The week had hardly swept the cobwebs from the weekend than I found myself stepping into a dispute. Now, I’m not conflict-averse, and I have been known to play the antagonist in debates, especially online. But this dispute took me by surprise. I made what I thought was a minor editorial suggestion, and the writer—I’ll call him Larry—venemously objected.1 For days Larry was conducting searches and writing e-mails to prove his point. After the third day, the dispute was tabled, but next week, at 9.30 Monday morning, it will surface again.
Ever since things blew up, I’ve been trying to work out why Larry was so adamant about something I thought (and still think) was minor. Part of that working out has been an attempt to understand Larry’s argument, which I think can be represented with a typical two-set Venn diagram.
Larry is arguing that when he wants to write about the x+y set, he must refer to both x and y. For example, if x is all plastics and y is all bottles, Larry says it is necessary to point out that x+y is plastic bottles, regardless of whether he is primarily interested in plasticity or the bottleness of things. Complicating things, the existence of x+y is time sensitive. Though x exists and y exists, x+y can only exist when x exists. For this reason (I presume), Larry says that if he had to choose between x or y, he would choose x, despite the fact that y was his original focus. Carrying water might be the goal, but plastic bottles don’t exist without plastic, so plastic is the thing Larry will write about.
If this is an accurate portrayal of Larry’s argument—and I think it is—then Larry’s argument is absurd. The mere fact that circumstances allow one to call a thing something else doesn’t require one to do so. In fact, circumstances may even be such that calling the thing what it is—calling a bottle a bottle—is clearer and more meaningful to someone listening.
And that is what I suggested. Not that Larry’s argument was absurd—I know better than that. Rather, I said, “Call x+y just y.” Call plastic bottles bottles alone. The prose will be more efficient and meaningful to readers.
Why was Larry so upset by my suggestion? Yes, Larry believes he’s in the right, and that’s fine, though his argument makes no sense to me. But Larry used all his guns to defend against a lone trapper knocking on the door of his fort. Was it about x, x+y, or y at all, or did he believe I was challenging his judgment? The disproportionate reaction to what I said makes me think so. It’s worrying, because such author-bombs are hard to defuse—and I’ll be working with Larry again in the near future.
1 Were this an isolated project, my suggestion would probably have died right there. I would be compelled to defer to Larry’s judgment because he is the author. But I am also editing other publications that hang on how this dispute is resolved. I have to speak for the larger project, too.
The events surrounding this dispute are worth a post in their own right, but I can’t write about them here. It’s enough to say that after several meetings that included Larry, me, and several others—for the purpose of coming to a majority-rule decision on the matter—the dispute ended with no decision at all.—gb, November 23, 2010