Sunday, October 18, 2015

BETWEEN YOU & ME: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

Instead of a rating, I give this book a white privilege alert. Reader, beware.

Norris, a copyediting diva for The New Yorker, has written a memoir that offers the kind of a fine-tooth comb examination of everyday grammar and punctuation that is fascinating to an English teacher like moi. And she's sassy and she gives you a behind the scenes at The New Yorker. But she lost me on page 2. Describing a long ago job at the Cleveland Costume Company, she writes: “On my first day, a young black woman, Yvonne, was setting Santa beards in rollers so that they would be curly by Christmas. An older black woman worked in the kitchen… and said things like ‘My dogs is killin’ me.’ “ Is there a reason for describing the first two characters we meet by their race? Well, on page three, the young Norris has a Halloween party where “One of the guests came as a penis; another as a Ku Klux Klansman. Initially, I was sorry that Yvonne declined my invitation, but not anymore.”  Oh. I see. Yvonne and the colorful older woman are there for a hahahaha-I-grew-up-such-a-redneck moment. The older woman doesn’t figure in the story again, but isn’t her language something.

Funny? Perhaps I missed the joke. There’s nothing funny about a writer who thinks that a friend dressing up as a Klansman makes for a humorous opening anecdote to her book.  Are you surprised to hear that the rest of the characters introduced in Between You and Me are white by default? And this from someone who is one of the gatekeepers of what’s fit to print. How could her editors at Norton have let this through? How could the long list of people she acknowledged (including a few I know) not have bristled?

I read the rest of the book—and enjoyed it as only a grammar geek could—but I never really got past those initial pages. Once she set herself up that way, Norris’ voice—arch yet pithy—just annoyed me, rather than making me laugh.  I’m the queen of the red pen in my 8th grade English classroom, but some things are more important than punctuation.