Book Review: ‘Between You & Me’ by Mary Norris (April 2016)

by Carolyn Leslie AE

CommaQueen loresMary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is a surprising book. I’d heard a lot about this text and this author, and it’s been thrilling to see a fellow editor top the bestseller lists and develop a popular public profile. Now, when I’m talking to people about what I do, they often remark, ‘Oh, like that Comma Queen book lady’. (Which is an improvement on, ‘Oh, like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada’ – although I do wish I had Streep’s wardrobe budget . . . )

Yet, when I actually sit down to read Norris’s book, I find I’m torn between two diametrically opposed reactions.

On the one hand, as a reader of memoir, and someone who loves texts about work processes and the people that perform them, I’m captivated by the tenderness and charm of Norris’s memoir. Her love of language and her profession shine constantly through. She writes about her 35 years working at The New Yorker in various copyediting and proofing roles with warmth and verve. ‘An editor once called us prose goddesses,’ she writes, ‘another job description might be comma queen. Apart from writing, I never wanted to do anything else.’

Yet, the other part of my brain – the one that seeks out good and relevant writing about editing and publishing – recoiled. I constantly found myself at odds with Norris’s (and The New Yorker’s house style) editorial decisions. Norris argues that she can be flexible and bend the rules when it seems appropriate to do so. However, when Norris writes ‘I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of “their” when you mean “his or her” is just wrong’, I almost threw my copy across the room in exasperation. Norris and I differ, it seems, on the nimbleness of language and the need for printed texts (both hardcopy and digital) to keep pace.

Norris is at her best when she makes connections between the editorial decisions she makes, and the way these decisions ripple outwards and have real-world consequences. The chapter entitled ‘The Problems of Heesh’ starts out as an in-depth consideration of gendered pronouns in the English language. Just when you think she’s covered all the issues, you discover that, for Norris, this is more than a theoretical debate. The latter half of the chapter tells the story of her sibling’s transgender experiences, and how Mary’s careless use of a pronoun causes real pain. '"That’s his,” I said . . . Dee looked away. Were those tears? What was there to cry about? “It feels so hopeless,” Dee said. “You say ‘That’s his’ and don’t even know you’ve said it.”’

So would I recommend you read it? It depends on what you are looking for. Are you looking for a book on grammar and style to consult? Then, no, this book will not serve you well. It is too explicitly US-centric, and even more New Yorker-centric, to be useful in an Australian editor’s professional library.

Are you looking for an insight into the working life of an editor? Well, only if you remember that this is only one person’s story, and that it takes place in the extremely stratified atmosphere of The New Yorker. The contemporary Australian publishing scene bears little resemblance to what Norris experienced. My reality – and the reality of many of my contemporaries – is one where budgets, timelines and a fast-and-efficient version of pragmatism rules.

However, if you looking for a memoir about a woman who has lived her professional life deeply ensconced in words and their uses – and who continues to find very deep pleasure in doing so – then you will love Between You & Me. And ultimately that is where I, as a reader, land . . . after all, no one has ever captured an editor’s obsession with pencils, stationery and author queries in quite the same way as Mary Norris has.

Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, 2015, Text Publishing, Melbourne.

Carolyn Leslie

Carolyn is a freelance editor and writer who is now considering marketing herself as a ‘prose goddess’ à la Mary Norris. She can be contacted at carolyn@carolynleslie.com.au. However, she does not expect The New Yorker will be emailing her any time soon.