Editorial Ellipses

You know editorial ellipses: three dots inside square brackets, to indicate the place in a quotation where the quoter left out some of the words: like this […].

I love them.

When this kind of elision is marked by ellipses without the brackets, I’m annoyed, because then I have to wonder if the original quotation included ellipses to indicate a trailing off, or if I’m noting a genuine editorial intervention. Lots of style guides insist that you don’t need the brackets and should make do with differently spaced ellipses. As I understand it, the most commonly accepted practice is to indicate editorial elision like this . . . and mere trailing off like this…

Too similar. And just spacing out three dots doesn’t introduce the element of lampshaded mutilation that fascinates me about editorial ellipses.

The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, which I wrote about the other day, uses lots of the kind of editorial ellipses I love. Sometimes you get entries like this, indicating that part of the journal was cut between entries, and then the beginning of that entry was cut:

[…]

July 22, 1976. […]

The editorial ellipses are like visible seams, or visible brush work, or a finger print from a potter. They underline the artifactuality, the madeness, of the text in which they appear; they emphasize that the text arrives before us mediated.

Another journal with lots of ellipses, but the wrong kind, in my opinion, is the two volume journal of Susan Sontag, edited by her son. They’re popular books, and deservedly so, because the bits of journal we get to see are fascinating; but they’re also terrible books, by contrast to what I suspect they could have been. The son seems to have slashed and arranged the text in such a way as to turn a journal into a kind of jotbook, without the continuity of reflection or narration. It’s too protective and yet intrusive, which is how I feel about his stewardship of her legacy in general. And I feel—quite unfairly—that this deficiency is perfectly illustrated by his grievously incorrect (as far as I am concerned) choice in the matter of brackets.

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I use editorial ellipses quite often when I’m book reviewing. I’m all about bracketing the superfluous bits of a long quotation, making it fit the flow and focus of my own text, and, not least, reminding my readers that they are getting the book I’m discussing through the filter of me. On this last point: an editorial ellipsis can make the point about subjectivity and mediation that so many book reviewers feel the regrettable urge to make at length, by memoiristic insertions, when they could telegraph the same information with three dots and two brackets and save the space on the page to say more things about the book itself.

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I read somewhere, once, that G.K. Chesterton’s various books are all just selections from the single streaming monologue of his whole body of work. I feel this way about all texts, by anyone. We only ever encounter fragments. Sometimes the fragments advertise themselves as fragments, and sometimes they pretend to be wholes. I like it when they advertise, at least a little bit, because it reminds me of the unstable, ship-rebuilt-while-sailing aspect of reference, of the temporality, the ephemerality, of meaning itself. Every text is a haunted house. Every act of reading is a scratching at the palimpsest of time…

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Editorial ellipses are the presence of absence, the visibility of the invisible.

They are also the dissemination through all of prose of the aesthetic truth hidden beneath the repressed moralizing of the fade to black sex scene, the scene break sex scene.

They are the consummation of the ineffable.

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Occasionally editors change my editorial ellipses to unbracketed ellipses. I let this pass because I try not to make trouble with editors. Generally I let them manhandle my prose as much as they like, holding back STET for the rare instances when they introduce factual errors or statements I can’t get behind.

But in my mind, I bracket their alterations and cover the scars with three dots.