Mary Norris, the comma queen

Sat, 01/09/2016 - 9:00am
“The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.” — Robert Louis Stevenson 

We are in the digital age and there is no turning back, and if u r in agreement with this, 4 sure u r a person who has probably texted a message to a friend — or foe. If we read a funny text we can reply, LOL, haha, or hehehe. Furthermore, if the text is really funny we can go big with a HAHAHA. Conversely, something sad could simply be easily and clearly communicated with a sad faced emoji; maybe throw in a “sigh.” Or, use several emoticons as an addendum to get your message across to a friend, family member, foe, or fan. This hybrid form of precise and truncated communication has evolved in the age of the computer. It is what it is, and this form of communication has crossed all demographics. In addition to texting, there is Standard English, with rules and usage.

The New Yorker set the gold standard for satire, fiction, personality profiles, political writing, culture reports, and cartoons. If you are a writer who happens to be published in this magazine, well, you have arrived. You’ve climbed Everest. And, as we all know Mt. Everest is not for the faint of heart — training and practice are necessary. Moreover, writers need guides — many informed guides. The New Yorker has many good guides: proofreaders, fact checkers, second proofreaders, editors and page OK’ers. These people each have a specific job. The end game of this collective effort is to serve the author as Robert Louis Stevenson’s quote suggests. This very bright gang of folks is why this magazine has the tradition and respectability it has had for 90 years.

Mary Norris has written a book titled “Between You & Me,” subtitled “Confessions of a Comma Queen.” Norris hails from Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from Rutgers University in ’74, she received a master’s in English at the University of Vermont. She did her thesis on James Thurber in ’76. Pieces by John McPhee and Woody Allen published in 1977 caught her attention. “They were really what lured me to New York and The New Yorker,” she said. There is tremendous disparity between these writers. Allen is a comedic genius, and McPhee’s journalistic voice has surgical precision. Note well “Coming into the Country.” She was “dumbstruck” by his “loving placement of words” about Alaska. McPhee and Allen are nearly polar opposites, and this speaks to the broad literary awareness of Norris, who has been on the editorial staff of The New Yorker since 1978. She is a copyeditor. Her job is to serve the writer’s precision, intent and position. A copyeditor’s job is to fine tune a manuscript. This job requires a vast knowledge of literature, conventions of grammar, and rules of usage. The end game is to present the best piece of writing possible for the reader.

The tone of Mary Norris’s book is neither professorial nor precious. Her sense of humor stems from having some very humbling jobs as a young lady — the first sentence of her book says it all. “Let’s get this straight right from the beginning: I didn’t set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had, the summer I was fifteen, was checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland.” Talk about starting, ahem, at the bottom. Her early years inform us about Norris’s sense of humor. It also informs us about her awareness to the surroundings of her various jobs and her work ethic. She attended Rutgers because of its department in dairy science. Mary Norris likes cows. She says in her book, “They had a placid yet productive life.” Mary had been a milk truck driver in Cleveland. What her jobs say about her is that she was open to what life presented her. Furthermore, one needs this mindset to interpret and analyze literature.

Of late, there has been much news about Herman Melville. Nat Philbrick’s book, “In the Heart of the Sea,” is the backstory of “Moby-Dick.” Ron Howard recently directed the movie. Mary has a chapter titled “Who Put the Hyphen in Moby-Dick?” This chapter signifies the prior knowledge Mary Norris possessed regarding: historical rules of using a hyphen, Melville’s style of writing, and his disdain for proof reading and correcting errors. He didn’t want — like most writers — anyone to mess with his voice. (Melville loved to use a comma. Just sayin’.) This chapter is riddled with nuance and history, which we learn through Norris’s engaging curiosity.  We learn about where he wrote at Arrowhead—his farm in the Berkshires. Her description of Melville’s writing room has details we need to know. Standing behind his chair she looked at Mount Greylock. Norris notes, “Melville had written of his view that it made him feel as if he were at sea and Greylock was a sperm whale.” I’ll give nothing else up here, regarding the chapter’s question regarding the hyphen—read the book.

The oral tradition preceded a manuscript culture controlled by monks, (who were controlled by the church), the printing press and now the digital age. The storyteller used pauses (commas) full stops (periods) and shouts (explanation points) et al. Picture a highly verbal  Bardic Irish Shanakee — a storyteller — hooting and whispering and winking and nodding while telling a tale of Celtic history. This is how information was assimilated into the tribe. These days, we read information submitted to many types of publications. The writer writes what he wants us to know and then the editorial team gets out its pencils. They don’t want to alter the writer’s voice, they want to serve it. This is precisely Mary Norris’s job — she does it with precision.

“Between you and Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen” has come to us at a pivotal time. Our language is now rife with truncated texts, and that’s fine; however, the beauty and experiential depth of our language will not be denied its purpose and place. And it is here, I bow in respect to Mary Norris, the Queen of Commas.