Earlier this week, three closely related subjects swam into focus together, on my mental screen:
* Complaints about unedited or poorly edited books, a species of moan that has begun to be an anachronistic cliché — in this case, by a New York Times reviewer grumbling about the autobiography of someone called Russell Brand:
In the (mostly positive) British reviews of “My Booky Wook,” a lot was made of the fact that Mr. Brand wrote this thing himself. That’s good to know, but what he needed was a working editor. “My Booky Wook” is about a third too long, and dithers off into impossibly extended tangents.
* Two sentences from a single entry in the blog of Tina Brown, a former editor of The New Yorker, the most famous literary magazine in America. The metaphorical equivalent of minestrone is not all that’s startling in this departure from writing to textual conversation:
(i) One of the many bummers of our ongoing miseries at the moment is that they have deprived Obama devotees of their expected post-electoral nirvana. (ii) Cuomo’s effectiveness in shaking down the bonuses helps to go a small way to lance the boil of vindictive outrage that is clouding serious political decisions, while Geithner’s comeback vindicates the president’s patience and belief in him. [my ital.]
* An email explanation from a mole at a famous British newspaper (FBN) for a hair-raising collection of basic errors in a 600-word article, not long ago:
[O]n the subbing front [. . .] you wouldn’t BELIEVE how hard it is to find a good sub. Seriously. Especially for somewhere like the [name of newspaper]. Subbing is an art, and a noble one – but the annoying fact is that many (if not most) subs see it as a route into writing, and don’t care about the subbing itself, except as a stepping stone. And the [name of newspaper] naturally attracts people like this.
I’ll return to those clear markers of the death of editing in a moment. When they came to mind, I’d been thinking on a different tangent — of editors as baby-killers, the literary equivalent of Rameses II, whom most scholars consider the most likely pharaoh in the story of Moses and the bulrushes, . . . that’s right, the villain many of us met long before we had to become doctrinal secularists – in a scripture class, at about six years old.
I’ll confess to a feeble attempt to be provoking, there. One of my best and oldest friends is an editor. Indeed, if I were asked to name ten people across the span of my life that I’d save from hellfire and damnation – if I believed in such thrilling entertainment – at least three of them would be members of the profession. And yet . . .
Joan Didion named her 1992 collection of essays, After Henry, for the man who was her husband’s book editor as well as her own, who once flew unannounced all the way from New York to California to help stiffen her spine when she was ‘scared witless’ at the prospect of lecturing to the members of the Berkeley faculty who had taught her. Anyone who ever had the luck of encountering a great editor will know that she is being strictly factual, describing what she lost when he died at fifty-one:
What editors do for writers is mysterious, and does not […] have much to do with titles and sentences and ‘changes’. […] The relationship between an editor and a writer is much subtler and deeper than that, at once so elusive and radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if the editor was Henry Robbins […] was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down alone and do it.
She admits that even such extraordinary connections in the world of books are not friction-free when she says that except for two minor disagreements, she believed everything he ever told her,
even when time and personalities and the difficulty of making a living by either editing books or writing them had complicated our relationship.
Those difficulties have acquired towering dimensions. They’ve done so in ways that remind anyone else who lost a Henry to the Reaper, too young – two out of the three mentioned earlier, in my case – that what Didion says that a good editor gives a writer can also be taken away by a bad one. The internet and the blogosphere are being blamed in some quarters for destructive literary ignoramuses dominating the ranks of book publishing, today. But Didion rightly fingered the commercialisation of publishing as the actual culprit seventeen years ago – and wrote brilliantly about its insidiousness:
[Writers] fear their contribution to the general welfare to be evanescent, even doubtful, and, since the business of publishing […] increasingly attracts people who sense this marginality all too keenly, [. . .] it has become natural enough for a publisher or an editor to seize on the writer’s fear, to reinforce it, turn the writer into a necessary but finally unimportant accessory to the ‘real’ world of publishing. […] A publisher or editor who has contempt for his own class position can find solace in transferring that contempt to the writer, who […] can be seen as dependent on the publisher’s largesse.’
A rapidly sinking ‘class position’ is much of the explanation for my FBN mole’s lament about sub-editors – but it also applies to all language-loving editors paid by capitalist enterprises, anywhere. Since money took over as the measure of success in every branch of the arts, editors have grown increasingly envious of writers having so much as a chance at a jackpot — when most of them have none.
Didion’s complaint about editors illustrating the paradoxical psychological tendency that turns some victims of abuse into abusers is unspecific. The more ordinary problem has been the excessive concentration of power over literary creators by an arbitrary handful of people – editors acting not just in their role as gatekeepers to the profession but in a position to tell all but established bestseller-writers what they can and can’t write about. For instance, a respected New York editor-turned-agent, Betsy Lerner, admitted nine years ago in a book advising scribes on dealing with editors that, as far as book editors and reviewers are concerned, writers cannot and must not write in more than one genre. ‘Gone is the idea of the Renaissance man,’ she said flatly. She quoted Gore Vidal pronouncing,
Writers are the only people who are reviewed by people of their own kind. And their own kind can often be reasonably generous – if you stay in your category. I don’t. I do many different things rather better than most people do one thing. And envy is the central fact of writing life.
Neither Didion nor Lerner mentions the ways in which the print editorial process itself has also obstructed literary creativity and productivity – particularly in the US, where every stage of it is more minutely systematised than in Britain. I would guess that all writers who have worked in it but now have blogs of their own marvel, every time they post, at the fractional elapsed time between getting an idea, then executing and communicating it to others.
Print writers publishing nothing more consequential than magazine articles in the US typically follow these steps for each piece –
a lightbulb turns on in the head of a scribbler . . . who then . . .
… submits a proposal for developing the idea into an article
… (a freelance scribe with no history of writing for the magazine sometimes has to write an introductory letter complete with CV to ask permission to send in a proposal)
. . . the editors of the magazine discuss the proposal and will sometimes re-shape it before they accept it (‘We think that juvenile obesity in Greece would be far more appealing visually than in the US – could you maybe switch your research to Athens?’)
. . . or they might reject it (which could mean starting the whole process all over again at another publication, if the writer is a freelance).
. . . The completed article is discussed at another meeting of the editors, and modifications may be proposed . . .
. . . the writer will often be asked to accommodate changes for strictly political reasons – such as pandering to the ego of the assigning editor’s boss’s boss . . .
. . . By this stage, any strikingly innovative perspective or approach to a subject — and sometimes the subject itself – has usually been diluted, filed down or de-fanged to become something familiar and comfortable for the most conventional thinker at the editorial conference table …
. . . which accounts for the fascinating sensation most of us have, reading magazines, of encountering essentially the same ideas repackaged over and over again.
Collaborative, group decision-making can be punishingly slow. A scribbler I know who went freelance after years of toiling as a copy (sub-)editor on The New York Times and Playboy once had to write off nearly twelve months of rewriting the same article at least five times for National Geographic, where she had also been a staff member. The editors rejected the final version of the piece. Though they paid her a $12,000 ‘kill’ fee for her trouble, her face still grew pale with anger, recounting the tale many years later.
Writers who care most about giving readers stimulating fresh angles and new information about the world experience such sagas as something very like abortion or infanticide. By contrast, blogging can feel like a premature experience of paradise.
. . . Which takes me back to the examples with which I began this post. Never mind if part of the price for putting a stop to baby-killing and seeing more literary infants grow to maturity is a Russell Brand going off on ‘impossibly extended’ tangents – not least because it’s surely more interesting to see what he’s capable of writing himself, without aesthetic surgery. Never mind a Tina Brown lancing the boils on the bummers of clouded, ongoing miseries – as long as the rest of us are also allowed to express ourselves exactly as we please.
As editors in the Henry Robbins or Max Perkins mould are anyway extinct – or nearly so, . . . bring on the anarchic prose! Viva the blogging revolution!