The reader-in-chief

By Michele Callaghan, manuscript editor

I hate to break it to you, but when I was young I did not fantasize about being a manuscript editor. In fact, I had never heard the term. No, I knew that someday I would be a mother—and the next James Joyce. My son, Dan, and daughter, Emily, made the first dream a happy reality. As for the second, not so much! From the vantage point of middle age, I both laugh at my grandiose fantasy and wonder whether I have sold myself short in not working harder toward that goal. Recently it dawned on me that I should be proud of my role. I might not be a genre-changing genius Irish writer but, after all, I am the reader-in-chief.

Sure, many people read the books I edit: the authors who write them, the acquisitions editors who decide to take a chance with them, the peer reviewers who assess their impact on scholarship, and the many people—we hope—who buy them. But when I read the books, I am an advocate for all the others. Will the author’s meaning come across? Will the acquisition editor’s faith in the book be misplaced because it is sloppily written? Will the impact of scholarship be limited because the readers can’t follow the argument? And if the answer to any of these questions is no, I work with the author to change that.

So, the middle-aged me faces the fact that I am not the next James Joyce or the author of the proverbial great American novel. I am not even the editor-in-chief and probably never will be. But I am the reader-in-chief, and, as Joanne Cohen’s sublimely hilarious 2005 essay in the Onion, “Someday, I will Copyedit the Great American Novel,” points out, that is essential.

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