Some quick thoughts on editing
Just a quick reminder that the March issue of the Australian Literary Review is available for free in today’s Australian. I’ve only had time to scan the issue but it looks good, with pieces by Luke Davies on the novel in the Age of Terror (a term which must surely be as close to its use-by date as it sounds) and Hazel Rowley on French intellectuals under Nazi Occupation (neither of which, annoyingly, are on line).
Further in though you’ll find a piece by James Ley which uses the new, deLished edition of Carver’s Beginners to ground a broader discussion of the role of the editor, and which features some fabulously unguarded comments by yours truly (“anyone who tells you books are as carefully or rigorously edited as they were a generation ago is either lying or deluding themselves”).
I’ll let you read the piece in full, because there are a number of smart people saying smart things in it, but looking at it this morning I was struck by the fact that my own comments don’t go far enough. As you’ll see if you read the piece, I suggest it’s worth remembering that editing is only one part of a larger equation for publishers, and that as a result the question of how much or how little a book gets is really a commercial decision. As a publisher acquaintance (who shall remain nameless) once pointed out to me, editing is often a process of diminishing returns: there comes a point with every book when spending 20% more won’t make the book 20% better.
As I say in the piece, I think this is a useful way of thinking about the question, both because it reframes the question in commercial terms rather than as an unwinnable argument about artistic standards and because it reminds us that questions about editorial standards are intimately connected to the changing landscape of contemporary publishing (kudos to Jane Palfreyman for pushing back against the tedious narrative of decline that usually comes riding shotgun with discussions of editorial practice).
I think what’s really interesting though is what our anxiety about editorial standards tells us about our attitudes to writing, and more particularly how difficult we find it break free of Romantic notions of the artist as solitary genius when we’re talking about authors and authorship. Because in the end that’s what this whole conversation is really about: our unease with accepting that literary fiction and non-fiction are not, in many ways, all that different to more collaborative forms such as television or film.
I’m not saying they’re exactly the same. Books are always going to be more defiantly expressions of individual vision than film or television, but they’re not fundamentally different, more different points on a spectrum. But while we have no problem with the idea that script editors and directors work in a relatively utilitarian manner with scriptwriters we’re made very uneasy by overly intrusive editing of books. But in the end, what’s the difference between David Chase rewriting an episode of The Sopranos from the ground up and Gordon Lish rewriting Carver?
I suppose one answer might be that those of us who write books do so at least partly because it allows us more control over our work. I know one of the reasons I gave up writing film was that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to the collaborative process (though if I’m being honest I’d have to say the fact I was crap at it also played a part). But again I think it’s really a question of how much collaboration we’re comfortable with, not whether we’re comfortable with collaboration at all: even the most arrogant and single-minded author can’t help but take on board at least some of what an editor says.
But I suspect that at a fundamental level this anxiety about editing and editing standards is as much about a refusal to give away very old and cherished ideas about the primacy of the artistic imagination as anything. That and a failure to understand that publishing, like television or film, is essentially an industry, and that the process of transforming a manuscript into a book is as much an industrial process as the process of transforming a script into half an hour of television.