Articles - 13th January 2020

The Magic of Cultural Mediators

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

In some ways, the best work is hinged on the dizzying sensation we feel upon completion. It’s the mist that descends when you finish greedily skimming the final pages of the novel, or, when you walk away from a film which manages, single-handedly, to rewire your perceptions on a particular aspect of humanity. You leave shyly, scanning the room to ensure you haven’t missed any errant morsels, desperately thinking “Bloody hell, why do I even bother [Insert cultural pursuit]-ing?” Equal parts inspiration and envy, this wave can have us playing up and undertaking the most obscure devotional acts.

Whether you’re pulling a Samuel Beckett and wearing ill-fitting shoes in the size of your Irish idol James Joyce, or you’ve wallpapered your guest bedroom with pictures of your new favourite artist, or you’ve exclusively stocked your fridge with Kim Kardashian’s preferred brand of plastic-free almond juice, we’ve all fallen victim to making curious decisions whilst under an artistic spell. Other times, the indescribable sensation can have us paralysed and unable to produce our own cultural output, for fear of falling short of our heroes, numbed at our inability to effectively recreate works in the modes of the spell-makers. 

But what makes us fall so deeply under these cultural spells? How can such perfectly composed, aesthetically divine documents move us to such an extent that we dedicate our lives to attending readings with mouths agape, we write essays about them and chewing our friends’ ears off in pub gardens about them. Cultural spells are far more than smoke and mirrors. Behind the veil, there’s a great deal more sifting than mysticism; with editors, producers and curators examining and smoothing original works through systematic editorial processes; chopping, changing and tweaking to manifest the desired effect. 

Two years ago, I enrolled on a creative writing class as part of my undergraduate degree, and for the assigned week on editing, my class were asked to read a short story by Raymond Carver. My seminar leader passed around copies of the edited iteration in the lesson; inked with amendments by Carver’s notoriously strict editor, Gordon Lish. Side by side, the two pieces were vastly different; huge chunks of text crossed through, pureed dialogue sifted through a tea strainer.

When asked in an interview with The Guardian in 2015 whether Carver would have received the same prestige if he hadn’t undertaken his controversial revisions, Lish responded with self-assured gusto, “Baloney!”. Having also edited works by American greats such as Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and John Updike, Lish’s “poetics of the sentence”, are mapped out by Gary Lutz in The Sentence is a Lonely Place and satirically enacted on the Twitter account @gordonlishbot where the ‘Lish Bot’ sinks his bloodied editorial incisors into lazily composed sentences with the hashtag #attacksentence. Hell, I love clarity and concision as much as the next person, but the sight of Lish’s impassioned scribbles overlaid on Carver’s calmly composed typewritten script made me wince.

Besides editing work by Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, Max Perkins was also very proficient at pontificating about his occupation, claiming that, “An editor should strive for anonymity” and that, “An editor does not add to a book – at best he serves as a handmaiden to an author …] an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.” If we look beyond Perkins’ assumption that an editor is male by default (Emily, my Editor, I see you and I appreciate you) I prefer Sherwood Anderson’s suggestion that the relationship between Author and Editor is one which “at its best, [is] a kind of intellectual marriage.” 

If you fancy trying your hand at cultural mediating, book yourself a ticket to the exceptional independent Deptford Cinema’s CineLab on Producing this Friday, for an informative morning which promises to unpack how Producers strike a balance between being “catalysts for Creativity whilst nurturing the Administrative aspects of Production” through a step-by-step overview of Development, Pre-Production, Production, Post-Production and Marketing & Distribution.

But, regardless, next time you test out a new podcast, reach for a boxset or venture into a gallery, bookshop or village hall; spare a thought for the Editor, the Translator, the Stage-Hands, the Interns, the Cleaners and the Receptionists; the unsung mediators who fan the flames of cultural magic. 

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