Tonight I was watching an old rerun of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. In the main, the show is appalling. Its premise: legendary Scottish chef Ramsay drops in on a sinking-ship restaurant, his mission to save both restaurant and family fortunes from collapse. I’ve long wondered why I keep watching this predictable dross.
The show consists of the same thing every time, with petty variations. Gordon meets and greets the admiring, thankful restauranteurs, then orders some menu items. Without exception, he hates the chow. This is crahp! It looks loike it came out of a die-pah! This was freozen! It’s ehovacooked! It’s raw! I want to vomit immejatly! What a mess! Gordon is a candid guy. The producers have to bleep him a lot.
The proprietors hurry to defend their dishes. The food is good. I won’t back down on that from anyone. All our customers love this. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry, but this is a customer favorite. We have the best food in town. You’re just a jerk. Gordon comments that he has his work cut out for him, and begins to get to the bottom of things.
Whether it’s incompetent management, lazy kitchen staff, T.rex portions, walk-ins that look like Syrian prison isolators, old grumps who have lost their passion, decor worthy of Rhonda’s deteriorating Doo Drop Inn on US 195, whatever, Gordon ferrets out the fail. He cleans up the Augean kitchen and its biology projects, redecorates the entire joint (time for a team cry), comes up with a menu even these cretins can execute, and re-opens the NEW Rhonda’s Ristorante Italiano (or whatever).
On opening night, of course, it all starts well, then The Problem reverts to his or her old habits. It’s all coming apart. Men curse and quit, women yell and cry; everyone says ‘screw it’ and goes out back for a smoke. Gordon saves the day, gets them back on track, and we’re about out of time. He hopes they stay the course, and that they don’t go back to just buying and microwaving all that freozen crahp.
Some nights, by this time, I’m still awake in my recliner. But tonight I figured out why I bother.
It’s like my job.
No, I am not the Gordon Ramsay of book midwifery, though if I see the butt emerging first, I think I do a creditable job of making sure the literary fetus lives to experience infancy. Just yesterday, a young writer asked me face to face whether I was a good editor. I told the truth. “I’ve got a lot of experience, but I know better editors. I wouldn’t edit my own book; no way. But I could probably help you make yours better.” That admitted, I look at a lot of writing, and I think I’m a fair judge of talent and its application level. Most of it has serious flaws. Most of its authors do not want to hear that. Some sniff, toss their hair, and move on to someone who will give them a gentler edit and a more affirming answer. Others take my words to heart, roll up their sleeves, and decide to repair the deficiencies. Okay, how do I turn it so the head comes out first? I didn’t realize that was the butt.
As I’ve said in the past, there is a bizarre, direct mathematical relationship between talent and receptiveness to input. The writers who need the most help, reject it all. I fight for my words! I think my way is much better; toodle-oo! Those with the most promise drink critique in and let it run down their chins, eyes slavering and wild. They are positively greedy for growth. And I’d better have a good explanation for what I’m advising, because if they smell pasture, they know I’m no use to them.
Their greed for growth is the most invigorating thing that can happen to my workday. This is the best greed they could have. It is what will make me go back over the entire ms again, just to make sure I didn’t miss either a bad verb tense or an opportunity to guide. All they are told is that it’s taking me longer; more precisely, I am applying what I gathered 2/3 through the ms to the earlier parts, where I know the same conditions exist but I didn’t then apprehend them. Why is your edit so consistent? Because I did most of it twice, dear client.
That’s why I know how Gordon feels. If he gets someone keen to improve and learn, he’ll go to the wall with him or her, challenge, educate, reinforce. However, his reality as pictured on the show is a crusade to penetrate self-delusion. And that’s the tough part for me. A lot of people can’t write, don’t want to hear that, and I have to figure out how to say so with some modicum of compassion. I already know it won’t lead to compensated work, because no matter how compassionately I say “This is fundamentally flawed and will be challenging to repair,” that’s not the droids they want. At that point, my goal is simpler: convey truth without sinking a barb. That way, at least, I will not gain a reputation as Crusher of Dreams.
Some editors don’t bother. They have watched too much Simon Cowell, or they are old enough not to care what anyone thinks. Dilemma: if you’re an editor, you assert that you are a judge of literary talent, which presumes owning some of that in your own right. If you can’t let someone down easily in words, where was that literary talent? Was it just too much trouble to dust off? Was there much to begin with?
I will admit, though, that at times I wish I could just go Full Ramsay.