The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
Working with adult material (pornography and erotica) is clearly not for everyone, and it can occasionally be challenging, but it requires the same care and thought as anything else on the editor’s work pile.
My guest this week is editor and journalist Louise Bolotin. Here, she offers an editor’s guide to sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, with a bit of blasphemy thrown in for good measure.
What’s your first thought when an editor offers you work that is quite clearly what’s usually described as 'adult material'?
Do you think, 'Eww, how disgusting!' and reply with a 'Thanks, but no thanks'? Or do you, like me, say yes because, you know, it’s just work and there’ll be a nice cheque at the end of it?
Hovering around as I do on professional forums, on the rare occasions the topic comes up it’s clear that most editors fall into the 'no way!' camp.
Working on anything explicitly sexual is always going to be a personal choice, although there’s a world of difference between editing a sex guide aimed at teens, with info on STIs and using condoms correctly, and hardcore or even medium-core erotica, the latter being the kind of material I’m most likely to work on in the genre. I’ve yet to be offered any Mills and Boon titles.
I’ve often found that when I’ve been approached to take on projects, it’s been accompanied with an apology and a warning of the content, particularly from large, well-known publishing houses.
Most memorably, an email I received offering work came complete with a chain of internal emails below the line, suggesting that the project should probably be given to a man as it was potentially offensive. Heaven forfend that a woman should edit anything explicit because we all know how difficult it is to buy smelling salts these days! I assured the project manager that I’m neither prudish nor easily offended and the manuscript was duly sent to me.
Editing strong language doesn’t bother me at all. I cut my career teeth as a journalist and newsrooms are renowned for their high swear word count – you won’t survive if you can’t cope with your editor telling you several times a day to 'get your fucking act tofuckinggether or get your fucking P45 on the fucking way out'.
However, there’s more to editing explicit work than not fainting at any effing and blinding in print. Material needs to be handled sensitively, whether it’s fiction or factual – this is someone’s work, after all, and it’s essential to put personal feelings aside. All the usual editing decisions need to be made – clarity, consistency, cutting and queries, plus creating style sheets for those trickier spellings.
I worked five years as a freelance copy-editor and commissioner for the fetish magazine Skin Two, aimed at people into rubber sex and clothing. While the photo spreads tend towards the erotic and daring, most of the feature articles are distinctly intellectual in tone rather than sexy – during my stint we ran serious articles on everything from censorship and depictions of non-mainstream sex in mainstream film to the subversion of Nazi symbolism for erotic enjoyment and the works of illustrative authors such as Alan Moore.
These features were usually between 3,000 and 5,000 words in length and on a par with anything you’d find in a dedicated arts magazine.
Flicking through back issues, it was clear my first task would be to create a style book suitable for such a distinctive magazine. I recall lengthy discussions with the editor about whether to opt for 'perv' rather than 'perve' or 'pervert' – our readership, chiefly A, B and C1, liked to call themselves thus with a knowing and cheeky nod to the more tabloid usage of such words.
The style guide needed to reflect both their intelligence and their community’s own home-grown terminology. Putting it together was an interesting crash course in the culture of a distinct sexual minority.
Perhaps the most memorable title I worked on was Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession, one book in a long line of theories on the true identity of the UK’s first known serial killer. I’ve worked on several Ripper books and as an avid reader of crime fiction I’m used to gore.
This particular book theorised that the Ripper was a wealthy Victorian gentleman known only as Walter, a rapist who was obsessed with prostitutes and knives. His deeply explicit diaries were published in the same year as the Ripper began his spree.
Fewer than 20 copies were printed, they were banned for obscenity and the few surviving editions even today remain locked in the British Library’s famous 'closed cupboard', where scholars need to apply for permission to study them.
The diaries are, of course, out of copyright so the book authors were free to quote as much of them as they wished to stand up their theory – and quote they did. Whole chapters often consisted of fifty per cent or even more of passages from Walter’s pornographic journal.
Every sexual encounter of his was described in explicit four-letter word detail. I quickly became desensitised to the repetitive use of 'fuck', 'cunt', 'cock', 'minge' and more on almost every page.
Even filth needs editing
The temptation when this occurs is to glaze over the explicit passages and focus on the author’s own words. A bad mistake, as even filth needs editing.
I made an editorial decision to leave all spellings in the original (and being Victorian, they varied a fair bit from the standard spellings of today) as long as they were understandable, but to edit the punctuation rigorously for clarity.
Walter didn’t care much for commas or speech marks, you see, and some of his passages required extensive scrutiny to figure out what on earth he was saying.
These were highly challenging issues for a book that not only needed to be accessible for the modern reader and ensure the authors’ edited work was of sufficient merit as any other Ripperology title but also paid tribute, bizarre as it might seem, to the diaries the book had inspired.
I was secretly rather chuffed when one of the authors emailed me after publication to thank me and let me know that the Los Angeles Times had described it as a 'hyperventilating noxious stew wallowing in depravity' and called for it to be banned.
At least it was a well-edited noxious stew…
The challenging stuff ...
In truth, I found an earlier manuscript I worked on, about Jack the Ripper and other notorious serial killers throughout history, much harder.
There was little sexually explicit material but a very graphic description of what one murderer had done with his victims’ body parts burned my eyeballs and gave me sleepless nights for some time after.
Sometimes you edit stuff you’d rather not know about, but like the intrepid blokes who clean our sewers it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it. With pride for doing a job well done. And, frankly, my trauma must have paled in comparison to that of the police officers who had to deal with that.
It's not for everyone
More recently I copy-edited a debut novel from a youngish author – a blackly comic yet highly literary tale about the Norwegian heavy metal music scene, rippled through with wall-to-wall blasphemy and explicit sex scenes that were nasty, brutish and (thankfully!) short.
Having begun my career as a rock journalist, this project was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been offered but, like the others, it came with a warning – about the blasphemy in this case.
I’m an atheist so I was able to approach this with no misgivings but I completely understand that an editor with a faith, of any sort, might find this difficult material. The explicit sex I took in my stride but dealing with the religious issues, which were as much about Satanism as Christianity, needed a lot of care to ensure that the novel rang true while avoiding causing offence unnecessarily.
I did a huge amount of fact-checking on the internet – mainly on the Christian issues plus the heavy metal genre – as well as coming up with a style sheet that provided consistency on religious and other central themes.
Can you do it?
My take on editing adult material is that it really shouldn’t be beyond any experienced copy-editor worth their salt although I can understand that some will feel it’s not for them because of their personal beliefs, as is their right.
Such work needs the same meticulous attention to detail as any other. For those new to the industry it could be as good a way to gain experience as any, particularly as there seems to be a dearth among us who are willing to tackle the more challenging manuscripts.
Ian Dury sang 'sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll, is all my brain and body needs' – I like to think they are an important sector in the manuscripts I edit, too.
Copyright 2012 Louise Bolotin
Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
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