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The funny business of editing


TUMBY BAY - I like reading autobiographies and biographies, especially those relating to writers.

I recently finished reading a biography of Joseph Heller, the American author of several novels, including the famous Catch 22.

In the process I discovered that Heller was influenced by a book written in 1923 by Jároslav Hašek called The Good Soldier Švejk.

During the First World War Hašek was taken prisoner on the Eastern Front and spent several years in Russian prison camps. Upon his return he wrote The Good Soldier Švejk as an inflammatory satire of war.

While Catch 22 is a tightly edited novel The Good Soldier Švejk appears to be much as Hašek wrote it.

Catch 22 runs to about 450 pages while The Good Soldier Švejk runs to over 900 pages. It was written in four volumes and would have been longer if Hašek had not died before finishing it.

Heller’s first draft of Catch 22 also ran to about 900 pages but was whittled back through the editing process.

I enjoyed reading Catch 22 but Hašek’s book is ultimately more satisfying. I suspect this is because when he died his publisher didn’t feel it was wise to over edit too much.

I would dearly love to be able to read Heller’s first draft.

Before Amazon and others used technology to turn publishing on its head there was a well-trodden path for those seeking publication of their work.

In most cases the first step was finding an agent. Agents made the crucial decision about whether a book was commercially viable. If they thought it was they then began to approach suitable publishers to do a deal.

Once the publisher had paid for the right to publish the book they brought in an editor, or team of editors, to tidy the book up so that it became something that people would buy.

Through this whole process the book was changed from a work of art into a commercial commodity. It is the same process that turns peas from the field into cans of peas in the supermarket.

In the process of helping to run The Crocodile Prize and in its many book publishing spin-offs I spent a lot of time editing.

This ultimately involved not only books by Papua New Guinean writers but also books by Australian expatriates who had been in Papua New Guinea.

As I imagine Keith can also attest, editing is hard work.

It can become especially so if you are guided by the principle of presenting the work of an author in a form as close as possible to their original intent rather than as a commercial proposition, which is what we were about.

The idea of the editing then becomes the presentation of a book that is logical in its narrative or order and which obeys, within reason and creative intent, the basic rules of grammar and spelling, and is essentially readable.

Sometimes, when I read the extensive pages of acknowledgements at the end of a book I have just read, including the list of editors, I wonder about the real skill of the writer and whether I have simply read a highly refined commercial commodity.

As I understand it some popular and commercially successful writers employ teams of researchers and even writers. Rather than writing books they simply oversee the production of a commercial product.

It’s something I would like to discuss with Joseph Heller but unfortunately he is no longer with us.

They made a terrible film of Catch 22 and now I see that there is a television series “based” on the book. I wonder what further atrocities they have now inflicted on Heller’s original.

Really good books always seem to suffer when films or television series are made that are “based” on them. They tamper with the reader’s imagination and end up leaving a pit in the stomach.

If your intent is to produce a good book rather than a commercial success I would highly recommend that you do it yourself.

Get some help with the basics, such as narrative integrity, grammar and spelling, and basic readability but eschew any attempts to tamper with your work.

Technology now thankfully makes this possible.

I’ve recently re-published three of my older books in their final draft form. They originally went through traditional publishers and their editors and were changed in a number of ways that I didn’t particularly like.

I’m not fussed about whether they sell or not but simply happy to see them in the way they were intended to be read.

Nowadays writing can be a case of art versus the profit motive.

Fresh peas versus canned peas.


Recent Phil Fitzpatrick books

Black Huntress: Seven Spears by Philip Fitzpatrick, Kindle $0.96, Paperback $7.64

Fitz huntressOutback Australia in the 1860s. Pastoralism is rapidly expanding into marginal areas and the squatters are pushing hard against the desert nomads. Precious water sources have become a major source of conflict. The squatters are resorting to violence against the nomads and massacres are becoming commonplace. One lone policeman stands between the desert people and the squatters thirst for profit. Then one young girl decides to fight back. With the spears collected from her dead clansmen she sets out for revenge.

The Unusual and Unexpected Case of the Rise and Rise of Inspector Hari Metau as told by his good friend Sergeant Kasari Aru by Philip Fitzpatrick, Kindle $1.00, Paperback $8.18

Fitz - MetauIn the ancient Hiri Motu trading language of the Papuan coast the word 'metau' means ‘difficult’. Inspector Hari Metau isn’t so much difficult as he is stubborn and tenacious. He is also disconcertingly honest and ethical. When those sorts of qualities are combined in a policeman who works in a supposedly corrupt Pacific nation is it any wonder that certain people would regard him as difficult?If you have followed some of his more notable cases you might also be wondering how he turned out that way. Inspector Metau would probably have difficulty answering that question but luckily we have his old mentor and good friend, Sergeant Kasari, to enlighten us.

Midnight Blue: Growing Up in Elizabeth in the 1950-60s by Philip Fitzpatrick, Paperback $9.21

Fitz - midnightElizabeth was a dream born out of the optimism following the Second World War. The force behind its creation was the need for South Australia to diversify its rural economy coupled with the drive by the Commonwealth of Australia, under its ‘populate or perish’ policy, to bring migrants to the country. The author’s family was one of thousands that took up the offer to migrate to Australia. These families left their homelands carrying only a few precious belongings and a great hope for the future. For some the move was a disappointment but for most it was a new start and they established and built fulfilling lives in their new home. The 1950s and 60s were the golden years for Elizabeth. It was a new and modern city in a healthy climate with space to grow and plenty of work for all. There were struggles and hard times but to be a ten pound Pom living in Tom Playford’s ‘satellite’ city of Elizabeth at that time was something special. This is the sentiment that informs this memoir. Hopefully others will be able to relate to it.

Haven: Harry Flynn's Final Odyssey by Philip Fitzpatrick, Kindle $0.97, Paperback $10.56

Fitz - havenHave you ever felt like just packing it all in and leaving? To hell with it; see you later alligator, I’m out of here. That’s what Harry Flynn felt like; except Harry decided to blow up his politician boss and rob a couple of banks before he left. In Harry’s world being a loser was an honourable profession. Hampered by ragtag bands of feral outlaws and the motley remains of the army he ventures north into the desert seeking some kind of redemption. In a world where the government is both morally and financially bankrupt, where society is on the point of anarchy and where mining barons rule supreme Harry’s chances are limited. Or are they? Tired of voyaging, Ulysses put an oar over his shoulder and walked inland until he found people who didn’t know what he was carrying. For Harry the thing on his shoulder was a great big chip and he didn’t give a damn whether people recognised it or not.

Bamahuta Leaving Papua by Philip Fitzpatrick, Kindle $0.97, Paperback $10.00

Fitz - bamahutaFirst came the kiaps - the patrol officers - they explored the country, established the outposts and introduced the rule of law. The work was often dangerous and the conditions were primitive and the young men attracted to it tended to “walk to the beat of a different drummer”. With dogged perseverance, dedication and a studied understatement they helped bring the emerging nation of Papua New Guinea to independence. Bamahuta recreates the years leading up to independence through the eyes of a young kiap. Philip Fitzpatrick went to Papua New Guinea in 1967 as a Cadet Patrol Officer and left in 1973. This is a book about Australia’s role as a colonial power in Papua New Guinea. Bamahuta means “goodbye” in Motu, the Papuan trade language. It is a poignant farewell made by the many Australians who served there.




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Bernard Corden

Dear Arthur - Speaking of Shakespeare reminds me of a fabulous response from Sir Ian McKellan during a Richard III performance.

A mobile phone went off in the audience during the Winter of Discontent soliloquy and he replied:....."If that's for me, tell them I'm busy" and merely continued with the act.

Arthur Williams

I have a similar complaint as Bernard about some Australian TV channels, but in the UK setting.

From the BBC we have a BBC-1 channel a BBC 24 News as well as BBC Parliament channel. Every morning the first two carry ‘Breakfast’.

I thought they were news channels but just as Bernard has described the Oz broadcasts these too have degenerated into passive vicarious entertainment.

I have been a bookaholic since my first library ticket when I was seven years old. So was amazed in 1954 when I failed my English Literature examination and more so in 1955 when I failed again.

Callous youth, I had to blame someone other than myself and it fell on the well know Billy Shakespeare whose ‘Henry V’ and ‘Merchant of Venice’ were two of his works we had to boringly dissect almost line by line during each academic year.

Phil, if only we ignorant youth had seen the 1944 film of Henry Fifth, with Laurence Olivier in the title role, then we may have stood a better chance of giving ‘The Bard’ some more attention.

Mind you I loved being allowed to swear in class when reading: “….bastards Norman bastards…” after the perfidious French had attacked the almost unarmed baggage column.

Actually to me comparing the book with its film is quite an enjoyable exercise and I can appreciate when the movie treats the storyline with respect for the original.

Mind in this revisionist era I wonder if British kids are allowed to read the unexpurgated ‘Merchant of Venice’ and its anti-Semitic theme or indeed if the Welsh language schools still read ‘Henry V’ and its seemingly cymricphobe playwright’s demeaning of the Welsh by his Fluellen.

Of course in this post-modern era it’s OK to paraphrase or edit the Bible but don’t touch ‘Our Shakespeare.’

Baka Bina

I understand there is a book fair happening at the National Library in Port Moresby and it is this type of information that Phil writes about that should take centre stage and discussions be held around that.

How can we generate interest in PNG writings and get good editors interested in our writing.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The working title of Catch 22 was Catch 18.

After that it was Catch 14 but that didn't sound right either.

Finally they changed it to Catch 22 and it sounded just right.

That whole process took the editors months to resolve.

The point you make about editing PNG writers is well made Baka. Papua New Guineans like their stories told in a particular way. It took me quite a while to work this out. Reading you books helped a lot.

Turning PNG writing into a western generic style defeats the purpose I think.

Bernard Corden

"An editor is someone who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff" - Adlai Stevenson

Baka Bina

When my 96 typed pages of A4 manuscript were reduced to just 32 A6 pages of big print story fitted with illustrations so that it actually was cut down to just 16 pages from my original manuscript, I knew I was in big trouble with the editors and publishers.

My story did not resonate then with me and a certain part lost its place in the flow of the story. It came in like a sore bone spur. It made me wince when I read it.

But what could I do? I was going to have a book.

However it did sour the euphoria and left a bitter taste. that spur made me realise that editors are out of touch on story telling the PNG way.

So Phil, I agree with you but what can we do. Most of us in PNG would be all the nightmares put together in one for a good editor to deal with. I try to work on my writings but it is hard. Thank you.

Now I feel good knowing that even with seasoned writers like yourself have editorial jitters.

Bernard Corden


Programs such as Walker Texas Ranger, The Block, MKR, The Voice or any of the TVSN or horse racing channels have far more integrity and credibility.

Bernard Corden

Just a quick glance and listen to the formulaic sludge and infotainment or newzak churned out by ABC and SBS television, which is depicted as news or even journalism provides sufficient substantive evidence.

The ABC, especially its Breakfast News, 7:30 Report, Four Corners and Insiders programs were once considered professional but have recently degenerated into passive vicarious entertainment following the appointment of the late Kerry Packer's squeeze.

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