Barzun, My Editor

Helen Hazen’s American Scholar essay on having Jacques Barzun as an editor feels a little strange to me. There’s a definite undercurrent of “Jacques was not only my editor, he was my suitor” (which is all the stranger given the subject matter of her book), and she seems to almost delight in the “punishment” (her word) that he dealt out as her editor.

That said, it’s an interesting look at what it was like to be edited by one of the English language’s most legendary and legendarily finicky practitioners.

But that said, I’m not sure I agree with Hazen’s unambiguous acceptance of the need to blanch her writing of all emotion and illogic:

After a while I got to see that the trouble was that I started with an emotion that, with some pulling, became an idea, but I suffered a weakness in rigorous thinking and was unable to sufficiently elaborate on that idea. Mr. Barzun argued elsewhere that without clear and accurate language we cannot communicate effectively. This was exactly my dilemma. He even recognized the problem early on. His response to the mess of the first draft ended with this prescient admonition:

The only thing I shan’t allow is that your present lack of pattern is the way women think and on that account must be put up with. Even women readers won’t put up with it.

I slowly learned to take the thought one step at a time, to think logically from one point to the next and put those thoughts into clear and effective sentences.

One wonders what would have become of Derrida if Barzun has been his editor.


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