One of the most famous editors who was known to be the writer’s collaborator was Maxwell Perkins. As editor of Scrivener’s, he infamously nurtured the talents of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe.
Photo Credit: Photo of Maxwell Perkins, 1943, New York World Telegram and Sun newspaper, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: Davepape/Wikimedia Commons/PD New York World Telegram & Sun
I have a lot of respect for editors. Although I have never been an editor, I taught college-level English courses and the most important task of my job was to give students feedback on their work. Students worked towards a long essay at the end of the semester that they would submit to me, as polished and effective as they could make it. The course took them through the entire essay-writing process, from brainstorming ideas to making an outline to writing a rough draft to peer review to final draft. My job was to constantly give them feedback on their work. It wasn’t just grammar checking, but also looking at the bigger picture, what they were trying to achieve with their essay, what it was they really wanted to say and how they were saying it.
I learned from that experience just how personal writing is. Many of my students were honest about how much they loathed writing anything longer than a text message. And yet, they struggled to understand and accept feedback they were given, making changes that would get them the best grade possible while maintaining their intentions, their writing voice and writing style.
So I can appreciate the struggles editors go through, even with writers who love to write and have an ease with words. In some ways, this makes it harder because authors have very clear ideas about their intent for their stories and they are loath to change them even when an editor’s suggestions turn out to be more effective.
Many people in the publishing world in the past years have lamented the lost art of editing. I don’t mean in the sense that editors are no longer necessary with the popularity of grammar checkers and grammar programs (they are very, very necessary!) but there is a disconnect between the author and the editor more than in the past. Alex Clark, in her article “The Lost Art of Editing”, laments, “the question is whether the image of the word-obsessed editor poring over a manuscript, red pen in hand, has given way to that of the whizz-bang entrepreneur attuned to the market’s latest caprice, more at home with a tweet than a metaphor” (par. 5). It’s been a staple of writing forums for years that anyone submitting a manuscript to a literary agent or publishing house must have it polished so as to be nearly ready for publication because editors at publishing houses simply don’t have time to do the kind of deep editing that makes them almost the writer’s collaborator as they did in the past.
I’m reading Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography and the editing of Capote’s novel The Grass Harp illustrates the kind of involvement editors had with their writers in the past. The book was published through Random House and Capote worked very closely with senior editor Robert Linscott and Bennett Cerf, one of the founders of Random House. Both Linscott and Cerf swooned over the book as Capote sent them parts of it from Italy where he was vacationing at the time. Linscott’s reaction to the first two chapters was “‘There is a perfection about these two chapters that is simply miraculous. I read and reread and love every word.’” (as quoted in Clarke, location 3679). As he saw more of the book, Linscott’s praise continued to be lavish:
“‘I adore every word of the novel that you have written to date… I read it all through last night from beginning to its present end and had to stop every few paragraphs to hug myself with pleasure. If the last chapter is as good as the preceding ones, this is really going to be a masterpiece’” (as quoted in Clarke, location 3684).
However, Linscott’s reaction to the last part of the book, after so much praise and confidence, was a letdown. Linscott took a while to cable Capote his reaction to the final chapters of the book, and “[Capote] learned the cause of the delay, and it was worse than he had feared: Linscott did not like his ending, and neither did anyone else at Random House” (Clarke, location 3698-3703). Linscott expounded his reasons for not liking the ending:
“‘I wasn’t altogether happy about the last chapter, probably because the first half was so absolutely divine that I had hoped for a continuing miracle… Not, you understand, that it isn’t good as a story and superb as a piece of writing… just that we all had a slight feeling of letdown; of the story tapering off a little, with the end coming too soon and lacking the profusion of delight that had so entranced one up to that point.’” (as quoted in Clarke, location 3703-3708)
Though Linscott was understanding and delicate in his verdict, Cerf was more detailed and straight-forward. Cerf, being a publisher, naturally had concerns that related more to the market than to the novel itself, pointing out the ending, not a happy one, might leave many readers feeling dejected. He also had concerns about the length of the book, as he wrote Capote, “‘I do wish [the last chapter] of the book could be expanded a little bit, especially in light of the fact that the overall length is now little more than a novelette. We’ll have trouble selling it as a complete novel’” (as quoted in Clarke, location 3708).
As their comments illustrate, both Linscott and Cerf were deeply involved in the book and the writer, almost to the level of collaborators. But this might have been the problem. Clarke’s assessment of the problem with the book’s ending is that “having cast his spell of fantasy, Truman has not dispelled it in a believable way” (location 3724). To me, this speaks more towards writing style inconsistency than story problems, which, those at Random House, especially Cerf, were mainly concerned with.
Interestingly, Capote was convinced that the it was best to leave The Grass Harp as it was: “[Capote] liked [the book]— all of it— and… he cabled: ‘HAVE READ PROOFS AND PREFER PUBLISH BOOK AS IS’” (Clarke, location 3750; emphasis original). The book, while not the masterpiece of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, was well received by critics and remains an important part of his canon.
Self-published authors can choose from many freelance editors to work with and they work directly with them. While the editor might not be exactly a collaborator, he or she becomes an important part of the writing process for the author. Freelance editors have less of an eye on the market, since they aren’t weighed down by a publishing house’s demands, and this leaves them free to focus on the story and the author-editor relationship. Authors have control over what changes he or she wishes to make based on the editor’s feedback without the pressure of having to accept all the changes a publishing house editor might suggest and this creates a more friendly environment. Editors, whether they belong to a publishing house or are freelance, have important gifts to give authors with their observant eyes and their expertise.
Clark, Alex. “The Lost Art of Editing.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 2017. 11 February 2011. Web. 15 February 2017.
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. RosettaBooks, LLC, 2013 (original publication date 1988). Kindle digital file.