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Who Will Edit the Editors?

February 7, 2012

I’ve just been reading JM Barrie’s collected plays – Peter Pan and Other Plays, ed, Peter Hollindale, OUP. It’s a strange and wonderful collection, but for me slightly marred by Hollindale’s intrusive editing. On almost every page little  degree signs hover, beckoning you towards the notes at the back. So you flip to the back after seeing a degree sign appended to, for instance, the phrase ‘looking daggers’, to discover that it means ‘looking angry’. Well blow me down. ‘Canute’ is glossed as ‘the king who commanded the tide to cease advancing, the better to instruct his courtiers on the bounds of kingly power’. What is the point of telling the reader this? It’s a sufficiently well-known story that you might think any reader of JM Barrie’s plays would know it already; but if they didn’t – perhaps Hollindale has foreign students in mind – well, they could look it up in any encyclopaedia, or simply google ‘Canute’. It’s not an editor’s job to repair gaps in readers’ general knowledge.

And so it goes on. ‘Hedge’ is glossed as ‘equivocate’; the difficult French word ‘soiree’ is given as ‘evening party’; ‘Omnes’ is translated as ‘everyone’. If a reader was confused by any of these, all they’d have to do is look them up. It’s not an editor’s job to be a dictionary, either. (In any case, I don’t think a reader who didn’t understand ‘hedge’ as a verb would be likely to understand ‘equivocate’ either.)

To be fair, not all the notes state the obvious. Some state the recondite. I wouldn’t have known, for instance, that the line ‘Mary Jane is coming across the fields’ (from Mary Jane) is echoed by Philip Larkin in the line ‘There is an evening coming in across the fields’ in his poem ‘Going’. But though I’m not averse to learning this, I can’t see how it helps me understand Barrie’s text any better. What’s the purpose of this note? To let the reader know how well-read Peter Hollindale is? No doubt he is – but that’s not the point. Trying to read a book under these conditions is like trying to watch a film with someone sitting beside you constantly nudging you in the ribs, explaining the plot, passing on unwanted snippets of information about the careers of the actors and the director, paraphrasing bits of the dialogue they imagine you won’t understand, and thoughtfully pointing out instances of irony for you.

Ah, but you could always ignore the notes, someone might say. But even if you don’t look them up, their very presence is an irritant, hovering between you and the text like a swarm of midges. And in practice, a kind of exasperated curiosity often impels you to look them up. Is he really going to explain that the Upper House is the House of Lords? (Yup.)

The role of an editor is to elucidate and illuminate the text: something which Hollindale does very well in some of his more genuinely explanatory notes.  Editors should be discreet, sensitive, self-effacing. Perhaps it’s not quite fair to pick on Hollindale in this way, as he’s far from being the only culprit. A few years ago I wrote an article about the Penguin edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, which had more pages devoted to introduction and notes than there were pages in the novel itself; and I recall as an undergraduate reading an edition of Moby Dick where the notes ran to literally hundreds of pages, making a parallel text in their own right, like the notes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. But it’s high time this trend was stopped. Who will edit the editors?

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