July 24, 2008

"I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do."

It's Giles Coren, getting "mightily pissed off" about copy editing — over the deletion of the word "a" — and with good reason. (Via Metafilter.) I completely understand the sentiment, and I love the thoroughly British tone of the complaint letter.
There is no length issue. This is someone thinking "I'll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate cunt and i know best".

Well, you fucking don't.

This was shit, shit sub-editing for three reasons....

2) I will now explain why your error is even more shit than it looks. You see, i was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as "sexually-charged". I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y.. I have used the word 'gaily' as a gentle nudge. And "looking for a nosh" has a secondary meaning of looking for a blowjob. Not specifically gay, for this is soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. "looking for nosh" does not have that ambiguity. the joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you've fucking stripped it out like a pissed Irish plasterer restoring a renaissance fresco and thinking jesus looks shit with a bear so plastering over it. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, fucking christ, don't you read the copy?
Jesus with a bear? Some Christian iconography I haven't heard of? Or is that another one of his gay jokes, which it could be even if it is only a typo for "beard." I mean, I understand this Coren character is simultaneously fabulously subtle and crude.
3) And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, shittest of all, you have removed the unstressed 'a' so that the stress that should have fallen on "nosh" is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you're winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can't you hear? Can't you hear that it is wrong? It's not fucking rocket science. It's fucking pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. Fuck. fuck, fuck, fuck.
Scansion. Railing about scansion in prose. Metre is crucial. I agree!

ADDED: I've searched the internet for Jesus with a bear and found this very cool painting from Jim Woodring.

(Click image to enlarge.)


Crimso said...

I think that "bear" does have some meaning in the gay community.

Anonymous said...

The same thing happened to me once. My editor once changed "Domers" to "Damers" in a reference to Notre Dame students.

Okay, it's not the same thing, and obviously, this isn't nearly as funny, but I felt the same basic way.

TJ said...

That was a pleasure to read. I don't get the "bear" reference but it was probably literal.

I'll bet Jesus does look shit with a bear in frescoes. I mean, Jesus looks shit with lambs or babies next to him too, but this is the state of American Protestant art and what can you do?

I bet Jesus would look cool next to a whole mess of badgers.

Bob said...

Florence King is notorious for her intolerance of incompetent editing, and actually titled a collection of her National Review columns STET, Damnit!

TJ said...

The WaPo copy editor Bill Walsh runs a great site though too infrequently updated here.

He said the other day that "Damnit" should be two words or "Dammit."

Anonymous said...

While I agree that scansion is the nazz, I don't understand how removing the "a" makes "nosh" unstressed, any more than I understand why you'd expect a plasterer turned loose on a fresco to do anything other than plaster it over.

Jamie Bee said...

Maybe the author purposely wrote "Jesus looks shit with a bear" to make the overt point that removing a single letter (in this case the "d" from the end of "beard") can completely alter the meaning of that sentence.

Paddy O said...

In 1906, Jack London wrote to the editors of Cosmopolitan:

Not one man in a million, including office-boys, is to be found in the magazine offices, who is able properly to revise by elimination the work of a professional author. And the men in your office certainly played duck and drakes with the exposition in the first half of my first boat-article.

The men in your office are certainly most unfit for such work. For instance, I have just finished reading the proofs of "Just Meat." In one place I have my burglar say, "I put the kibosh on his time." Some man in your office changed this to, "I put a crimp in his time." In the first place, "crimp" is incorrect in such usage. In the second place, there is nothing whatever in the connotation of "kibosh" that would prevent it appearing in the pages of your magazine. "Kibosh" is not vulgar, it is not obscene. Such an action is wholly unwarranted and gratuitously officious. Did this co-creator of mine, in your office, think that he knew what he was doing when he made such a ridiculous substitution? And if he does think so, why in the dickens doesn't he get in and do the whole thing himself?

I WEAVE my stuff; you can cut out a whole piece of it, but you can't cut out parts of it, and leave mutilated parts behind. Just think of it. Wading into my exposition and cutting out the premises or proofs or anything else to suit your length of an article, or the space, rather, that you see fit to give such an article. Who in the dickens are you, any of you, to think that you can better my work! Don't you see my point? If the whole woven thing--event, narrative, description--is not suitable for your magazine, why cut it out--cut out the whole thing. I don't care. But I refuse to contemplate for one moment that there is any man in your office, or in the office of any magazine capable of bettering my art, or the art of any other first-class professional writer.

Whole thing here.

TJ said...

I take it back: Jesus looks awesome with a bear. The bear is so penitent and Jesus so forgiving despite being so clearly messed up by the bear.

The presence of the baby bears complicates things for me, though. Why should the bear be forgiven trying to feed its children?

Bob said...

Best be careful, Ann, or you'll draw the attention of the furries and the bears. If you attract the latter, you'll probably get approving links by Andrew Sullivan.

Richard said...

Paul Zrimsek said...
While I agree that scansion is the nazz, I don't understand how removing the "a" makes "nosh" unstressed ....

The overheated Brit got it wrong. Removing the a doesn't make nosh unstressed. Here is the end of the edited sentence:

and wondering where to go for nosh.

That is plainly iambic. Scan it:

and WONdering WHERE to GO for NOSH.

bearbee said...

Recall several years ago A. Sullivan wrote about bear week. Here is a more recent article about Bearism


rhhardin said...

In these days of blank verse prose, nobody pays attention to rhyme either.

MadisonMan said...

I'm also curious to know why the editor took out the a. I wonder if we'll ever learn that.

William said...

The writer sounds like Madonna complaining there was not enough Evian in her dressing room....Who knew that nosh is a term for a bj? Using gay subculture slang is as much an affectation as peppering your writing with French phrases or Latin quotations--especially if the readership is that of a popular magazine.. They draw the reader's attention to the fact that the writer knows the secret code and the reader does not....My guess is that "with a bear" modifies shit and not Jesus. It is not a phrase like Christ on a crutch. "Shit wtih a bear" means that it is not just a stinking mess but a fearsome stinking mess...Incidentally, pissed in Britspeak means drunk, not angry.

Ann Althouse said...

Does a bear shit in the woods?

I'm sure it's a typo for beard.

The letter is not carefully proofread... ironically.

Beth said...

I can't see why the editor would remove the "a," either.

But I am reminded of an interview with Brett Easton Ellis in Esquire many years ago in which he bragged, "No one edits me, no one." And I thought that was incredibly obvious and explained a lot.

Jack Craver said...

Hmm...I got started at the Badger Herald by writing a letter to the editor that discussed "taxing carbon." However, what appeared in the paper instead was "axing carbon." Any organic chemists reading understand that such a solution would present very serious implications to more than just our energy policy -- such as our existence.

reader_iam said...

I'd like to have read the actual review, but despite some effort, have failed to locate it.

However, I have just skimmed 12 other of Coren's reviews. With the exception of one or two, their final lines--"the pay off" don't strike me as "all that." And while he's quite a good writer of a particular type, I think he overwrites (and writes over long) and could do with a bit of pruning. Who ought to do the pruning is a different issue.

William, having read Coren's stuff, it's more about culture than food, per se. For that reason, the use of slang, in-group references and so forth makes sense. It's inherent to the form and appropriate to the target audience at which its aimed.

Anyway, if anyone locates the actual review in question, share the link, please!

reader_iam said...

One more thing, what d'y'all think of this lede:

t really does upset me when a famous restaurateur opens up the first outlet of a new cheapo chain and invites all the critics to special private meals before the official opening, and then plies them with dishes biked in from his celebrated upscale eateries round the corner, or has food cooked specially for them on-site by his own private chefs, so that they write reviews that are wholly, wholly wrong and misleading, and the place ends up thriving, instead of closing as it would in a just world, within the week.

bearbee said...

The 'Chaps' letter reminded me of hilarious complaint letter, which I managed to locate, written by another irate Brit to NTL. a British cable co, with the salutation Dear Cretins

Actual Letter to NTL Complaints Department

He ended enclosing a potpourri of sorts.

reader_iam said...


Yep, the reaction was over the top, and I suspect he's an asshole to deal with, but you know what?

He's dead right.

William said...

Unless the lede was an intentional self-parody, it was very bad. He is such a hyperbolic writer self parody would be like a chamelon sitting on a mirror....As a former construction worker of Irish descent who has on occasion lunched at the Blarney Stone, I would like to take exception to his description of pissed Irish plasterers. To my certain knowledge a few beers does nothing but improve one's appreciation of Renaissance art. In just this way do stereotypes get spread.

reader_iam said...

Hey, also via Metafilter, here are two two more Coren e-mails.

Man, oh, man, that guy can creatively wield imagery and profanity to tear a new asshole. Which, this morning, suits me just fine, since I'm in quite the swearing mood myself (for reasons unrelated to this post, or the blogosphere, for that matter). From the first link:

never ever ask me to write something for you. and don't pay me. i'd rather take £400 quid for assassinating a crack whore's only child in a revenge killing for a busted drug deal - my integrity would be less compromised.

jesus fucking wept i don't know what else to say.

Some days, reading stuff on the internets is a real release valve.

vbspurs said...

LOL @ the letter.

LOL! @ the comments.

LMAO @ the Jesus with bear fresco.

This thread is priceless.


vbspurs said...

Jesus and the Dinosaurs

Doug Sundseth said...

The author of the screed must be used to being paid by the word. He could have gotten by with "stet".

Randy said...

As these kinds of letters go, it is ok. Giles Coren is a columnist of average ability destined to live and write in the long shadow of his father, the late Alan Coren. Try as he might (and he does try mightily as this letter proves), he will probably never get out from under it, so he takes it out on all and sundry.

Bissage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bissage said...

P.S. LOVE the painting!

Joe M. said...

This is funny. The Professor's right: for a letter complaining about poor copy-editing, this is remarkably in need of a copy-editor.

But the guy's absolutely right.

Especially about the meter. The copy-editing just kills the rhythm of the last line.

Richard, this is where I disagree with you : it's all in the natural rhythm of speaking--"a" serves as a springboard to launch "nosh," giving it more weight and the piece a stronger ending ; it's not about how the line reads if you force it into a straight-jacket of a poetic meter, it's about how the line is heard, the same as in song-writing : the little words are important for the way they shape the line.

Bissage said...

Wikipedia says that “stet” is a “Latin word (meaning ‘let it stand’) used by proofreaders to instruct the writer to disregard a change the editor had previously marked.”

That reminded me of “R/C”.

Anyone know what it stands for?

You’re buying a suit and the tailor snugs the waistband and he draws those slash marks on either side of the back seam. Then you tell him to take it in a little more because you just got back from vacation and you’re going to drop those extra pounds. So the tailor snugs the waistband a little more this time and he draws those slash marks again. Except this time he writes “R/C”.

Give up?

Stands for “remove chalk.”


vet66 said...

Placing a reasoning ability on a part of the female anatomy (C..T) is colorful but inaccurate.

It appears that our erstwhile outraged writer has difficulties far beyond the rhyme and metre of his scribblings. Describing a c..t as literate or not is like describing a unicorn. Neither one exists although can be described. Outside the vagina monolgues, I doubt Coren has had a conversation anywhere near the "nosh pit" in question.

Bissage said...

That 12:36 needed a re-write!

Bissage said...


Ms. Lydia Fink said...

What a bunch of mean , nasty people we Americans have become. Reading the posts here makes me want to withdraw from the human race.

XWL said...

Should we consult Andrew Sullivan about the relative 'bear-iness' of the various Apostles?

(I'm going to have to go with Saint Peter, aka "The Rock", as the Bear-iest)

Ralph L said...

It looks like Jesus & the bear are playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. And Jesus likes tortilla chips.

Oddly, if he'd used "head" instead of "nosh", the editor would have been correct, unless it was for a naval magazine. "Looking for nosh" makes as much sense BJ-wise as "looking for a head."

John said...

What a vile vulger women.

John Burgess said...

British English, as spoken, seems to be causing some headaches, even to the quasi-erudite William.

The British use the word 'pissed' to mean drunk. They use the phrase 'pissed off' just as Americans do, to note anger.

They also have 'to take the piss of someone', i.e., to pull his leg or, more harshly, to set someone in his place. Derived from this is 'piss-taker' for one who inflicts such moral correction.

'C*nt' is not quite the same as in American English. For that, the Brits use 'fanny', also not quite the same as in American English. Instead, 'c*nt' is more analogous to the French 'con' (with the same genital origin) but meaning only 'a fool', 'an idiot', 'a jerk'.

Finally, reading the article one learns that 'a nosh' is not homosexual cant, but instead a common slang word, used by those of all sexual persuasions.

SGT Ted said...

It looks like the bear and Jesus are playing rock/paper/scissors.

Simon said...

What is it with these people who have so impoverished a vocubulary that they can't make it through a single paragraph without wholly superfluous expletives? Maybe Coren should be happy that someone is willing to publish anything he writes if this is remotely similar to his work. "Illiterate cunt" indeed.

Richard said...

Joe M. said...
But the guy's absolutely right. Especially about the meter. The copy-editing just kills the rhythm of the last line.


The last phrase as originally written:
and WONdering WHERE to GO for a NOSH.

The last phrase as edited:
and WONdering WHERE to GO for NOSH.

Yeah, that really wrecked the rhythm.

Footnote: Giles is right about there being no justification for the edit. But there's also no justification for his nuclear reaction: He's just not that good a writer, and even if he were, it wasn't that great a line. The editor damaged a mediocre joke that wouldn't have registered with 95 percent of readers.

Giles is right about the edit. He is also a raving, self-important asshole.

sakredkow said...

I don't think he meant to say "Jesus with a bear" I think he meant "Jesus with bear."

Richard said...

joe m again ...
it's not about how the line reads if you force it into a straight-jacket of a poetic meter,

Are you trying to be obtuse? Nobody has forced the line into a straitjacket. The author claimed that the edit took the stress off the final word. It plainly did not. That is the point: The edit did not damage the rhythm of the last phrase -- whether it is the rhythm you see or the rhythm you hear in speaking.

Joe M. said...


I told you I disagreed with you on the meter. I understand what you're saying, but clearly we're approaching the problem from different perspectives. I have stated the reasons for which I disagree with your assessment of the rhythm (and see no need to repeat them), and if you do not find my reasons persuasive, I do not think there's much more that can be done in this forum. And frankly, it doesn't much matter whether we agree or not.

I do wish, however, that you would at least be courteous in disagreement. Not every difference of opinion online has to be a bitter argument.

Joe M.

vbspurs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe said...

It always cracks me up when writer's publish rants to their editors and do so in a way that wishes they had passed it through an editor. Has Coren ever heard of a shift key? How about the comma key? In truth, he should be mad since the copy editor should have hacked his piece up even more so at least Coren would sound literate.

vbspurs said...

I posted my German rally post on the wrong thread.

I guess I saw a picture of Jesus, and just automatically thought of Obama.



ronbo said...

To my ear the edit did change the flow of the line, although not as cripplingly as Coren seems to think. However, I completely agree that the edit makes the sentence read like it has a typo. One can go FOR A nosh or TO nosh, but not FOR nosh. It's just wrong.

But what I really love about Coren's letter, and about the NTL letter linked to above, is its quintessential Britishness. There is something about the combination of erudition and impotence that is both irresistible and impossible to duplicate. I don't know that they are any more effective than, "Fuck you, you fucking fuck" but letters like that are much more fun to read and have to be much more satisfying to write.

blake said...

I look at the painting and think, "Man, Jesus seems really pissed at that bear."

And then imagine it as a "Far Side" with a caption of, "You know what? You know what? Fine! I'm going to lie down with the lion!"

Joe M. said...

Maybe the lion will give him a nosh. Or Jesus will be nosh for the lion. Or the lion and Jesus will go out for a nosh together after their nice little lie-down.

Jesus. All these noshes hurt one's head.

Beldar said...

I like the painting of Jesus playing poker with those dogs better myself.

vbspurs said...

I actually finally clicked on the picture because my eye caught that checkered scarf on the ground. I thought, OMG! Jesus supported the intifada??

But that's okay. It was only Rachael Ray's undies.


Synova said...

The meter is much much better with the "a". It's not just a matter of stresses... it's a matter of pauses as well.

So... "wondering where to go for nosh" may well have an even rhythm but it doesn't push the emphasis to the last word which is no more emphasized than any other word and probably less emphasized than "where". If the "where" is more important than the "nosh" then super.

"...go for a nosh" on the other hand, is not emphasized "...WONdering WHERE to GO for A nosh." It's ..."GO for a NOSH." Because the "a" has to be on the down beat there is a greater rise to the last word which lends it emphasis above the word "where."

Really... it is a huge difference.

Dave Hardy said...

I think that in British slang "Jesus with a bear" means having sex with a member of the House of Lords, a famous gay club. Except when it means a dish consisting of beef cooked in lard and lettuce. Or a bipolar who really needs meds.