In 2008 I published a short piece in Cabinet magazine on the fate of writer Thomas Browne’s skull, stolen from his coffin 158 years after his death. It caught the attention of an editor at a small press called Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, who contacted me and asked if I would develop it into what became my first book. He particularly praised the final line of the Cabinet piece, saying that line showed him I was a strong writer. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that the line in question had not been written by me but added by my editor at Cabinet, Sina Najafi.
Who can properly claim credit for such a line, written by the editor but appearing under the name of the writer? Where is the editor’s hand evident—if at all—in the writer’s work? Ramey asks these questions in The Insect Dialogues, a book-length conversation with another writer, Marc Estrin, on the role and responsibility of the editor.
In early 2000, Estrin submitted a 900-page manuscript to Ramey, then an editor at Penguin Putnam; Ramey agreed to publish it only on the condition that they cut 300 pages and significantly revise it. The result, Insect Dreams: The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa, went on to garner critical acclaim (though moderate sales) and initiated a professional relationship and friendship between the two. Ramey eventually left Penguin Putnam and co-founded Unbridled Books; there he published five more of Estrin’s books through 2009. (Ramey also published my second book, though we haven’t worked together in over five years.)
Since then, though, Estrin has founded his own press, Fomite Press, and in 2016 decided to publish his original, unadulterated manuscript, now titled Kafka’s Roach: The Life and Times of Gregor Samsa. While Ramey gave Estrin his blessing, he feared such a move might be seen as a repudiation of his original editing, and so a third book was born: The Insect Dialogues, a transcription of a three-month email exchange in which the two discuss the history of this book in particular and, through it, much larger questions of publishing, editing, and authorial authority.
So within these pages there’s a hint of recrimination, at times even bitterness. What’s clear is that Estrin, despite his gratitude for a publishing break, never seems to have considered Insect Dreams entirely his. He refers to it as “my book in Fred’s edit,” or “Fred’s Gregor,” the novel that’s been “fredited,” all the while keeping hold of the manuscript he calls “the original Gregor.” Ramey in turn sees Estrin’s decision to publish his original manuscript as, at least in part, a repudiation both of Ramey’s editorial work and the larger question of editing altogether. “At the end of the day,” he worries, “Kafka’s Roach will become and always be the real novel; Insect Dreams will be the artificial, tainted construct.”
Link to the rest at Slate