The Lost Art of Editing

The Lost Art of Editing

The long, boozy lunches and smoke-filled parties are now part of publishing’s past, but has rigorous line-by-line editing of books been lost too, a casualty of the demands of sales and publicity?

Reach for the current issue of Private Eye and you will find “Bookworm”, the anonymous author of the magazine’s Books & Bookmen column, indulging his or her fondness for schadenfreude by rounding up the worst reviews of this season’s crop of new books. The writers mentioned will no doubt simply shrug – or perhaps grimace – to have readers’ attention drawn to less than ecstatic comments, especially when numerous glowing reviews are ignored. But “Bookworm” also has a few sharp words for those whose work is undertaken outside the glare of publicity: “it’s not only the authors who will and should wince on reading these words. The editors . . . are responsible as well, for being too indolent, timid or unobservant, if the reviewers are right. But will pain spur them to remember that editors are supposed to edit?”

Editors are supposed to edit: well, of course. What else would they do? And why should Private Eye, in the process of tweaking a few authors’ noses, alight on those who labour behind the scenes and accuse them of incompetence? The answer lies in the changing role of the editor, in the turning wheel of the publishing industry and in the expectations of readers.

One evening at the end of last September I found myself all set to interview Jonathan Franzen about his new novel, Freedom, on the stage of the Southbank Centre in London. I had anxiously worked and reworked my list of questions, but while my preparation was not in vain, it was swiftly put into perspective by an unexpected turn of events. It transpired that Franzen had that very afternoon, during the filming of a BBC television programme, discovered that the UK edition of his novel contained a number of errors – errors that he thought had been corrected during previous stages of production. In other words, the copies of the novel stacked high in the foyer, not to mention the tens of thousands on their way to bookshops, were not as Franzen, or indeed his publisher, intended. In the green room at the Southbank Centre, a clearly shaken but phlegmatic Franzen outlined his plan to tell his audience – and, by extension, the reading public – of the unfortunate development and to urge them to wait to buy the corrected edition. When he did so, there were – an unusual moment for most literary events – gasps of shock, followed by a nervous silence.

It seemed like something from a (rather heavy-handed) novel itself, and it was certainly a gift to headline writers; not only was Franzen’s previous novel entitled The Corrections, but that book’s US edition had suffered similar teething troubles. And, in a pile-up of ironies, one section of Freedom goes under the heading “Mistakes Were Made”. But the affair also cast an intriguing light on our curious relationship with literary texts, on the authority we feel should be vested in them, and on the obvious but somehow occluded reality that books are, to a greater or lesser degree, the result of a collaboration between writer and publisher. Franzen and his publishers had a horrible although mercifully rare experience, but it was not one entirely without amusing side-effects. One was the number of people – including me – who had read advance copies of Freedom and failed to notice errors, whether straightforward typographical slips or stylistic infelicities. But despite the hoopla over Freedom, in truth it had very little to do with the day-to-day business of publishing, bookselling or, indeed, writing: Franzen, one of the literary world’s heaviest hitters, has extraordinary care, attention and money lavished on his work.

But what happens the rest of the time? Away from the world of freak glitches, what fate befalls the writer as his or her magnum opus enters the publishing production chain? For some years now – almost as long as people have been predicting the death of the book – there have been murmurs throughout publishing that books are simply not edited in the way they once were, either on the kind of grand scale that might see the reworking of plot, character or tone, or at the more detailed level that ensures the accuracy of, for example, minute historical or geographical facts. The time and effort afforded to books, it is suggested, has been squeezed by budgetary and staffing constraints, by the shift in contemporary publishing towards the large conglomerates, and by a greater emphasis on sales and marketing campaigns and on the efficient supply of products to a retail environment geared towards selling fewer books in larger quantities. In more broad-brush terms, 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.

It’s not a new debate. In 2005, Blake Morrison wrote a long essay on the subject in which he noted that, despite the inherent fuzziness of the line between facilitating a writer’s work, with the occasional firmness and wing-clipping that entails, and the kind of over-editing that can result in a loss of authenticity and spontaneity, editing was vital to the business of writing and publishing. “When a book appears,” he concluded, “the author must take the credit. But if editing disappears, as it seems to be doing, there’ll be no books worth taking the credit for.”

Last year I read a lot of books when I was a panel member on a BBC2 Culture Show special on emerging novelists; I also underwent a similar process during the compiling of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list in 2003. Reading work by new writers can be – and frequently is – a truly exciting experience; it is part of the territory that you will also read a lot of misses for every hit. But what saps the spirit are the manuscripts that leave you with the question: why did no one sit down with the writer and point out where this isn’t working? Why didn’t a red pen mark the hackneyed phrase, or the stock character, or the creaky dialogue? And, sometimes, why didn’t someone deliver the unfortunate verdict: this simply isn’t ready yet, and may never be?

Make it known that you’re interested in the past, present and future of editing, and there are plenty of people who want to share their thoughts – although not all of them, given the chatty and precarious nature of the world of publishing, on the record. Many speak of the trimming of budgets, the increasingly regimented nature of book production and of the pressure on their time, which means they have to undertake detailed and labour-intensive editing work in the margins of their daily schedule rather than at its centre. One freelance editor I talked to remarked that “big companies used to have whole copy-editing and proof-reading departments. Now you’ll get one publisher and one editor running a whole imprint.” She’d noticed that some editors tended to acquire books that arrived in a more or less complete state. From her own experience, she also noted that writers at the beginning of their careers were far more open to suggestions than those further down the line; one suspects that that must always have been the case, but it’s her opinion that writers with a healthy sales history have become more powerful, and their editors less. “It’s certainly easy to imagine that writers with a lot of financial clout – whether literary prizewinners or mass-market bestsellers – feel that they have gained immunity from having their work tinkered with.”

Others speculate about the changing nature of text itself, and of readers’ expectations and demands of it. While most readers are understandably enraged when they buy a book and then spot spelling, grammar and factual errors, some may feel that other considerations are more important. Given the proliferation of user-generated content of all kinds, and the demand for instant gratification, it’s unsurprising that speed and economy are often prioritised over care and quality.

And perhaps that has also led to a change in the way we think about creativity. Kirsty Gunn, a novelist and professor of creative writing at the University of Dundee, is concerned that the business of publishing is becoming more collaborative in the wrong way: “To my mind, there’s a wicked expectation that literary work can be created by some kind of committee. I’ve always been horrified by the notion of sending in a draft that isn’t finished. I think there’s a real difference between sitting down and creating a piece of work and then having a conversation with someone you respect, and sending in a piece of work and thinking, we’ll work on this together.”

Gunn’s worry is that the culture of workshops and a desire to be published at all costs can lead to an erosion of the writer’s sense of control over and responsibility for their own work. In her view, “the business of being a serious writer, of creating a piece of work that is your own, is about being your own editor . . . If you’re creating something that’s ultimately there as a product of the economy, then it is going to be made in a different way. That’s very different than if you have the sense of a project in your mind that you want to develop and see to completion. I think this is why there’s a lot of talk about books not being edited properly any more.”

Gunn’s concerns chime with a more widespread view that publishers are keener than ever to second-guess their readerships, to create a clearly defined product that will tick the boxes of picky retailers. And one begins to wonder whether the anxiety about editing is also part of a more general anxiety about the position of the book in contemporary society.

The literary agent David Miller, whose clients include Nicola Barker, Kate Summerscale and Victoria Hislop and who is a director of the Rogers, Coleridge & White agency, recounts the moment when he explained his job to a diplomat at an official function. “You mean,” she chipped in after a while, “that you’re a money manager in a very small slice of the leisure industry.” Miller laughs when he tells the story, but he is also realistic about the efforts to which the publishing industry must go to compete in a crowded marketplace. At the same time – and he is not alone in this view – he believes that “publishing is one of those businesses that is brilliant at thinking it’s perpetually at crisis point”. And what it needs to do, therefore, is to shout its virtues from the rooftops: “In a world where digital publishing has made a large number of people think that authors can go direct to an audience, publishers have been utterly crap at explaining what they do. And most of what they do is intrinsically invisible.”

Miller has recently had cause to examine the editor’s role from the other side: in March, he will publish a short novel, Today, which was inspired in part by his passion for the life and work of Joseph Conrad. His experience, he insists, is at odds with the idea that books are simply rushed through publishing houses; his editor at the independent Atlantic Books, Ravi Mirchandani, responded to the delivery of his 32,000-word manuscript with an editorial letter that ran to 20 pages. It was, Miller says, “full of absolutely superb comments”, which ranged from spotting anachronisms to continuity errors to inexact uses of language. He adopted, he thinks, about 80% of the suggestions, then submitted to the attentions of “a completely brilliant” copy-editor and subsequently refined the book through four stages of proofs. “I have been totally heartened by the whole publishing process,” he says. “I completely see why the book takes so long to go from the agent to the publishers to the bookseller to the customer. And I do not think I am rare.”

Indeed, many writers pay tribute to their editors. Linda Grant, the Booker-shortlisted novelist whose We Had It So Good was published recently, speaks warmly of Lennie Goodings, the much-admired publisher at Virago, in particular her advice on changing characters and structure. When I spoke to Goodings about editing, I got a strong sense that, for her, the process combines making practical assessments – for example, whether a character has a sufficiently well-drawn and believable back-story – with allowing a more emotional and intuitive response to find its place. Of primary importance, she says, “is finding out what the writer thought they wanted to do”. Other highly acclaimed editors – and there are many – include Dan Franklin and Robin Robertson at Jonathan Cape, Mary Mount at Viking, Sara Holloway at Granta, Nicholas Pearson at Fourth Estate, Jenny Uglow at Chatto & Windus, Hamish Hamilton’s Simon Prosser and Faber’s Neil Belton; and it is clear that commitment and passion on the part of the publishing professionals exist in both large, multinational corporations and small, independent companies.

Peter Straus has experienced the business from more than one angle. In 2002, he moved from Macmillan, where he had been the publisher of Picador for 12 years and then the head of adult trade imprints for the entire company, to become an agent at Rogers, Coleridge & White, where he represents writers including Kate Atkinson, Don Paterson, Alexander Masters, Carol Ann Duffy and Colm Tóibín. Regarded in the industry as one of the most passionate proselytisers for new writing, he is also an enthusiastic book collector; realistic about the difficulties presented by the business, he is a great defender of its history.

Consequently, he is clear-eyed about some of the more challenging aspects of the editor’s life. “It’s the kind of business,” he told me, “where as soon as an author has a tipping point and becomes a big brand, then other forces come into play. Sales and marketing and publicity departments want that author’s next book as soon as possible, and it takes its place in budgets and forecasts.” He remembers an example from his time at Picador, when Helen Fielding delivered the follow-up to the vast-selling Bridget Jones’s Diary; such was the appetite for The Edge of Reason that the editorial team and Fielding herself worked day and night to finalise the manuscript; in other circumstances, he says, the same work would have been carried out, but at a more leisurely pace.

He is confident that there are as many talented editors in publishing as there always have been, but notes that “the interesting thing is whether the editor has the same level of pull in a publishing house as they had 20 years ago, or whether publishing is more led by sales and marketing”. There’s a feeling, he argues, that out of sight is out of mind and, especially with authors who have had success with an earlier book or who have voracious readerships such as those often enjoyed by genre writers, it’s good to keep the shelves steadily and plentifully supplied. It is, he says, “a savage marketplace now”. The increasingly global nature of publishing means that an editor might also be pulled in several different directions at once, with editors in different territories each wanting their say.

Sam Leith, the journalist whose first novel, The Coincidence Engine, is published by Bloomsbury in March and has just been included in Waterstone’s pick of the 11 best debut novels of the year, describes himself as being “hugely grateful and impressed” by both his publisher, Michael Fishwick, and his copy-editor, who picked up an “egregious howler” that saw one of his characters enter a room from a corridor and then exit it, via the same door, on to a balcony. “I very much welcomed somebody telling me something I hadn’t thought of or secretly knew. With very rare exceptions, I think everybody benefits from being edited. Probably an editor who is a sensitive, ordinary reader will do a lot of good.”

Leith’s remarks remind one that editors, before they are anything else, are avid readers. One of the most celebrated editors of recent decades, Robert Gottlieb – whose long list of charges includes Joseph Heller, John le Carré, Toni Morrison and John Cheever, and who also edited the New Yorker – insisted in a Paris Review interview that “editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader”. In the same piece, he also set his face firmly against the “glorification of editors”, insisting that “the editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one”. Diana Athill, now herself an acclaimed writer, declared in her memoir of her life as an editor, Stet, that “good publishers are supposed to ‘discover’ writers, and perhaps they do. To me, however, they just happened to come.” It was surely, however, talent as much as good fortune that brought VS Naipaul, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys to Athill’s door. Great editors are more than good readers – but an appreciation of the qualities of serious literature, often hard to define, is a starting point, not an optional extra.

The concern about falling standards probably also reflects a certain amount of regret that the world of letters so brilliantly evoked by Athill in Stet has faded. The demands of a global marketplace, the advent of digitisation and the increased importance of sales, publicity and marketing have all contributed to changing the face of an industry that quietly congratulated itself on its genteel bohemianism. Writers, except for the most financially successful, must maintain the solitary intensity of their creative life while adapting to new realities; they are now often advised to add mastery of social media to the publication round of interviews, readings and festival appearances, and many take on a heavy load of teaching to supplement their earnings. Publishing in its popular incarnation – the legendary long lunches, the opportunistic punts on unheard-of but brilliant young writers, the smoke-filled parties and readings – is probably gone for good. Although you do wonder about the halcyon version of events: with all those long lunches, how did anyone get any editing done in the first place?

Something, undoubtedly, will be lost, as it is being in other media. It is not uncommon, if you are of a certain cast of mind, to fling a book across the room and wonder if there is anyone still alive who cares about hanging participles, or the difference between that and which, or the fact that “whose” is a relative pronoun. Neither is it unusual to find a slender volume that seems short-changed by its brevity or an enormous one stuffed with extraneous material. And the associated experiences of being what the industry calls a “heavy reader” have also changed. To buy a book, whether in a physical or virtual bookshop, is to navigate an obstacle course of special offers and money-off deals that are designed to make you buy more, not better; in the case of ebooks, the retailers’ first aim is to sell you a device, with hugely discounted books as the bait. Finding out what book you want has also changed; although there is still plenty of high-quality literary criticism available, there is no doubt that there has been a shift away from the painstaking analysis of words and sentences and towards straightforward plot recital and a speedy thumbs up or down. If these peripheral factors are not directly linked to standards of editing, they are surely indicators of the extent to which books have been commodified. The word may still be the thing; but it isn’t the only thing.

What we have to be aware of is that the creation of serious literature – whatever the degree of collaboration between author and editor – is the result of enormously concentrated mental and aesthetic effort. If it is reduced to a series of narrative effects slapped on to paper or screen, if it comes to be seen simply as one among many interchangeable ways to ingest a story, it will soon begin to look like a very poor slice of the leisure industry indeed.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *