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The Nonlinear Editor: Trash or Treasure?
Posted Jan 8, 2008 Print Version     Page 1of 1

One interesting thing about being an editor is the letters you get from readers. Many are complimentary, which is both flattering and rewarding; some are angry, even vaguely threatening, some plain quizzical. Others are pithy and derisive, along the lines of, "As I was wrapping some catfish last night, I noticed your editorial."

With any publication, there are hot-button issues that bring out the letter-writers in full force whenever those issues come into play. From the outset with EventDV, the unlicensed use of copyrighted music in wedding and event video—and EventDV’s implied (or reader-inferred) stance on the subject—has gotten me in hot water every time we’ve come within spitting distance of the topic. More recently, since we published our November 2007 cover story on the emerging "Trash the Dress" trend, the trashing-bashing missives have come fast and furious. One thing these latest letters provide is a definitive answer to anyone who would accuse wedding videographers of being mere profiteers of the increasingly lucrative wedding industry. For better or worse, richer or poorer, these videographers consider themselves not just wedding vendors but guardians of the sacred institution of marriage, right down to the symbols that stand for its hallowed traditions. To the trashing-bashers, a bride who trashes her wedding dress and the videographer who films her are trashing marriage itself; it’s a traitorous act on par with burning the flag. As one recent letter writer asserted, "I can think of no scenario in which trashing a wedding dress is intended to do anything other than trash the institution of marriage." Though I disagree, this point of view strikes me as a reasonable one—these are powerful symbols, and befouling them invites precisely that reaction. No one would do it if it didn’t

The problem here is that these symbols mean different things to different people. Some would argue that the flag means nothing if you don’t have the right to burn it; then again, if everyone believed that, flag-burning wouldn’t be the attention-grabber it is. Likewise, if dress-trashing didn’t carry some sense of sacrilege, it wouldn’t have the attraction for some brides, photographers, and videographers that it clearly has.

It would be a misunderstanding of dress-trashing to characterize it as a purely political act, along the lines of flag-burning or the mythical bra-burning rites associated with militant feminism in the 1960s. More like Jimi Hendrix sacrificing his guitar by setting it aflame at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, a bride might trash her dress specifically because it is a meaningful symbol for her, and to sacrifice it shortly after the wedding and turn that sacrifice into art expresses that symbol’s meaning better than mothballing it for eternity. Or maybe the dress itself just didn’t mean that much to her, and she thought trashing it sounded like fun. Either way, the message I get is that marriage means more to the trasher than the symbol she’s trashing, and however it might look to someone else, no damage she could inflict on the dress would diminish her marriage in the slightest. This makes sense to me, too, but I can certainly understand why many videographer letter-writers would be put off by it, and it’s a testament to their passion for their work and for the wedding itself that they react so sharply.

One of the more interesting letter-to-the-editor campaigns in recent months happened in summer 2007, when several East-Coast book review editors received a one-page, handwritten letter beseeching a man named Sam Pulsifer to burn down the Lenox, Mass., home of 19th-century novelist Edith Wharton. At least one editor alerted the Massachusetts State Police; most recognized the letter as a hoax. It turned out Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill, N.C., had sent the letters as a publicity stunt for its lead fall title, Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Clarke’s novel is narrated by a fictional character named Sam Pulsifer who has spent 10 years in prison for accidentally burning down the Amherst, Mass., home of poet Emily Dickinson. While he was in jail, Pulsifer’s parents received dozens of letters asking Sam to burn down writers’ homes all over New England, including the Wharton house in Lenox.

All the homes mentioned in the book (and the letters) are real places, and they’re sacred ground to literary types around the world. So it’s not all that surprising that most of the editors who recognized the letter as a joke didn’t find it all that funny. Never mind that Emily Dickinson might have been relieved to lose the house where she imprisoned herself for her entire life, or that Mark Twain (whose house was also on the arson list) would have kicked himself for not thinking of the stunt.

On balance, Clarke’s Arsonist’s Guide struck me about the way dress-trashing videos have so far—cool, clever, and occasionally brilliant but less substantial than they at first seemed. Of course, that’s not what bothers some people most about them; it's the idea behind the act that’s most objectionable. Arson is no joke, but dead-writer fetishes are kind of funny, even to those of us who indulge in them. But some things, for some folks, are just too sacred for sendups. Which is exactly—in art if not in life—what makes them worthwhile targets.

Stephen Nathans-Kelly is editor-in-chief of EventDV.

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