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Notes from a glass house

Moaning and complaining about the current state of editing in Canadian publishing reached a kind of crescendo around the time of last year’s Giller prize. Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game had so many grammatical and syntactical missteps that some seriously raised the issue of whether it deserved to be considered for a major literary award. Others, unsurprisingly, thought such criticism was pedantic, curmudgeonly and—worse—immaterial in the case of a novel. Fiction, after all, is honoured for its emotional power. Whatever you think of that argument—and I’m with the cranks—it does raise the question: what about non-fiction? Clear, clean communication surely matters there.
Of course journalists, masters of the misplaced modifier, are on shaky ground on this topic, but in the spirit of a long professional tradition of holding others to higher standards than we hold ourselves, allow me to present two arresting sentences from major publishers.
In Wikinomics (Penguin) co-authors Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams want to praise the contributions of over 100 leading thinkers: “Their roles in bringing this book to life is (sic) graciously acknowledged below.” Forget about reconciling “roles and “is,” and consider graciousness. That’s a quality we praise in others—at least it was—rather than something we boast of in ourselves. So the odds are that Tapscott and Williams meant that they were happy to acknowledge the gracious aid of 100 experts, or perhaps to “gratefully” record their help. But in a book that stakes its claim to cutting-edge status by irritatingly championing a neologism every page or so—from “prosumer” (consumers who get in on the early design of products and services) to the the title itself—who knows?
Enter the Babylon System (Random House) by Rodrigo Bascunan and Christian Pearce—a passionate and illuminating discussion of the links (or lack thereof) between hip-hop music and gun culture—is a rambling, frequently maddening text to follow. In part that’s because the authors often preach to the converted in the converted’s own language: “The emperor has no clothes? No, more like the emperor was dipped in fresh gear but missing the right kicks.” And in part because the book is series of “yes, but” side-steps. Bascunan and Pearce, adamant believers in hip-hop’s positive “political and cultural voice,” are also honest and sincere reporters. They are, rightfully, disdainful of any analysis that blames gun violence on popular music, but they don’t absolve rappers of their responsibilities as the voices of their culture: “hip-hop’s direction is determined by its most popular creators and the power to strip guns of their glamour lies largely with them.” So intricate a read hardly needs to trip up those trying to follow it with sentences like “Between 1974 and 2003 the percentage of rifles and shotguns used in homicides in Canada decreased from 64 percent to just 20 percent.” Assuming the authors don’t mean that the average 1974 murder victim was shot with just under two-thirds of a rifle, some editor should have turned that into “the percentage of homicides involving a rifle decreased …”
Does this stuff really matter? Yes, it really does, and in direct relationship to the amount a goodwill a prospective reader brings to a book. For anyone suspicious of a text, or needing to devote considerable energy to an inherently difficult argument, it can make all the difference.