Just as Dorothy and her companions in “The Wizard of Oz” fear the lions, tigers and bears they might encounter in the Haunted Forest, writers worry about the grammar, spelling and usage mistakes that may be lurking in our prose. Fortunately, we have editors, whose sharp eyes and inquiring minds save us from the errors that are just waiting to leap out and embarrass us in public.
One of the finest, and perhaps funniest, of these editors (in addition to my own, of course) is Mary Norris, who, for nearly 40 years, has been aiding and abetting the luminaries whose writing graces the pages of The New Yorker. And lucky for anyone who enjoys a book that both entertains and educates, Norris is also a terrific writer and shares her experiences and expertise in “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Because it is both a memoir and a reference book, finding “Between You and Me” at your local bookstore can be a challenge. At Books-A-Million, they’ve hidden this gem among the dictionaries back in the reference section, instead of shelving it in the non-fiction section, where I believe it belongs.
Interspersed among Norris’ engaging stories about her life outside and inside the offices of The New Yorker are fascinating discourses on the history of dictionaries and pencils, explanations of the intricacies of spelling and punctuation, and the author’s take on everything from obscenities to the problem of finding a decent gender-neutral pronoun. Readers also are treated to portraits of some of The New Yorker’s famous and decidedly quirky proofreaders and copy editors and to the author’s vision of the role of the copy editor.
Most people entertain a stereotypical view of editors, equating them with Miss Redpencil, the nit-picky, priggish, comma Nazi of their grade school days. As Norris says, “We copy editors sometimes get a reputation for wanting to redirect the flow, change the course of the missile, have our way with a piece of prose.” She also is aware that many people think of a copy editor as “a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors,…or at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers.”
In truth, she sees her job as making sure that a piece of prose is not only correct, but also is clear to the reader and faithful to the author’s intent. These goals demand a lot from an editor. For starters, she must be intimately acquainted with the rules that govern our confusing language. She also must have an encyclopedic knowledge of word meanings (in many languages), and a zest for research, and be exquisitely sensitive to what the writer is trying to accomplish. Finally, she has to have an almost supernatural ability to spot inconsistencies.
Norris tells a funny story about finding one such inconsistency in an excerpt from Philip Roth’s “I Married a Communist” that was about to run in The New Yorker. When she queried it, she received a note from the fiction editor, Bill Buford, penciled on the first page of the final proof, which read: “Of Mary Norris, Roth said: ‘Who is this woman? And will she come and live with me?’” In her book, Norris confesses: “I have been smitten ever since the proposition on the page proof. I suppose all he wanted was a housekeeper, someone to keep track of the details. But if he should ever read this I just want to say I’m still available.”
There’s so much I love about this book that I hardly know where to begin. I love that she gives such good reasons for writers to strive for correctness. For instance, in the chapter titled “Spelling is for Weirdos,” she says: “Spelling is the clothing of words, their outward visible sign, and even those who favor sweatpants in everyday life like to make a…good impression in their prose. A misspelling undermines your authority.” And I love that, far from being a priss, Norris can be salty, even a little raunchy, making liberal and hilarious use of the F-word in her chapter on obscenities and their euphemisms. Her bottom line is that “You can’t legislate language….And yet no one wants to be pummeled constantly by four-letter words. If we’re going to use them, let’s use them right. Profanity ought to be fun.”
Finally, I love that Norris is a woman after my own heart. I was happy and relieved to know I am not the only person on the planet who includes among her pet peeves incorrectly punctuated signs, having to write with the wrong kind of pencil, bad grammar in song lyrics, and people who use “I” when they should use “me,” and vice versa. The I/we error irks both Norris and me because it’s so easy to get right. All you have to do is leave out the other person and read the sentence to see if it makes sense. “The I/we error irks me,” makes sense. “The I/we error irks I,” does not. Ta-da!
Much as I love just about everything in “Between You and Me” (NOT, you will note, “Between You and I”!), I do need to issue a “too-much-information” warning. Norris is so crazy in love with grammar, spelling and usage that she can get carried away with her explanations to the point where their technicality becomes daunting and, even for me, hard to follow. But that’s a minor quibble. There’s so much to enjoy in this book, and so much to learn from a pro like Norris, that it’s worth wading through the dark and scary forest of her rule explanations. I hope you’ll be brave and read this book because it is, ultimately, a wonderful celebration of language and of life.