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Preserving the author's voice

One of the thornier issues in copyediting is how to maintain the author’s voice. It’s important to make sense of the text, and (when necessary) to have the text conform to the publisher’s style guide. It’s a bit more difficult when the author is not around to ask.

This was one of the first issues I had to consider when I first started editing the lectures that Christopher Isherwood gave to California college audiences in the 1960s. Isherwood was a renowned fiction writer, an Englishman who lived the second half of his life in California. His spoken language was a unique blend of his native British English and American English.

In 1959-60, he taught a course on modern literature at Los Angeles State College (later California State University, Los Angeles). Subsequently, he gave lectures, either in a series or singly, at other institutions in Southern California. Many of these talks were recorded and transcribed. In the early 2000s I began the process of collecting and publishing these lectures in a book called Isherwood on Writing (University of Minnesota Press, 2008; 2022).

For his talks, sometimes Isherwood used prepared remarks. Other times he told anecdotes that he had honed over many retellings. In either case, the transcribed remarks held many verbal tics that would not make for good reading.

Upon seeing a transcript he called it “a very curious art form, indeed… which is a transcript of these talks which abounds in every kind of dislocation of the English language and, indeed, one can only describe it rather like what Gertrude Stein would have been like if she had been bad writer.”

The task, as I saw it, was to create a published text of the remarks that retained as much as possible the sound of Isherwood’s spoken words while being a pleasure to read.

More recently, I worked on preparing a second, expanded edition of Isherwood on Writing. I had to remind myself of my earlier decision: to keep as much of Isherwood’s language as possible, even when I thought I should intervene more. As a speaker, Isherwood uses “kind of” and “sort of” a lot. He also speaks in what we would see as run-on sentences, connecting various thoughts with “and” and “but.”

Here is an example of the transcript from Isherwood’s lecture of May 18, 1965. In it he discusses his writing of the novel Down There on a Visit (1962).

Now here is the edited text that will be published in Fall 2022.

You can see that I made some deletions but not very many. If it were a transcript of something I had said, I would probably edit it more ruthlessly. I think it reads better, while retaining the flavor of spoken remarks. Let me know what you think.

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