American Realness

Reading Skills

Reading Skills

by Buck Wanner
Published on: August 31, 2015 as a part of READING 2015

“Writing Skills,”

I have so many things to say about editing. Except when I go to actually say them, what I’m actually doing is writing, and when it comes to writing, I have a lot of hesitancy. This hesitancy comes, annoyingly, from being an editor. How accurate are the perspectives I want to put forth? What will be the impact from me saying them? Do I actually believe what I’m about to write?

These questions and others nag at me when I sit down to write anything, because after roughly five years of being an editor, I compulsively ask these questions of every piece of writing I engage with. What is clear to me, and worth making explicit, is that writing something is not neutral, and never has no impact. While this may be obvious, or at least easy to accept, the fact that writing has an impact on the world leads to several corrollary implications that are central to what I consider to be my job as an editor. The questions I posed above, regarding how I think about my own writing, actually developed from working on texts in-process, and trying to find what was necessary to consider in developing pieces of writing.

In introducing Summer READING, I feel compelled to say something about how I go about editing, because the timing for releasing the essays collected here may, upon reading, seem a little confusing. Several of the pieces were authored in January and February (others later), and at least one explicitly imagined itself being read during the month of February (see Dean Moss’s contribution). The delays were mostly organizational — a lack of time and resources resulting in a feeling that the proper context for these writings couldn’t be delivered on the originally intended timeline. For me, it didn’t make sense to simply release a handful of essays into the Wild Wild Web without situating them somehow. Writing — amazingly, somehow — affects what people think, influences what they talk about, and impacts how things are perceived and understood. I hate hyperbole (hah), and I don’t want to suggest that what people write about performance is more important than what people actually do when performing, but the significance of the written word, particularly with the texting generation, is lost on no one (see opening comic). Though text can sometimes feel transient because of how ubiquitous it is, the only reason anyone would ask me to do what I do is some notion that producing text around performance does, actually, matter.

I think there is a particular importantance when writing on performance to address the ethics of accuracy, precisely because of the very different natures of “writing” and “performance” regarding rates of diffusion and authority of representation. The written word holds power over live performance because it often will represent the performance sooner, more broadly, and for a longer duration than the performance itself can ever hope to. The performance work our community engages in often consciously works against this fact, but it can’t entirely escape it.

Taking responsibility for these aspects of writing is a significant aspect of my job as an editor. In order to facilitate useful writing on performance, I have to be familiar with the field I’m working with. I have to have an idea of what discussions are current in the community, who is actively involved in these discussions, or alternatively, who has a unique perpsective. I have to be familiar with artists’s work, as well as the work of people who could write about artists (not necessarily distinct people). These are in some sense prerequisites, but I think are pretty important to doing this work, because without a background, and without staying current, I can’t have a good sense of the purpose of the writing or a sense that whatever is written fairly represents its topic. This isn’t merely fact-checking, but again having a sense that a perspective in writing can (and hopefully will) impact how people relate to the performance, and not taking that impact lightly.

One way to illustrate what an editor does is to look at situations where the editorial function failed to perform. This past year, the major controversy surrounding the (since retracted) Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” resulted in a case study of the need for rigorous editorial protocols. In an example closer to home, I would note Culturebot’s excellent coverage of the Dance/USA article “Is American Modern Dance a Pyramid Scheme?”. While the Dance/USA article received numerous responses regarding the author’s faulty logic and poorly-informed perspective, an ethical question regarding the article’s opening anecdote also arose:

In the days after the article’s release, a different set of issues came forward. This concerned current Assistant Professor of Dance at Loyola Marymount University, Rosalynde (Roz) LeBlanc, whose personal story and photo were used to frame Austin’s argument…. Unfortunately, Ms. LeBlanc was never contacted about the use of her personal story and photo for the article…. The original article framed LeBlanc’s story in a way that implied her endorsement of the author’s views.

You can read the Culturebot article for a further discussion, but what I find this episode highlights is the significance of accuracy, both regarding facts as well as in presenting the writer’s individual perspective. A writer can present any perspective they want, but they need to present the facts and reporting they used to support their perspective accurately. A publisher can present any writer or article, but in doing so, they vouch for the article’s accuracy and the writer’s qualifications to present their perspective.

Dance/USA eventually edited the article to remove the misleading reference to LeBlanc. In the editorial note acknowledging the change, Dance/USA concluded with, “The opinions and views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and views of Dance/USA.” This is something basically every publisher in every media says about their content always, and it’s a total cop-out: publisher’s names and reputations are very much determined by the content they deliver, and they likewise lend that reputation to what they produce. If this author had put the article on their personal blog, no one would have noticed nor cared. The difference lies in the visibility provided by the publishing platform, and the implicit authority designated by the organization.

READING has been a collection of writings related to the performance work in the festival American Realness, published by AR. I don’t believe impartiality is possible (or even desirable) in most situations regarding writing on performance — how could someone be dedicated enough to performance to become deeply informed about it, yet still aim to be “impartial”? — but clearly, with READING there is an agenda that is unhesitatingly concerned with supporting the work of the artists in the festival. I bring these points forward, not because they aren’t already obvious, but to make explicit that the editorial perspective here already assumes this work is worth engaging with, and seeks to give readers more entrypoints for that engagement. These entrypoints are not always concerned with analyzing specific works, though it may also mean having several people address the same work(s) in different ways.

So the collection at hand: Summer READING. In past years, READING has been released during the festival itself, to provide context and perspectives to the performances people were seeing, as they were seeing them. The concept for this year was different from the beginning — it was never the plan to release during the festival — though we still thought it would come out with the festival fresh in peoples memories. Our significant delay required some repositioning, in order to be fair to the writers as well as the topics they address. With characteristic branding brillance, Ben Pryor proposed we title this edition Summer READING. I like the title, and think it works to situate the collection and how we might approach it. “Summer reading” suggests a relaxed but attentive mood; it’s something you’ve been putting off, but are excited to finally get around to. The distance of the subjects in the essays may create a lack of obvious immediacy, but this can also allow for a more reflective and even-tempered consideration of the works. What remains significant when the things we are talking about didn’t just happen? What still lingers and hangs around? How do the authors’s perspectives, written close to the events they describe, resonate half a year later?

READING is made possible with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.