Christopher Hitchens once told the story of how, when Mother Teresa was being railroaded towards sainthood, he found himself arguing against her canonisation to a priest, a deacon, and a monsignor. He soon learned that Pope John Paul II had abolished the office of advocatus diaboli, ostensibly to fast-track his favourites to the sainthood rolls. Hitchens noted that he was happy to represent the Devil pro bono.
I am happy to be an unpaid (and nonconsensual) copyeditor. When I see other people’s words, I want to change them. And when I quote other people’s, sometimes I give into the impulse. I don’t necessarily mean editing them for clarity and length. I mean editing them so that they are more aesthetically satisfying.
It feels very wrong to do this. Almost like straightening a crooked picture in someone else’s house. And they’re usually words written by much better writers than me. And yet…
“The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.” – Linus Torvalds
I like the first part of the quote, but the second part is a benign tumor – not deadly, but unnecessary. It’s obvious, weakens the impact of the insight, and verges on being patronising (I should throw bad ideas away? Thanks for the gamechanger, Linus.) It would be sharper and punchier like this. “The way to have good ideas is to have lots of them.”
Or consider: “Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio. A new high-end Cadillac will go ten or fifteen miles faster if you give it a full dose of ‘Carmelita’.”
The bolded sentence is great, almost electrifying. The sentences preceding it aren’t as strong. And Hunter S Thompson didn’t need to actually mention songs. That makes him sound like a hacky 70s radio deejay, spinning Golden Oldies and Platters that Matter. I think the part about the gas needle should have ended the passage.
I realise that this quote is part of a book, and has to make sense in a larger context. You can’t just have lots of cool sentences suspended in a vacuum (or can you?). But that’s the whole thing: when I quote, I change. Books are sometimes altered for film to preserve the strengths of the medium, so why shouldn’t passages from books be altered so that they work better as free-standing quotes?
Sometimes quotations are unflattering, or ungainly. Some writers are at their best when they have a whole blank page to work their art, and can’t really be dissected and broken down into little fragments. So maybe changing their words is for the best. Photoshop and makeup, for written prose. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s mutatis mutandis.