• Carrie O'Grady

What do editors do all day?

Updated: Oct 9, 2018

The best fiction editors' work is invisible and unsung. But when the extent of their work is made public, readers and fans often find it surprising -- even shocking.

Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader: A Life

People in general seem to have a pretty hazy, happy idea of how the book trade works. Editors saunter in, open a few envelopes with an antique paper-knife of Moorish design, flick through the newspapers and poke their heads round their colleagues’ doors to gossip about last night’s party. Later, after a long lunch, they may spend the afternoon considering, like Voltaire, whether that particular comma is better left in, or taken out. What a life!

That may have been true in the Mad Men era – for some. Others, though, worked extremely hard, and their efforts often went unrecognised outside the industry. It was only in 2009 that the world found out how much work had been done on Raymond Carver’s famous 1981 collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Carver had been happy with the short stories when he submitted them but his editor, Gordon Lish, took a machete to them, giving his prose the ultra-spare style for which it’s been lauded ever since. Carver was shocked; you can read his reaction to the edit here, in an interview with his widow. And the rest of the world was shocked, too, when they found out. Is this what the editors have been up to all this time, they asked – sneaking around with knives, slicing up authors’ (metaphorical) babies?

In fact, Gordon Lish is one of a kind, as this interview in the Paris Review shows. He’s on the defensive, but his defense has some merit, and it’s worth considering in light of the question of what makes great art. ‘I’ve been decried for a heinous act,’ he says. ‘Me, I think I made something enduring. For its being durable, and, in many instances, beautiful.’

'When there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards'

Those Paris Review interviews are long, but they’re fascinating. This 1994 interview with Robert Gottlieb is riveting reading for anyone interested in books and publishing. In a journalistic coup, the Paris Review tracked down about a dozen of his star writers and asked them to give their accounts of working with Gottlieb, who was editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and Alfred A Knopf for decades, bringing out a list of famous titles that would fill this blog right up if I typed them all out. The authors’ comments show what an astonishing mix of diplomacy, stubbornness, discernment, generosity, imagination and energy Gottlieb marshalled every single day in his work. His insight is remarkable. Look at this excerpt from Michael Crichton, who had sent him a draft of The Andromeda Strain:

"Finally we had the manuscript in some kind of shape. I was just completely exhausted. He said to me, Dear boy, you’ve got this ending backwards. (He’s married to an actress, and he has a very theatrical manner. He calls me ‘dear boy,’ like an English actor might do.) I don’t remember exactly the way it was, but I had it so that one of the characters was supposed to turn on a nuclear device, and there was suspense about whether or not that would happen. Bob said, No, no, the switch has to turn itself on automatically, and the character has to turn it off. He was absolutely right. That was the first time I understood that when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards."

That ability to see a piece of writing through the looking-glass, as it were, and compare the imaginary piece of work to the real one in front of you, as well as to the hundred other imaginary versions that might be created through chopping and changing – that’s no mean feat. The best book editors may have long lunches, but they certainly deserve them.

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