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Evelyn Bence

Hosts and Guests at the Editorial Table

Now one, now the other, sometimes both.

Awaiting publication of my latest book, Room at My Table, I'd been asked to talk briefly to the Academy of Christian Editors. The topic? Editorial hospitality. In my first notes, I envisioned the editor as host—the welcomer, as described by food writer Kate Rowinski, tasked to "spread hospitality through the room, find common topics of conversation for strangers, smooth ruffled feathers … and, generally, make sure that everyone is happy" (The Quotable Cook, edited by Rowinski).

As a seasoned editor and sometimes writer, I could easily see the editor as host to authors. There's the invitation to the list or publication, the upfront planning, the hands-on product preparation, the onsite hosting, offering friendly service, drawing out ideas or stories—like good dinner conversation—broadening the guests' social network.

Then there's the risk factor. Every time I invite people for dinner, I feel apprehensive. Is this mix of people going to work? Is the food going to be acceptable? It's the same feeling I get every time I work with a new author.

But one day, talking to a nonpublishing friend, I laid out this metaphor. She counter-proposed that the author is a host inviting an editor into her space/place/world/pages; an author is offering her editor a delicacy (or not)—to receive, taste, accept, maybe tweak/season with salt and pepper, or even reject.

This is a true story: Last spring I served a homemade breakfast bar to a guest known for liking good food and for speaking her mind. Two nibbles and she exclaimed, "I can't eat this!" I was as speechless as a harshly rejected author. I might have hoped for a more nuanced opinion, but I took her commentary to heart. I like the oatmeal treats. I continue to make them for my own enjoyment but no longer offer them to others.

Maybe an editor is the author's critic-guest. Here's Kate Rowinski's take on the roles of a guest: every guest "arrives anticipating something different." I'd agree that every editor expects something slightly different from a particular author. Even at "third pages," a new editorial reader of my book manuscript changed "brotherly love" to a more inclusive "goodwill."

Then Rowinski focuses on the gourmet guest, who "is not critical simply for the sake of being contrary" but, rather, is "the counterpoint to the chef, the other person present who really thinks about the food … and understands the motives." A tasteful editorial critic tries to emulate qualities of a good dinner guest, keeping schedules, showing appreciation for effort, being conversational, somewhat flexible.

As an editor I'd like to see myself as having overlapping, complementary positive characteristics of both host and guest, and yet I can't ignore overtones of power. As in, who's in charge here? Sometimes a young neighborhood child and I have a stand-off in my kitchen. No, as a guest she is not welcome to every morsel in the cupboard. Then one day we're sitting at the table, and she asks me for a cracker with peanut butter. I say, "You can get it yourself. You have permission." And she says, "What?! This is your house. You think this is my house?" Don't you know I'm the guest who's supposed to be served? Her stance whimsically fluctuates. As editors we learn to negotiate territory, though not with a caprice that loses sight of whose interest we are serving, who is mailing a paycheck.

Now, in Eastertide, I think of a gospel story set on Easter Day: a dinner hosted by Mr. Cleopas, who invited a fellow traveler home for a meal. By the end of the evening, the guest—Jesus—was blessing, breaking, and distributing the daily bread. Guest or host? Host or guest? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Evelyn Bence is a former religion editor at Doubleday and former managing editor of Today's Christian Woman. She's been freelancing for decades and is author of the recent Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books).

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