Wednesday, May 19, 2010

O Brave New Editors

Is there any headier experience than running your own publication when you're still in your twenties? Perhaps it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but for those of us bitten by the journalism bug, it may well be the best time of our lives. And having been on both ends of the journalism transaction--writer and editor--I know that it's way more fun to be in the driver's seat than to be the hitch-hiker by the side of the road watching the cars fly past.

When I was in college, I wasn't exactly running a publication, but I did have responsibility for filling the features page three times a week--and that was plenty of responsibility, as far as I was concerned. I got to think up story ideas, assign them to others or (more often than I planned) write them myself, come up with clever headlines and graphics, design the layout ... in short, wield journalistic power. Of course, there were frequent crises: writers that were MIA as deadlines approached, stories that came in with serious problems, photos that got lost somewhere in the darkroom (yes, in those days we had a darkroom) ... whatever. But even the crises were exhilarating. And the cameraderie born of sharing all this joy and angst with my colleagues was--while temporary and situational--genuine and memorable.

My son (who is the most faithful, if not the only, reader of this blog) has just come off what I presume is a similar experience editing his own college publication--where, as editor-in-chief, he had way more responsibility than I did, and was far more innovative and thoughtful in his approach. He may well go far in journalism, which, despite the fact that the industry seems to be imploding, is his chosen field of endeavor, at least for now. But I wonder if he'll ever have as much fun again. (Sam: I know it wasn't ALL fun, but believe, me, it will seem more and more like nonstop fun as the years go by.)

So I think I (and perhaps my son) can relate to the enthusiasm with which Eliza Anderson, at the age of 26, must have approached her new post as editor of a fledgling magazine in 1807. We don't know exactly how her rise to this position came about, but she probably started out by submitting articles, under pseudonyms of course, to a publication called the Companion. The editors of the Companion--all men, and all apparently busy with their studies or occupations and hard pressed to find the time to edit this magazine they'd launched--may well have recognized her talent (perhaps without recognizing her true gender) and begun publishing her submissions regularly. At some point they appear to have taken advantage of her enthusiasm and availability and started transferring some editorial responsibilities to her, because she appears to have functioned as a sort of associate or deputy editor in the final months of the Companion's run.

Then, at last, she elbows her way out of the shadows--or, perhaps, the men who have been out in front of her all trickle away, distracted by other pursuits--and emerges as editor-in-chief of a new successor publication, one that conforms to her own ideas of what a magazine should be (that is: tart, satirical, and critical of absurdity, pretension and folly). A dream come true! And she takes a new pseudonym, one that is forthrightly female: Beatrice Ironside.

A few weeks after taking the helm of this new magazine, the Observer, she introduces herself under the heading, "Beatrice Ironside's Budget: Speak of Me As I Am." Acknowledging that "much curiosity [has] been excited to know, what manner of woman our female editor may be," she proceeds to describe herself. She seems to be trying to reassure her readers that she is not a creature of extremes, but rather will function as an understanding and moderating presence. She is, she says, "old enough to have set aside some of the levities of youth, and young enough to remember, that she has had her share of them," and she proclaims herself "neither a misanthrope nor an optimist." Nevertheless, her optimism--indeed, her exuberance--fairly leaps off the page.

What she doesn't dwell on, at least not explicitly, is the fact that she's female--perhaps the first female in the country to edit a publication of this sort. But, like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, it's a fact that can't be entirely ignored. She apparently feels the need to describe her appearance, something a male editor might have chosen to omit ("neither ugly enough to frighten a fiery courser from his repast, nor handsome enough for the Parson of the Parish to turn aside from his discourse whilst he admires her beauty"). And she assures her readers that her particular experience renders her more qualified for this editorial position than most members of her sex: "Accident having thrown her much more in the busy throng, than generally falls to the lot of woman, she has thereby acquired a knowledge of human nature which will assist her much in prosecuting this her work."

But what she seems most intent on explaining is that her prime subject will be "the vices and follies that fall beneath her notice," which she intends to "lash with the utmost force of satire she can command." With the memory of the recent "Tabitha Simple" debacle still sharp in her mind--a contretemps that led to the departure of her star columnist--she protests that she won't be targeting any particular individuals, but she acknowledges that she may "touch a picture with such lively strokes, that folly perceives its likeness, and is enraged at the dexterity of the artist."

True dat, as they say these days (and having just penned a satirical novel myself, I'm well aware of the possibility of outrage). But Eliza--or "Beatrice"--claims that she couldn't care less how enraged people get: "She happens to have been so luckily constructed, that she can turn an iron-side to the proud man's contumely (or woman's either)."

As it turned out, Beatrice wasn't quite as iron-sided as she thought. But she was right about one thing: "Mistress Beatrice, if publicly attacked, will not fail to defend herself, and Porcupine-like, she will always have a quill [i.e., a pen] ready to dart at those who may assail her."

No comments:

Post a Comment