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Sutherland, Kathryn. 'The Return of the Editor - A Response to Laury Mayer and Julia Flanders, "Real Editions for Real People: Electronic Editing and Women's Theatre Writing".' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 15 April 1999. 7 pars. <>

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Lauryn Mayer and Julia Flanders use what they see as the distinctive features of dramatic texts to begin to reconsider the kinds of access that the electronic environment is currently assumed to provide by both creators and users of e-texts. What they find unsatisfactory about the situation they describe is its openness and indeterminacy in relation to specifically declared goals; what, in a recent important essay on the principles of text encoding, John Lavagnino describes as the culture of completeness as distinct from adequacy. Currently the encoder assumes, with some naivety and rather more idealism, that once tagged in accordance with an accepted scholarly encoding language, the text (any text) will give up its meanings —meanings being determined by the functions of search tools provided with so-called full text retrieval facilities. The adequacy that Mayer and Flanders have in mind for the encoders of electronic text is both more sophisticated and more avowedly partial than such completeness, being based upon what they term 'the inflection of genre'. They argue that electronic editors (and we are back in the world of the edition with its determined and defended subjective decisions) must 'envision functions' which derive from the kinds of readings that a text's generic affinities propose.

2. Dramatic texts are a special case because of the complex textual relationships in terms of which they exist. The challenge for the electronic encoder is to accommodate this special case; and it seems that the way to do this is to exploit 'the possibilities of the electronic medium'. In the case of drama, the 'inflection of genre' appears to have more than a little in common with the capacities of electronic technology itself, so much so that the perceived multiplicity of a play's existence—the diverse identities and operative categories of performance and print—are also the practical consequences of transference to the electronic medium. In the electronic medium, as Mayer and Flanders point out, 'we can attach other media which extend the text's existence into non-textual dimensions such as motion, sound, three-dimensional space. We can attach video or still images of performances, renderings of possible performance spaces, or sound recordings.' In both cases (the electronic medium and the life of the play), the printed word does not represent the only or privileged form in which a work can possess or participate in textuality.

One might restate Mayer and Flanders's point by adapting Barbara Hodgdon's insightful phrase 'intertextual complementarity', (Hodgdon, p. 19) which she uses to describe the rich multiple existence of the play texts of Shakespeare: the electronic medium like the play exhibits 'intertextual complementarity'. The cultural life of the play, like that of electronic textuality, enacts such complementarity as an exchange between kinds of production which taken together reformulate notions of text as print (fixity) into a constellation of textualities —staged representation, critical edition, reader-produced text, spectator-produced text, director's text, actor's text, etc. (unfixity). Mayer and Flanders refer to this shared quality as a 'permeability' that characterizes the dramatic and the electronic medium. Quoting David Seaman, they observe how issues of access in the electronic edition are bound up with the capacity of the encoded materials to 'play well with others' in a networked environment, and how this permeability is vital equally to the real life of dramatic texts.

4. What bothers me about this argument is not the obvious usefulness of the general comparison. Of course, the electronic medium, like the dramatic medium, makes a difference to our understanding of text as a register of signification with relationships to ideas of authority, intention, or presence. But the electronic medium will process all text in this way, and, in that specific sense, Mayer and Flanders's argument from generic inflection goes out of the window, because in the electronic medium, as in the fixed print medium, each generic grouping is not its own special case. There is a familiar assumption in Mayer and Flanders's argument that electronic encoding even when it is working with criteria of adequacy to specific tasks ('real editions for real people') will enact the previous textual encodings of a work (in the case of dramatic texts, their existence as events as well as printed texts) as a simulation of their 'real' functions rather than as a consequence of the hybrid textuality which is its own, defined by its own functions, some of which may overlap with theirs. The real point, as I see it, is that the electronic medium will encode all generic forms thus. And I suspect that Mayer and Flanders understand this and that is why the examples they choose to enforce their point are from the works of Margaret Cavendish and Elizabeth Cellier, the former a non-performance-based playwright and the latter not a dramatist at all but a polemical pamphleteer.

This brings me to the second part of Mayer and Flanders's essay, which is its concern to propel us into a more thoughtful discrimination of what we mean, as encoders, editors, and users of electronic texts, by accessibility. The Brown University-based Women Writers Project, of which Flanders is text-manager, was a pioneer in exploiting electronic technology to widen access (in that case, access to a female, anglophone culture) and so to reshape the literary landscape. It has done impressive work in raising the scholarly community's awareness of diverse and alternative aesthetic traditions by the simple expedient of bringing rare and out-of-print texts to light. In the case of the WWP, accessibility has been partly defined in terms of size—the Project's boldly imaginative understanding that rare texts become accessible if you issue them in sufficient company. There is a confidence and familiarity in numbers, which translates into a potential for conversation—the conversation that a body of texts can generate trans-textually, as it were, by being defined as a group (if only as a list in a catalogue), and the conversation that a reading community can have about them. In this essay, Mayer and Flanders refine that understanding of access into a need to determine appropriate contexts for individual texts.

Contexts can be understood to imply a range of supporting materials and the editorial or annotative function of selecting and interlinking those materials so as to provide, in Mayer and Flanders's words, 'an edition legible by real readers'. This is only good sense, though a robust defence of what might seem like a return to the conventional practice of annotation must also now be sensitive to the partiality and the value-laden implications of such a definition of accessibility. Contextual environments do not testify to a text's 'real' relationships but to a prior perceived alienation from a text that the editor/encoder as socially representative reader proposes to bridge on behalf of a wider readerly community; in doing so the editor/encoder does not merely serve the text and the community but creates both, in terms of a set of held opinions. When Mayer and Flanders argue that 'What needs to be understood better is the relationship between access, editorial decisions, and what we have termed "permeability"', they are in effect arguing for a return to a form of controlled social practice which creates the range of interpretation within which text and reader/user become articulate. It could be argued that this is no more than to come clean about what always happens in every case of textual presentation, whether the contextual function is confined to its minimal operation (as choice of type fount, in the case of a printed document) or is apparently (but only apparently) limitless in the form of an accretional electronic archive. But since choices of context do not simply illuminate texts but represent and reinforce possible readings, it is not enough to designate either the resultant editions or their reading communities as 'real editions' and 'real readers'. It begs the questions whose 'real editions' and whose 'real readers', and can either be understood separately from the partial and subjective commitments of 'real editors'?
7. As putative 'real editors' (and I for one welcome their return) Mayer and Flanders have an agenda for the encoder, which is the representation of textual complexity in the interests of permeability. Complexity they define, through the force of their examples from Cavendish and Cellier, as generic instability. In Cavendish's case, it is the drama text which exploits print as a means of questioning the normative conventions of the performance text. In Cellier's case, it is the political pamphlet which signals, through its typographical versatility, the potential for ludic enactment, for voicing or performance, at the cost of textual decorum. What these examples raise, intriguingly and excitingly, is the challenge of encoding intra-textual instability as the basis for the real electronic edition, and assembling an interventional editorial apparatus that persuades us of this instability as inherent to the text's identity. What Mayer and Flanders reprioritize, then, by their shift of emphasis from the inter-textual to the intra-textual life of electronic texts, is the argument for the encoder/editor's selection and rejection of meanings, and the fruitful possibility of provoking disagreement—of being thought wrong.

Kathryn Sutherland
St. Anne's College, Oxford

Kathryn Sutherland is Reader in Bibliography and Textual Criticism, University of Oxford. She is the editor of Electronic Text: Investigations in Method and Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).



  • Hodgdon, Barbara.The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Lavagnino, John. 'Completeness and Adequacy in Text Encoding'. in The Literary Text in the Digital Age. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. pp.63-76.