I decided today that when it comes to the service professions, editing occupies a place midway between washing machine repair and psychoanalysis on the scale of “delta verifiability.”
I have coined this phrase (which I shall hitherto refer to as delta-V) to refer to the extent to which it is possible to verify the degree of change that has been effected in the status of something in need of fixing. Washing machine repair has a very high delta-V. That is, if a washing machine repair(wo)man (like, say, Avivah Zornberg’s husband) comes to work on a washing macine, it is very easy to tell whether h/she has succeeded in fixing it. Either the washing machine works, or it doesn’t! The proof is in the laundry (or in the puddle on the floor). Of course, no one is going to pay a washing machine repair(wo)man if the washing machine is not properly fixed. As a result of his/her profession’s high delta-V, the repair(wo)man is obligated to deliver on his/her promise.
Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, has a very low delta-V. That is, a person can be in therapy for ten years and still not know whether he/she has gotten “better.” It is very hard to know whether all those hours on the couch are actually effective. In all likelihood, the patient still argues with his/her mother and still procrastinates and still thinks his/her little brother got all the attention…and yet nonetheless, he/she is probably willing to shell out hundreds of dollars a year for the “talking cure” — far more than he/she would ever pay a washing machine repair(wo)man!
Editing occupies a place somewhere in the middle on the delta-V scale. The editor who reworks a manuscript definitely changes that document — but it is not usually clear just how much better it has become. Who is to say that a paper is more readable with shorter sentences? Who is to say that the author’s greatest insight should be saved for the final paragraph? Who is to say that the third digression is too much, whereas the first two can stay in? To some extent, good writing is good writing, and editors are supposedly the arbiters of style. But isn’t style inherently subjective? For this reason, I always have qualms about how much to charge for my various freelance gigs. How can I be sure that my work will actually be worthwhile to my client? If a hundred monkeys sat at a typewriter for two million years, maybe they could accomplish the same thing. (I guess that’s why I charge by the hour?!)
I think the inspiration for this way of thinking comes from an essay I read in college: “The Potato in the Materialist Imagination,” by Stephen Greenblatt. College was many years ago, but if I remember the essay correctly, the author’s basic thesis was that bread occupied a place midway between the potato and the Eucharist in the eyes of starving Englishpeople living in the wake of the Irish Potato Famine. During the famine, the Irish were fed potatoes because there was nothing else to eat. Some years later, when the English experienced a similar famine, they refused to eat potatoes. They felt that potatoes were beneath them — they grew in the ground, they were dirty, their preparation involved very little processing by human hands…it was food for the filthy Irish, they felt. Potatoes, according to the proud English, were all substance and no spirit.
On the other end of the spectrum was the Eucharist, the paper-thin, light-as-air wafer eaten during Mass in church. The Eucharist was all spirit and no substance. It would not nourish the body (no one spoils their appetite by taking communion in church), but it could sustain the soul. Midway between the two was bread, which is both substance and spirit. Bread comes from wheat, which grows in the earth like potatos — but it is wheat that is milled and sifted and kneaded by human hands. It is thus as much a product of culture as of nature. When confronted with famine, the English pushed away the squinting potatos and stood in the bread lines instead.
I have more thoughts on this — I could write about this for a while — but I’m hungry (potatoes) and I still need to daven (Eucharist) and edit some Lilith reviews (bread) before collapsing into bed. Ah, the life of the embodied human soul!