6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From Eats, Shoots & Leaves to A Far Cry from Kensington

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate).

This month the starting book is a non-fiction modern classic…

‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ by Lynne Truss  (2003)
I read this when it was first published because I was a magazine production editor in London at the time, which meant I was the person responsible for sending pages to press and was basically the last person responsible for catching any grammatical (and legal and layout) errors that had slipped through our editing processes. This book, which is all about English language usage  (it is sub-titled “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”), was a hoot and showed me I wasn’t alone in being pedantic about comma usage, spellings and sentence structure (active, not passive, please!)

This brings to mind…

‘Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen’ by Mary Norris (2015)

This is the American equivalent of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, written by the long-time copy editor at The New Yorker.  It’s an entertaining read, and quite funny in places, but unfortunately, its mix of memoir and guide to grammar usage didn’t really work for me. It’s certainly not particularly helpful as a guide to the English language unless you edit American English. But I did like its insights into magazine life, which brings to mind…

‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney (1985)

In this Manhattan novel, the main character is employed as a fact-checker on a prestigious magazine (thought to be The New Yorker). His life is falling apart (his glamourous wife, for instance, has left him) and he’s feeling aggrieved that he’s been passed over for promotion. He has a tenacious, demanding boss who micro-manages him, forcing him to take risky shortcuts to meet strict deadlines. You know it’s not going to end well! The novel’s mix of black humour and pathos makes it a truly memorable read, probably one of my all-time favourites, if I am honest. Some aspects of it bring to mind…


‘The Devil Wears Prada’ by Lauren Weisberger (2003)

This fast-paced tale about a magazine assistant working for a tyrannical boss is a real romp! Andrea, a recent college graduate, dreams of writing for the New Yorker. But she knows that hitting such heights requires some legwork and experience, so when she lands the job “that millions would die for” on a glossy fashion magazine in Manhattan she’s prepared to put in the hard graft. She just didn’t expect to work for a mean-spirited control freak.

This brings to mind…

‘Slab Rat’ by Ted Heller (2001)

This is another black comedy about magazine journalism, which is also set in New York. I read it so long ago I can’t point to a review because it was before I started this blog. The story focuses on a staffer, from the wrong side of the tracks to be working on a glitzy magazine, who does questionable things to ensure his rival doesn’t get the promotion he feels rightfully belongs to him. It’s about the underhand things you need to do to get ahead in journalism and the price some people are prepared to pay to win. Behaving in a devious manner brings to mind…

‘About the Author’ by John Colapinto (2002)

This is another story about a writer who behaves immorally to get ahead, except the main character here is a would-be novelist who steals a manuscript (written by a friend who has died an untimely death) and tries to pass it off as his own. It’s a darkly comic story that lingers in my memory almost 20 years after having read it! The book publishing aspects of it bring to mind…

‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (1988)

In this tale about book publishing in the 1950s, we meet a purple-prosed writer behaving badly and his candid editor who plays him at his own game. It’s a riotously funny novel with a brilliant London setting, and it shows that even people with letters can act abhorrently!

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about grammar usage to the fictional tale of an editor rowing with an author, via four stories about people who make their living using words, whether as fact-checkers, editorial assistants, journalists or novelists.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Book review, Mary Norris, memoir, New York, Non-fiction, Norton, Publisher, Setting

‘Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen’ by Mary Norris

Non-fiction – memoir; Norton; 228 pages; 2015.

Mary Norris has spent more than 30 years working in the copy department of The New Yorker. Her book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, is billed as a guide to good language usage, but it’s also an insight into Norris’ career and is as much memoir as it is practical text book.

Like Norris, I, too, have made a career out of being a “comma queen” on magazines. I left the industry at the end of 2016 (after 20 years), but still work with words and am the go-to person in my company when it comes to spelling, grammar and punctuation usage. I expected to absolutely adore this book, but I was mildly disappointed by it.

Divided into 10 chapters, it covers everything you’d expect from a grammar book — such as spelling, punctuation and the use of hyphens — and some things you don’t (for instance, in the chapter about personal pronouns, Norris tells us that when her younger brother announced he was transgender it was difficult to suddenly start calling him “her”). It’s important to know that it’s all about American grammar usage, not British usage, so it’s not particularly useful for anyone who lives outside of the US unless you want to know the differences.

It’s written in an easy-to-read, engaging style and is brimful of gentle humour, whether Norris is talking about her own life or the way to use a comma or apostrophe. The chapter entitled “F*ck This Sh*t” is a case in point:

Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway: Fuck yeah.

I’m not sure I learned anything new from Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen — although I did find out far more than I wanted to know about 1B pencils and how to sharpen them (there’s an entire chapter devoted to Norris’ love of lead pencils for marking copy; my preference is for a red gel pen).

The most interesting bit is the first chapter, which explains how American spellings came about — you can blame Noah Webster, a 19th century American lexicologist who wrote and published the first American dictionary. His idea was to simplify the language to make it easier for school children to spell words. Some of his ideas — removing silent letters, removing double letters, and replacing the soft “c” with an “s” — didn’t take off, but others, such as removing the “u” from colour, valour and neighbour, did.

As an inside look at life as an old school copy editor (or what we, in the UK, call a sub-editor), Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is an entertaining read. But it doesn’t quite know whether to be a memoir or a guide to grammar, and I’m not sure the combination really worked for me. It’s interesting, but not compelling.