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Cynthia Ozick: An Editorial Cautionary Tale

A cautionary tale of unintentional hilarity appears in this month’s edition of STANDPOINT.Online, courtesy of novelist/essayist Cynthia Ozick, who has reprinted her acceptance speech for the PEN/Faulkner Lifetime Achievement Award. After taking a gleeful hatchet to several recently-dead contemporaries (Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, and William Styron among them), Ozick segues into a long, wistful meditation on the “invisibility” of writers (e.g., Henry James) whose posthumous acclaim far exceeds the recognition they received in life. Inevitably, the “diffident, obsequious, self-effacing” author makes her bid to join the company of these martyrs:

If you detect in these paragraphs a tone of confident authority, it is because I am myself an invisible of long standing. If you have read this far, the thought may have occurred to you: that you have never before seen anything else by this writer, and why? I put in evidence a letter, received only today, from my cherished London literary agent—a royalty report, no cheque attached, all advances unearned, all balances zero. (Ah, the airy, ineffable zero! Not for nothing did the philosophical Greeks snatch out of the void this numberless nullity!) I am fortunate enough to be tolerated: no agent or publisher has yet decided to dump me, as any persistent, consistent drainer of profits deserves.

Actually, we have read Ms. Ozick’s essays before, and that parenthetical just reminded us why we stopped. But for anyone still mystified as to why this once-in-a-generation talent drains her publisher’s profits, she goes on, excruciatingly, to demonstrate:

One afternoon, on the very day I finished typing the last sentence, I posted my second first novel to an editor who plied his trade in a New York skyscraper. Back came the manuscript in the mail, with 100 pages all marked up in red pencil—and a note. The note read: “If you do everything my red pencil suggests, and of course there will be more in this vein, we will accept your novel for publication. But if you decline to follow my red pencil’s indispensable advice, then we will decline to publish.”

Fourteen years gone! Outrun by the cohort of my generation, I lusted for print as Jacob panted after Rachel. To the editor I wrote: “Seven years have I labored for these words, and yet another seven years; so I say unto you, Nay, not one jot or tittle will I alter or undo.”

To which the blessed editor replied: “OK, we’ll take it anyway.”

Readers, as an Abbeville editor, I say unto you: if I ever received a note like that from Yahweh Himself, let alone a first-time author, I would throw the whole manuscript, jot and tittle, into the trash. Instead that poor, anonymous comma jockey cracked under the strain of the job. The lesson here is tragic and obvious: if an editor doesn’t wield his red pencil like a sword of merciless justice, writing like this will actually see the light of print—and of course, win the PEN/Faulkner Lifetime Achievement Award.

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