greatest editing challenge?

Curtis: My greatest editing challenge. I can think of three:
A) Shortening stories far too long for The Atlantic format but so distinctive and artful that we hated to give them up. One early example was a story by Joyce Carol Oates, at the time a little known but already prolific writer of short fiction. Trimmed to half its original length, and retitled, the story appeared in The Atlantic in 1964 and was then chosen for inclusion in the O. Henry Prize Stories for that year and was awarded First Prize as the best of the stories in that collection. A more recent example: two stories by a writer whose first collection won a Flannery O Connor Award in the 1990s. We published two of his stories at roughly half their original length without, I believe, leaving out essential detail or nuance.

B) A second challenge: working with writers (often poets who have turned to fiction) whose ideas about language have less to do with literal meaning than with the sound of the words, in isolation or in sequence. This kind of writer often resists the objection that he/she hasn’t said what is plainly intended, and that other words would do a better job. “But I like that word,” he/she will say, “and why can’t I use a noun as a verb, or vice versa?” Problems like this get solved, eventually, but not always in the editor’s favor.

C) A third challenge lies in the use of language too frank or sulfurous for general audiences. When such language is fundamental to a story, can’t be changed without damage to the intent or affect of the story, we usually just return it. In many cases, however, alternates are available and are often just as effective. Such revisions, however, require negotiation and patience. In recent years, frankly, The Atlantic has allowed language it would not have published in the 1960s, offending a handful of readers but probably going unnoticed by the vast majority, and certainly by those familiar with, and comfortable with, the loosening of artistic boundaries in all the arts.

Today's assignment has to do with inventing creatures to be illustrated as part of the Shared Worlds writing camp. Should be hairy and scaly and interesting...

Illustration: The logo above is by John Coulthart, a book designer who is amply suppied with both coult and hart. The image is drawn from Jeff Vandermeer's Booklife jacket. More of John Coulthart's designs and concerns can be found at Atelier Coulthart.


  1. Interesting Marly. I went back and read your essay again on the site and bookmarked it. I'm sure I shall be returning.
    I have always thought I should have been an editor of a magazine like The Atlantic in another life. The comments that editor makes are fascinating.

  2. Robbi,

    Yes, he manages to say a lot in a relatively short space--great interview.

    I imagine you will like that site, as there's a lot of useful material for a writer...

  3. What a great interview. It gives great insight into the editor's life.

  4. Hi Donna--

    Yes, it's a good one.

    Hope the drawing and writing are going well. I'll check out what you've been doing after I get back from a college run with my daughter.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.