February 27, 2005

Miss Gould passes

In response to an affectionate appreciation ("The Point of Miss Gould's Pencil", by Verlyn Klinkenborg, NYT 2/16/05, p. A26) of the work of Eleanor Gould Packard at The New Yorker, where she served for 54 years, Michael R. Burr (letter to NYT, 2/21/05, p. A20) elevates the magazine's "venerable arbiter of style" (Klinkenborg) to a kind of sword-wielding sainthood:

No mere proofreader or pedant, Eleanor Gould Packard was a guardian of civilization in a thankless struggle to avoid its disintegration. She upheld standards and imposed discipline, which in turn taught discipline in one's thought, and ultimately in one's actions as well.
For those of us who care about such things, Miss Gould's magnificent efforts are greatly appreciated, and she will be sorely missed.

Burr totally misses the point of Klinkenborg's appreciation (now echoed in a longer memorial by David Remnick in the 2/28/05 New Yorker, pp. 34f.) -- that what Gould was trying to do was help writers say what they were aiming for in a language with "a kind of Euclidean clarity--transparent, precise, muscular" (Remnick) -- and instead celebrates her career with ravings about the disintegration of civilization. We aim for grace and style, but somehow we get barbarians at the gates. Undisciplined barbarians, at that. Some people seem unable to think about matters of syntax, usage, logic, rhetoric, and diction except through the distorting glass of the image of the Great Decline.

Not, however, Klinkenborg and Remnick, who experienced Gould's editing first-hand.

As Klinkenborg puts it:

I learned from her neatly inscribed comments that even though I was writing correctly -- no syntactical flat tires, no grammatical fender-benders -- I was often not really listening to what I was saying. That may seem impossible to a reader who isn't a writer. But Miss Gould's great gift wasn't taking writers seriously. It was taking their words seriously.

She received the title Grammarian (a title that was retired with her), not because she was primarily concerned with grammaticality, but (presumably) because people who aren't actually grammarians use the label grammar for everything in language that is subject to regulation or judgment. She had four pet peeves, Remnick reports, two of which (failure to observe the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers, incorrect subject-verb agreement) are matters of grammar in the narrow sense, two of which (indirection, careless repetition) are not. But it's clear from what Klinkenborg and Remnick say that her attention was almost entirely devoted to other things; after all, grammar in the narrow sense was very unlikely to be an issue in manuscripts submitted by Janet Flanner, J. D. Salinger, Pauline Kael, or Lawrence Weschler. Writers and editors valued her advice (even when they bridled at it) not because she saved them from error but because she was trying to help them realize their intentions.

I've had many experiences with editors. Some I remember with distaste even after many years; few things are quite as alarming and frustrating as an editor who comes at your manuscript like a grammar-checking program, with nothing more than a long list of Don'ts and fixes for them. But other encounters were rewarding, with editors who aimed for clarity, an effective voice, and an appreciation of the audience, and who negotiated choices and changes with me. (Most recently, Bruce Shenitz at Out magazine.) Somehow, the putative disintegration of civilization never entered into these exchanges.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 27, 2005 02:29 PM