Max Perkins wouldn’t have confused editing with counting beans — or spreadsheet nerdery

How I wish I could agree with BaronCharlus in the discussion here, where he said, in part:

It’s only through commerce (ie identification of and action to supply a market) that most work reaches us at all. Had there not been a market for reading copies of Shakespeare’s plays at the time he was working no one after the last performance would probably ever have been aware of them. Most of Sophocles’s work, as I understand it, is no longer extant. Had there been a sustained market for those works over the centuries, we might still have them. I don’t think those publishing Shakespeare’s work thought they was preserving art. It was a side-effect of commerce.

Baron, I’m in your debt for presenting a case for the other side — and in such thoughtful and good-humoured posts. . . But, . . . but, . . . though commerce stimulates and lubricates the transmission of words, imaginings and ideas, surely it’s the Bard’s superior magnetisation, his talent for communicating what absorbs and enthralls audiences — and not anything resembling a ‘marketing plan’ — that explains his staying power?

Surely it’s his rows of words that created his audience, not a pack of salesmen who dreamt up the qualities of Shakespearean literature and then set Shakespeare to writing texts that fit them – or what very nearly describes the process in much of corporation-run publishing today?

Are you saying that there’s nothing wrong with the switch at publishing houses — thanks to which it’s specialists in the manipulation of numbers, rather than lovers of literature, who are deciding what books are published?

Somehow, Baron, I can’t imagine that you would seriously disagree with Sean Murray, saying:

The mainstream UK publishing houses are putting out very few lit fiction debuts — one per season in some cases. Imagine a major record label putting out one debut album per season — it would be fair to regard the industry it belonged to as dead or dying, would it not?

Death or the internet*: those are UK lit fiction’s options.

With this change Sean describes – sooner or later, and never mind that I’ve never actually been religious – I’d like to see a return to the idea of editing (of both books and newspapers) as close as possible to a holy calling. Now, I know just how mad saying that will make me seem, particularly to the youngest readers here who have never known publishing as anything other than a quest for pots of gold.

What am I talking about, exactly? The answer is the better part of a hundred years old.

The other day, I came across my (battered, when bought second-hand) copy of A. Scott Berg’s 1978 biography of the most famous great editor (among innumerable unsung others) who ever lived. For the uninitiated, Max Perkins discovered, published and tenderly nurtured the talent of Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Jones and Thomas Wolfe. He was revered for his ability to glimpse literary genius in seemingly the least promising – wild, neurotic, troubled, undisciplined and rough – aspiring scribes. After his exceptional discernment, his most outstanding qualities were humility and the kind of universal graciousness that should really be called something like good ‘manners of the heart.’

I found this extract on pages of the biography bookmarked by me in roughly 1990. As quaint as mentions of a deity will seem in our time of fundamentalist atheism, it’s a passage that perfectly fits recent discussions on this site . . . about publishing; writing & printing as tools of democracy; someone enraged about feeling shut out by the publishing establishment; and the role and attitude of a good editor:

There was one woman, in particular, an aspiring author whose novel had been declined, who railed at Perkins in a number of letters, each more inflammatory than the last. She felt she had been spurned because of her politics, [. . .] her ultraliberalism, [. . .] For two years, she maintained a running assault on Perkins.

Max thought the woman’s manuscript had some merit, despite certain serious defects in her mastery of the English language. He kept on replying, at first out of a sense of politeness, then for the sake of justice, finally in sympathy. His many letters articulated an informal credo for publishing [. . .]:

‘The ideal of publishing would be a forum where all sections of humanity could have their say, whether their object was to instruct, entertain, horrify, etc. Nevertheless, there are certain rules of quality and relevance, which can only be determined by some sort of selection and this the publisher, representing humanity at large, attempts – with many mistakes – to make. Or, to put it differently, artists, saints, and other more sentient representatives of the human race are, as it were, on the frontiers of time – pioneers and guides to the future. And the publisher, in the capacity mentioned, must make some sort of estimate of the importance and validity of their reports, and there is nothing he can base this on but the abilities to judge that God has given him.’

The woman accused Perkins of being afraid to publish her work for fear of public reprisal. But Perkins knew he was not a censor. He pointed out that Scribners had published Ben Hecht’s attack on anti-Semitism, A Guide for the Bedevilled, and Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s Soviet Communism: A New Civilization.

At one point . . . fed up with the woman’s continuing vituperation, Perkins stated: ‘Our correspondence is futile and had better be ended.’ The furious author asked Perkins just who he thought he was. ‘I am,’ he said in a letter dated May 19, 1944, ‘or at least should be if I fulfilled myself, John Smith, U.S.A.’ He went on to develop his view of himself in some detail:

‘He is the man who doesn’t know much, nor think he knows much. [. . .] . . He knows that he is a failure, and is bound to be, because he is not in the confidence of God, like some, and does not know God’s plan. He does know what he has undertaken to do, and he hopes to Heaven that he will manage, to some considerable extent, to do it. That’s what he is serious about, for he can’t, in view of his observation of the rest of the world, be very sure about himself, or think that his fate is a matter of moment […]

‘John Smith, U.S.A., is always aware of the fact that he may be, and probably is, wrong. That is tolerance. He simply does his best in the world and hopes to God that he will never let anybody down or betray any principle in which he believes.’

. . . I will concede that this passage proves how old certain arguments about print publishing are. It’s only the comprehensive victory of the ‘wrong’ side that’s new.


Filed under Book publishing, Editors and editing

25 responses to “Max Perkins wouldn’t have confused editing with counting beans — or spreadsheet nerdery

  1. 3p4

    success may be temporarily divorced from talent
    but talent cannot be divorced from circumstance or history

    the book is between the horse and the automobile
    and you are worried about the jockeys,,let them ride triumphs and nortons,,

    “”After his exceptional discernment, his most outstanding qualities were humility and the kind of universal graciousness that should really be called something like good ‘manners of the heart.’

    three thirds of one,,all the same thing,,like scissors paper stone

  2. Thanks very much for making me aware of Perkins Wordy. I had never heard of him, nor knew the role and position he he held in relation to the titans he published.

    This gaffe is great, a collection of unique wierdos with a smidgin of literate talent, and goes to show that relationships in print don’t happen overnight.

    I have just found a new chat gaffe, set up by Niall O’Sullivan, a poet in London who hosts Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Society in London.

    I came across him when i first went chatting online soon after I arrived in Dublin and discovered the now defunt, from which i was slung a few times for the usual upsetting of others with sensitive egos, and on which i first met Britain’s premier intellectual and author of an exquisite drinking song you found so moving on the blokes bog.

    It was after being slung out of poem uk,

    [continued here: ]

  3. Poetry UK

    Sorry folks, this is a chat gaffe run by Niall O’Sullivan, a London-Irish poet who runs the weekly open mic and most successful live poetry night in the English capital, Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Society.

    He has two books of poetry out, has been writing and reciting it since 1997, and there are other poets and writers there chatting, and who you may find interesting to chat with, as they constitute what’s happening now in English poetry and are the types who will chat back.

    Have a gander and join, you do not have to wait for activation, and the gaffe has been running since the end of September.

  4. wordnerd7

    @3p4, I do like your three thirds of one idea — and in my experience, yes, those qualities do seem to go together. . . Though I’m sure that this is only because of my extra-sluggish brain this morning, I’m not sure what you mean by between the horse and automobile. When you have a minute, please would you explain?

    @Des, thank you, I do agree with this:

    === two nutters on a freedom buzz, and sorry once again for that unpleasantness i was responsible for wronging you with. ===

    The unpleasantness came from a colossal misunderstanding I’m glad we sorted out a long time ago . . . so if I ever mention it, it’s only for a giggle.

    I went to Niall’s blog. Loved those cave painting details — but I scrolled and scrolled and never got to one of his poems. That’s what I’d most like to read there. Now I’ll have to remember to go back and see if there’s a link I missed.

    If you weren’t teasing about being introduced to Perkins by this post, I’m glad. Any mention of him in print publishing circles has become a cliche — but I don’t think very many remember what he actually said about editing, . . . so thought the risk of boring everyone with those extracts worthwhile.

    Since @3p4 hates extra-long posts, & because I don’t want to lose him . . . and because I’m not interested in Jammers, Des, I’ve removed most of that saga to the special viewing-chamber. . . Naturally I think all the kind things you’ve said about me perfectly wonderful. 🙂

  5. 3p4

    what,, ?? i do no such thing,,i love long posts,,what i dont like (never hate anything bad word,,lexo broken glass,,yuch danger hot rude word “hate”
    disfunction in extremis)

    any way i dont like broke up threads that have comments here and comments there,,

    because of my extra-sluggish brain this morning,

    and minor self depra etc

    this particular post rendition was righteous,, ( took jammers and stuffed it ) but i aint taking respons.. for it,, des wont chase me out
    i saw his video,,les battersby with kevin websters voice,,i’m gonna worry? 🙂

    and no i dont sound irritated,,

    horse/car later

  6. Wordy,

    You must edit for a living, but in a kindly way. How about subedit.

    Let’s say you take some authors deathless prose. Henry Miller’s Air Conditioned Nightmare, for example, and it is your job to sub it.

    What do you do? What do you leave in or leave out? How about Lawrence?

    Think of that idea that if you fill your words with life they become irrefutable. Well that accounts for a lot of people who otherwise might not have been published. The cracked and leaking plumbing of their writing filling up with warm liquid.

  7. It accounts for people like Rowling too. Her writing, in my view, was atrocious and derivative, but it filled up with school life and real concerns; she cried when she killed her characters.

    Shakespeare is the same, only he is a wordsmith. Rowse describes him as an autobiographical writer and reading some of his soliloquies and the sonnets you get close to him.

  8. wordnerd7

    I’ve done a bit of editing, ISA, but reluctantly. . . . Eg., I don’t really enjoy putting part of Des’s extra-long posts into the long post pen, as easy as it is to reach them there with a single click – . . . and even though he’s given me permission to do as I see fit, and even if I do know from the history a few of us share that he understands the reasons why. . .

    Like you, I’ve always wondered about these excellent questions:

    === Let’s say you take some authors deathless prose. Henry Miller’s Air Conditioned Nightmare, for example, and it is your job to sub it.

    What do you do? What do you leave in or leave out? ===

    As a general rule, I’d say that good editors change as little as possible of the texts of real writers – and recognise without being able to explain how, precisely, who these people are.

    . . . I hope you realise how gravely you’re insulting sub-editors who’ve read my slapdash blog by suggesting that I might be one of them : ( . . . The best are perfectionist’s perfectionists – and have such a deep interest in etymology and changes in usage that a conversation with one of them can be an education. . . This is a group that once included Graham Greene – who was famous for his speed and accuracy.

    Did you know that GG was a Times sub in the years in which no one wanted to publish his early novels, and was still there when the advance for his first book, The Man Within, made it possible for him to leave that job? He later wrote: ‘[I]n the years to come I was bitterly to regret my decision.’

    . . . Btw, if any blogger I’ve quoted in a post wants to correct spelling, etc., in the highlighted fragments, please just ask. I thought it would be presumptuous to make any such alterations myself.

  9. Wordy, just a thought. I don’t know if it fits in with this post & apologies if it doesn’t.
    Discounting the subject of editing from what was first said.
    There are publishers who break the mainstream and publish works irregardless of a bloodthirsty market. They may just publish works and writings of individuals whom they seriously believe in.
    One of these would be
    I think Lee Rouke mentioned his publishers – in one of his latest articles – as one of those, who break away from market demands.
    There was also a European translator from the Middle-East, Denys Johnson-Davis
    who often used his own funds to desperately translate and publish obscure Arab works for a Western audience when there was a strong chance no one would buy any books. He desired to create a market when there wasn’t any.

    I also believe that the Guardian Books Blog has in recent months fallen prey to a predictable notion of what readers would want to read, rather than to write articles that are truly thoughtful and introspective, even if these break away from the norm. This wasn’t the case about a year and a half ago. There were more ‘thinking’ posts then.
    For instance, I can almost predict the blogs that are going to be featured – especially in the way of subtle self-promotion with which to help out certain publishers, writers’ groups or otherwise to highlight the usual celebratory festivals worldwide. Halloween, thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, Valentine’s Day etc. In this way, they are no different from mainstream publishers who churn out celebrity biographies by the dozens to meet common market demands.

    regards 🙂

  10. BaronCharlus


    I pop off to Munich for a few days and suddenly my name´s being taken in all sorts of glorious vanity.

    No time to read your piece properly yet, Wordn. But I’m travelling home tomorrow so will catch up. Looks like a very thoughtful response, so thanks.

    Now back to the last of the six great beer halls…

  11. Hazlitt

    I remember plodding into a second-hand book shop during a saunter around north London some years ago and emerged with the letters between Harold Ober and F.Scott Fitzgerald.
    As you all know Ober was Fitz’s literary agent.Ober was more than once reduced to tears on receipt of Fitz’s illegible manuscripts during his decline.Reading the ping-pong correspondance with it’s back-beat of Fitzgerald’s financial desperation,mutual devotion turns to tragedy when Ober finally refuses to bankroll Fitzergerald after 20 years of support.The whole thing is even more poignant when one knows that Ober was looking after Fitz’s daughter Scottie.
    Scott never forgave Ober and I personally believe Ober regretted it when having gone the last mile with Scott all his life he “blinked” one year before Scott died.
    “When Harold withdrew from the questionable honour of being my banker,I felt completely numb financially and I suddenly wondered what money was and where it came from.There has always seemed a little more somewhere and now there wasn’t.”

  12. wordnerd7

    . . . Well this is turning into a fine discussion. I’m sorry I couldn’t release your comments from the moderation queue sooner, @Suzan and @Hazlitt.

    @Baron, a post from Munich on this ever-so-‘umble blog — !!! — thanks, and what a relief to know that you’re on a grand tour and didn’t suffer a relapse, as I’d feared.

    I wish you were here to discuss @Hazlitt’s post — with him, because I am not in love with the sound of my own blogging voice and would prefer to listen, not talk, for a while. . . That reminder of the relationship between Ober and Fitzgerald, and the horrors of its final days, couldn’t be a better example of the kind of care that writers and artists need. It has made my insides turn painful somersaults — as very nearly everything about the adult life of Scott F always has. . . How, dear @Baron, can we leave the literature to specialists in commerce alone?

    Toujours douce @Suzan, yes, I imagine that there are still a few like that hanging on, and I’m trying to give them all possible encouragement, in this space. Will follow your links as soon as I have a spare moment. _Thank__you_.

  13. wordnerd7

    I meant to explain . . . comments sent from new email addresses are treated by WordPress software as first posts by new bloggers that need my approval.

  14. Hazlitt

    wordnerd: Enjoy your rest.I sense you are overworked.I did not expect a reply.Just throwing in a morsel.I remain madam your humble Hazlitt.

  15. Dear @Hazlitt, I’m only filling in, in the nerd’s absence . . . but am fairly sure of my ground when I say I think this is supposed to be a gender-neutral site, and that wordnerd might never come out again if addressed — well, so very charmingly — but er, . . . ahem . . . hardly in conformity with the not-exactly-rules of this place, mmmm? . . . Have you ever tried gender-neutrality yourself, btw?

    Now as for your prize morsel. It’s set off many trains of thoughts about Fitzgerald. And I would want @BaronCharlus, if he ever emerges from his biergartens(?), to tell us that if commerce is responsible for everything wonderful in literature, why did Scribners sell its first printing of 20,000 copies of Gatsby at a pace that would put a slug to shame? After that, there was only a second printing — of 3,000 copies, of which there were still unsold copies in warehouses when Fitz died fifteen years later.. . That the book was later recognised as a work of genius had little to do with his publisher, I’d suggest.

  16. === That the book was later recognised as a work of genius had little to do with his publisher, ===

    . . . I know that Max Perkins was technically that publisher, but more in the way of a father-confessor and encourager than any sort of commercial animal. Not, as I said at the beginning, like any big contemporary corporate publisher, for instance.

  17. Hazlitt

    Dear aciacciatura:
    Sincere apologies.

    I remaim aciaccatura your, “castrated” Hazlitt :),

  18. 3p4

    Have you ever tried gender-neutrality yourself, btw?

    Now as for your prize morsel. It’s set off many trains of thoughts about Fitzgerald. And I would want @BaronCharlus, if he

    ho humm,,

  19. wordnerd7

    I’m back now, @Hazlitt — it was only a short holiday — and .. . what can I say, blogging assistants just aren’t what they used to be (small sigh). Acacciatura meant well, . . . But if I didn’t know that your post was a fiendish wheeze, I’d be asking you why you think that a public no-gender face — which could be hiding real-life sexual display or sexiness of any degree, as well as actual sexuality ranging all the way from tepid to blazing — has anything to do with sexual capacity. . . Even if I’m not taking what _you_ said at face value, it’s reminding me of being puzzled for months by why blogger-comrades are mostly anxious to make their gender absolutely clear, even in a medium in which we are all disembodied and the pheromones hardly have a chance to skip, let alone dance. . . Thank you for a lovely 🙂 anyway: particularly welcome because the sky is grey and low & the air soggy.

  20. wordnerd7

    Oh @3p4, of course I meant gender-neutrality for them as wants it. Obviously not @Baron, who strongly ‘identifies as’ male — wouldn’t you say?

  21. wordnerd7

    No ‘of course’ about it, I suppose you’ll say. Okay, I agree that I should have made myself clearer.

  22. wordnerd I’d say it’s always a mix of the 2 – art and commerce. Of course Shakespeare is great ( although personally I find his plays impossible to watch as the language is too florid and quickly delivered and the stage pictures presented are often incredibly static – there are exceptions to this and for me these occur when the language is edited. I’m a moron obviously but it reads better than it looks ) but there’s also a huge industry behind him keen to ram that idea down our throats.

    The amount of Shakespeare produced in relation to the amount of Shakespeare that needs to be produced is not in balance. Often it seems to be about whether such and such an actor would be good as Hamlet or whoever rather than anything else. Pure commerce – if we can get David Tennant in to play the prince we’ll make a killing at the box office.

  23. wordnerd7

    @alarming, I’m usually willing to settle for a mixture or other reasonable compromises, in arguments — as in your suggestion of art _and_ commerce, & would have done so by now . . . if (i) @BaronC hadn’t taken such an extreme position — more, I suspect, to enliven this blog than seriously; . . . and (ii) if I didn’t think that the powers in publishing today actually believe what he said about commerce deserving most of the credit for our literary inheritance:

    === It’s only through commerce (ie identification of and action to supply a market) that most work reaches us at all ===

    This makes those powers excessively arrogant, without a scrap of — for instance — Max Perkins’s very real humility about making artistic judgements.

    Here, you’ll be surprised to learn that I agree with you completely:

    === ( although personally I find his plays impossible to watch as the language is too florid and quickly delivered ===

    @3p4’s Richard recitation made me reach for the Collected Works, and reading past where 3p stopped, I thought — not for the first time — of how much more I absorb of Will’s linguistic genius when I’m reading him quietly, by myself.

    === it reads better than it looks ===

    Beautifully put — and true.

  24. wordnerd7

    === when I’m reading him quietly, by myself. ===

    I mean, compared to watching a performance, with or without David Tennant or . . . Gwynnie Paltrow . . . although Branagh has been magnifique in every Willsian role I’ve seen him play.

    I hope 3p is going to give me another recitation to put up on this site. His last one got lots of hits — has been one of the most successful posts by far.

  25. BaronCharlus

    Dear @BaronCharlus, with your kind consent, I’ve put the unexpurgated version of this most generous answer here: . . .


    (Wordn, if you want to shift this whole rant straight to the ramblers’ hut out the back, feel free)

    How exciting to pop my head around the door from far Bavaria, and find my cranky musings being addressed with such thought and thoroughness. Sincere thanks, Wordn.

    I think we’re talking, partially at least, at cross purposes. No doubt due to my roving brain and lack of clarity. So maybe a numbered list is in order…

    1) Shakespeare. Good place to start, [ continues here: ]

    In summary:

    I suspect the publishing industry has always been a chaotic paradox, financially-motivated yet one of the means by which great art is found and preserved for posterity; unfair, often wildly inconsistent in its treatment of authors, peopled by those who seek only gain and others who live to provide a conduit for what they believe to be beautiful. The truly ambitious attempt both at once.

    I’m not taking an exclusively pro-publishing stance (come on, I take my username from a 3,000 page novel about biscuit-induced melancholy) but I am expressing strong scepticism regarding what seems to be a generalised assumption that commerce has no place in art, sullies it, defeats it, whereas the two are, and have always been, symbiotically linked (ask a Medici).

    [. . .]

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