What Writers and Editors Do

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From The Paris Review:

The work of the literary editor is conducted in a kind of shadow, cast by the name of the author. A few editors have stepped out of that shadow, becoming perhaps more infamous than famous, for the labels “editor” and “famous” seem like a contradiction in terms, essentially incompatible. An example is Gordon Lish, who became known in the literary world as “Captain Fiction” and whose authors included Raymond Carver. Another is Maxwell Perkins, editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, whose epithet was the “Editor of Genius.” One of the most celebrated editing jobs ever done was carried out by Ezra Pound, not in any formal capacity, but as a friend, his ruthless hand paring down an early version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into the form in which we know it today. Gordon Lish’s editing was quite as unconstrained and uncompromising, the style we think of as Carver’s being in fact Lish’s work. Carver himself was rather ambivalent about it, though it unquestionably established his name as a writer. This became apparent when Carver’s own manuscript was published after his death, his stories there being quite differently ample and expansive, barely recognizable. There is little doubt that the editor’s Carver was better than Carver’s Carver, and how must that have made the author feel as he stood in the spotlight to receive his accolades, hailed as the great new name of American literature? The example is interesting, for the job of the editor is to exert influence, not for his own good, nor necessarily for the author’s, but for that of the book, and if we can suggest that Lish went too far, we must also ask in relation to what? After all, the book was certainly the better for it. Were the wounded feelings of its author more important? Without Lish, Carver’s books would have been poorer and he would have been a reasonably good writer rather than a brilliant one. This raises the question of what a writer is, and where the boundaries run between the author, the book, and the surrounding world.

America has a tradition of strong editors, though the issue is not specifically American. I know of Norwegian editors who to all intents and purposes move their author’s feet, so to speak, in the dance of their literary endeavors, who basically instruct them: left foot here, right foot there, left foot here, right foot there. And I know, too, of Norwegian writers at the exact opposite pole, who deliver print-ready manuscripts to their editors and would change publishers promptly at the suggestion of reworking anything.

Lish’s job on Carver is perhaps too extreme to serve as an example of the role of the editor, but what any kind of boundary breaking always does is to draw attention to the boundary itself—in this case between editor and writer, who together with the text form a kind of Bermuda Triangle within whose force field everything said and done disappears without trace. Had Lish not gone as far as he did, everything in Carver’s texts would have been attributed unequivocally to Carver, the way all novels, short stories, and poetry collections are attributed unequivocally to the writer. To understand what goes on in this shadowland, we could ask ourselves: What would the books have been like without their editors? In my own case, the answer is simple: there would have been no books. I would not have been a writer. This is not to say that my editor writes my books for me, but that his thoughts, input, and insights are imperative to their being written. These thoughts, this input, and these insights are particular to me and my writing process; when he is editing the work of other authors, what he gives them is something particular to their work. The job of editor is therefore ideally undefined and open, dependent on each individual writer’s needs, expectations, talent, and integrity, and it is first and foremost based on trust, hinging much more on personal qualities and human understanding than on formal literary competence.

I remember a time in my late twenties when I was working for a literary magazine, we had commissioned a contribution from an established poet, and I was given the job of taking care of it. I read the poem and responded with a few comments, some suggestions as to minor changes, and a tentative inquiry as to whether the poem might be developed a bit further in the same direction. The reply that came back can be summed up in a single question: “Who are you?” In fact, there may well have been an undertone in that reply warranting an even more forceful wording: “Who the hell are you?” I was vexed by this, my comments had been cautious and, as far as I could see, justified. It was how I was used to commenting on the works-in-progress of my writer friends. Surely a poet of such experience and standing could relate more professionally to their own writing?

But the reaction wasn’t about the poem. It was about a faceless editor wanting to change the poem, which I guessed was being construed as an attack. As if there was something wrong with the poem and this faceless young male academic thought he knew what was needed to fix it. Objectively, I think my comments were on the right track, but when it comes to writing there is no such thing as objective, it’s all about the person writing and the person reading. If I had met this poet a few times, if we had been able to gain an impression of each other, perhaps get an idea as to each other’s literary preferences, I think my comments might have been taken differently, perhaps even prompted changes to the work, though not necessarily in the way I had envisaged.

The situations in which creative writing takes place are often complicated, to put it mildly—anyone even slightly familiar with the writing profession, as we so grandly refer to it, knows that it is one great big entanglement of neuroses, hang-ups, blockages, frailties, idiosyncrasies, alcoholism, narcissism, depression, psychosis, hyperactivity, mania, inflated egos, low self-esteem, compulsion, obligation, impulsive ideas, clutter, and procrastination—and working with writing in that kind of context means that a concept such as quality is a poor standard indeed, at least if we think of quality as an objective norm. In literary editing, quality is a dynamic entity, more a process than a grade, and one that will vary according to the individual writer and editor.

That the books that come out of this are treated in almost exactly the opposite way in literary criticism, which is very much about weights and measures and comparisons to other books, can often throw an author into shock and is something one never quite gets used to. It feels almost as if there are different books, one belonging to the editor, another to the critic, and for the author this can be difficult; should he or she listen to his or her editor, who will invariably say that critics don’t know what they’re talking about, that they are insensitive and stupid, driven by their own agendas, and so on, or to the judgement of the critics?

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG could (as usual) be wrong, but he suggests that not all (perhaps not even a majority) of authors are rife with “neuroses, hang-ups, blockages, frailties, idiosyncrasies, alcoholism, narcissism, depression, psychosis, hyperactivity, mania, inflated egos, low self-esteem, compulsion, obligation, impulsive ideas, clutter, and procrastination.”

Based solely on his personal experiences, PG would guess that there are a higher percentage of attorneys that manifest some, many or all of such problems/issues/behaviors than there are authors that do the same. Certainly, due to the pressures of their work (or whatever), a higher percentage of attorneys have problems with alcoholism and drug abuse that is typical of the general population at large.

A great many bar associations sponsor seminars and other educational programs for their members that deal with addiction, drug abuse, mental illnesses, etc. Some even require participation in such programs for a specified number of hours every couple of years.

3 thoughts on “What Writers and Editors Do”

  1. Dear PG,

    I doubt if we actually have fewer than lawyers, but until you get to know us pretty well (say, by encountering them while editing us) we keep ours where you aren’t going to see them. I doubt my less involved friends know mine, for instance, although I guarantee knowing mine wouldn’t surprise them, as I tend to be a bit of a spokesperson about depression. But, I’m not actually very depressed, and the general public is unlikely to ever see mine unless I speak up. Also, most of us aren’t working so hard ours are readily apparent (I think lawyers overwork more than we do, not that we aren’t working RIGHT UP TO THAT POINT). In other words, ours are well integrated into our responses to them. But that’s just one author’s response to the working authors of my writer’s group, the Washington Romance Writers of the metropolitan DC (District of Columbia) area, together with casual acquaintance through the Northern Virginia Writer’s Club with writers across Virginia, and the local Sisters in Crime chapter (our local chapter does not discriminate against those of us who are male-having said that, I should also add WRW has always welcomed the men of our community who aren’t anti-romance (the ones who are anti-romance don’t express interest in attending, which works well, in my case)). -tc

  2. I don’t know how close you are to DWS and KKR, but I have a suspicion that their response to this article would be interesting, as it goes against everything I’ve learnt from them both while doing their writing workshops.

    With my professional hat on, I would observe this writer/editor relationship as a product of perfectionism and the need for affirmation from those authorities that like to think that they define what is good taste. There again, all of us seek some affirmation from the people that are important to us.

    The problem is that this fall under the saying,De gustibus non est disputandum, which means there can be no argument about taste because taste is subjective. Of course that won’t stop people from doing so.

  3. Okay, I admit I tapped out about halfway on the full OP. One could have a discussion about the role of editors, but it would have been nice if the OP had done a “compare and contrast.” We’re just told that unedited Carver read differently than Lish’s edited versions. No kidding. And that Lish’s versions were superior. Really?

    It would be nice to know the purpose of the edits. I remember a class on censorship in fiction. We weren’t focused on the industrial-grade censorship, a la gulags. But more about how several famous novels had to have scenes taken out because the novels bumped up against the social mores of the day. Think of Dolly Parton’s “Down From Dover” discussed in a previous post.

    Excising the “offending” scenes didn’t make the stories better; doing so introduced other problems. But the point wasn’t to improve the books, but to appease the publishers, who thought the public wouldn’t like the “uncut” versions. We all know that modern American publishers tend to have a low opinion of the American public, perhaps it was the same in Carver’s day. Regardless, the OP doesn’t say if Lish was helping Carver get around a literary “Hays Code,” which would redeem Lish somewhat.

    The OP mentions Stieg Larsson, which reminds me that the title of Larsson’s most famous book was changed to one Americans would actually read: From “Men Who Hate Women” to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I cheerfully admit I read the latter, and would never touch the former, so the editor in that case did the writer a solid. The OP wants us to think that Carver’s editor was making similarly useful changes, but never backs up statements like this:

    Without Lish, Carver’s books would have been poorer and he would have been a reasonably good writer rather than a brilliant one.

    I don’t want to take the OP’s word for it. It’s possible that what Lish did for Carver was what Marcia Lucas and Brian De Palma et al did for George Lucas in Star Wars. You can see examples in “How Star Wars was Saved in the Edit.” Creatives tend to help each other the way Lucas’s team helped him; Heinlein gave Pournelle and Niven good advice when they wrote “The Mote In God’s Eye.”

    For George Lucas, his wife and friends were worth their weight in gold. They helped him pace the movie better. They rearranged scenes to amp up tension or to set up pay-offs, and they cut the repetitive and boring parts. Marcia is famously the reason we cheer when Han Solo appears during the trench run. A good editor could help a writer in that fashion, especially if the writer is like Lucas, who assumes from the get-go he’ll “fix it in the edits.” But I’m getting the strong impression that Carver’s editor butchered his stories, and rewrote them according to his own vision, not Carver’s.

    Noticeably absent is an opinion of what Carver thought of what Lish did to — or for? — his stories. His editor took away his style, which would strike me as a firing offense. None of what the OP writes sounds like a ringing endorsement for editors. It sounds more like a warning:

    “Don’t let this happen to you.”

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