Nevertheless, it has been on my mind. I received a proof of the feature articles that will be in the next Quilter's Home magazine, and my next humor piece was included among them. There was a joke that had been edited incorrectly and thus no longer made any sense. It was a reference to a show on MTV, and because the editor of the piece had never heard of it, her edit was just a guess as to what she thought I meant, though by now she ought to know that I don't make mistakes like that, and that it was written - and typed - exactly as it was intended to appear. I gave her the correction and she still felt that the joke was a problem and so added "spin-off" to the name, as though the show I was referencing was a spin-ff of the real show, and not the name of the show itself. Hard to explain when you can't actually write the joke out (don't wanna give spoilers!). I objected again and she did ultimately defer to me, but with the concern that too many people won't get the joke, largely because she didn't and often doesn't get current pop culture references. I did not respond to that, but what I was thinking then, and still think, is - so what?
I do understand the constraints that magazine editors and publishers are under. In order for a publication to survive it has to draw both readers and advertisers, and this generally can't come from a limited pool. Quilting magazines, obviously, already have a limited pool, and therefore have more pressure to be attractive to the largest number of readers within that pool. One of the editors just posted on Facebook recently that some reader had sent in a letter taking her and her co-editor to task for having, as she saw it, insulted her favorite color. Clearly, that was probably beyond their control, but it highlights both the volatility of certain readers, as well as the precarious position this magazine is in. After a big shake-up in which the founder of the magazine left in a huff and took many readers with him, they have been struggling to maintain the readers they still have, attract new ones, and draw back advertisers spooked by the departure of the former editor. Losing even one reader, albeit a crazy one, stings and doesn't help the bottom line. That bottom line determines whether they - and I - will have work a year from now.
Having been an editor myself, I have tried to be very flexible where my work has been changed. With feature articles and other editorial content this is easier, but where the humor pieces are concerned, I find myself feeling much more territorial and even resentful of changes that I feel are unnecessary and even detrimental.
Let me give an example: In my first piece, "The Zen of Crappy Quilting," I had this sentence:
My desire to create perfect quilts causes me to buy all sorts of crap, from charm packs and jelly rolls, to umpteen rulers and gadgets, and I’m seriously eyeing one of those Berninas down at the quilt shop.
This is how they edited it:
My desire to create perfect quilts causes me to buy all sorts of crap, from charm packs and jelly rolls, to umpteen rulers and gadgets, and I’m seriously eyeing "one of those" Berninas down at the quilt shop.
In what world does the second way improve on the first? Why the quotation marks? Why the italics on "those"? It makes no sense and distracts from what was being said.
Here's another. In the article, "A Brief History of Quilting," I wrote this:
Probably the greatest moment in quilting history occurred at 2:37 p.m. on October 9, 1979, when Dolores Codswallop of French Lick, Ind. got sick and tired of cutting out itty bitty squares with scissors and, in a moment of inspiration, took all her fabric and ran over it several times with the lawn mower.
They made one itty, bitty change:
Probably the greatest moment in quilting history occurred at 2:37 p.m. on October 9, 1979, when Dolores Codswallop of French Lick, Ind. got sick and tired of cutting out itty bitty squares with scissors and, in a moment of inspiration, took all her fabric and ran over it several times with a mulching lawn mower.
Now, I could understand changing "the lawn mower" to "a lawn mower," and looking back I might have changed it myself. But why a "mulching" lawn mower? What did that add that wasn't there before? The difference between a mulching mower and a regular one is only germane when you are actually mowing a lawn. Why add a word that doesn't make the concept any clearer, or the joke any funnier, unless you are just fucking with it for the sake of fucking with it? An editor I once worked for said that every article needs some editing; there's nothing that can't be improved. And I say, if you honestly believe that's the case, you better have damn good reasons for making the changes you do. And I think that applies even more in the case of purely creative writing (as opposed to editorial).
I realize these examples may seem piddly, but to me they are glaring blots on works that I am otherwise rather proud of. And nearly every humor piece I have written for this publication has one or two of these kinds of edits. But - and here's the rub - I doubt that many readers other than me would notice or care, or possibly even understand my objections after pointing them out. One might think that would be an argument for letting them go, but I see it differently. And yes, this does relate to the earlier points about alienating readers.
I suspect that editors of other publications that routinely publish humor are well aware that funny, no matter how well-written, is always subjective. What's funny to one person may not be as funny, or funny at all, to another, and this can be due to personality differences, differences in experience and knowledge, or possibly several other factors. Naturally, I worship the Shouts and Murmurs page in The New Yorker, but occasionally they print a piece that leaves me cold. Somebody, however, who makes a living at determining what is funny enough to appear on what may be the premier humor page in U.S. publications, decided that it was a damn riot, and though I usually think I get why it is supposed to be funny, I may disagree that it was successful.
Because humor is subjective, it is hard to edit, or I suspect that it must be so. For an editor to change, insert, or remove words he or she must have not only a very good understanding of what the writer was trying to accomplish but also a certain command of that writer's voice. This last is obviously very difficult, so there must be a collaboration between editor and writer. When I write humor, I pick my words carefully, more so than when I write something like a blog post. There is a general tone I may be shooting for, and deviations from that tone within the same piece are always intentional. A lot of my humor depends upon this tone, whether it is meant to be authoritative, or pedantic, or conversational, or what have you. Often there may be a joke in having a piece that is written like an entry in an encyclopedia, but which has obvious asides written by someone who is trying to insert their own opinion in something meant to be utterly objective. And unless the editor absolutely gets that, he or she may stumble in trying to "fix" things that do not actually need fixing. Thus, without collaboration in the editing process, something carefully crafted can get ruined, whether on a small scale, as above, or a large one if such edits are rampant throughout a piece. The writer can, when presented with proposed edits, say, "I meant for it to be that way. Changing it changes the joke, and it's no longer funny." However, the editor must be able to trust the writer's judgement, and, conversely, the writer must also be willing to make changes if the editor can demonstrate that the changes are necessary and beneficial. Just as an editor should never change something arbitrarily just for the sake of changing something, neither should a writer stubbornly cling to his or her original words when a change would clearly make them better.
But to change a humor piece because you worry that a reader, or several readers, may not get the joke, has other problems. To me, writing humor is almost an intellectual pursuit. It comes out of my view of the world and my interpretation of what is absurd. Your views and interpretations may intersect with mine or not, and you may miss a joke either because you do not find it funny or because you do not understand or have knowledge of some specific fact that is being referenced within it. But the minute I begin to assess every reference to make sure it will have the greatest chance of being recognized by the majority of people who read it, I have ceased to write anything that approaches satire (and I like to think that what I write does approach it, at least somewhat).
Lets use another example, though not from my own writing. This morning I read a great piece on Slate.com by Joel Stein about Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell's remarks about masturbation. To paraphrase the issue at hand, O'Donnell thinks masturbation is as bad as adultery, is in fact a kind of adultery. Stein, at one point wrote:
Though O'Donnell has been ridiculed for her prudishness, I actually think she's right. Masturbation is bad for marriage. Our pornified, DIY sex culture leads to husbands who would rather go to their man-cave for an hour than attempt to negotiate intimacy with their wives—especially because many of those wives aren't Asian.
Now, I think that is hilarious. But, if you go down to the comments, you'll find people who didn't get it at all. Some people didn't get that is was a joke; others knew it was supposed to be funny and even thought it was but couldn't adequately explain why. The joke is about the prevalence of Asian women, and the fetishization of Asian women, in modern online pornography. But if you have no idea that half the porn sites out there are screaming HOT ASIAN TEENS at whoever comes by to say howdy, you aren't going to understand why this is funny. It's a cultural reference, and one that many people who do get it won't admit to being privy to. Should Stein's editor have removed it or changed it to make it more accessible? No. It was a specific joke, with a specific reference and a specific intent. Missing that joke does not ruin the entire piece. It is in fact an excellent joke, and one that should be left intact for those who do get it and appreciate it. If someone were so put off by not understanding the joke that they would withdraw their gaze from Slate.com's pages forevermore, then that joke was merely the straw the broke the camel's back and not the prime catalyst. More likely, the entire article would be grounds for someone to click off in a huff, but those people are missing out on a whole lot in life, humor articles included. Slate made a specific editorial decision when they chose to publish a humor piece that defends masturbation, which then leaves it up to the reader to determine if they find it funny or offensive or just kind of blah or whether they are just too sheltered to even get the jokes. If they had begun to question whether a certain joke would be understood by enough readers, the entire piece would have been called into question, since the whole thing hinged on a basic understanding of who this Christine O'Donnell person is and what various arguments have been made in the past both for and against her opinion.
My point here is that humor is a gamble. If you are brave enough to publish intelligent humor writing, you have to trust that enough of your audience is smart enough to get it, that the ones who don't get a joke or two can handle it, and that, despite the need for readers, a reader who would bail over a single joke was gonna bail over something else anyway. The last thing we in publishing need to be doing is dumbing things down for the least savvy among us, because we are supposed to be providing the materials to help make them more savvy. Humor, and especially satire, always takes the risk that the author knows more, or possibly, less than the reader, and that is what makes it exciting to read. Because when the writing and the reader meet in that perfect way, it feels like both an accomplishment and a conspiracy.