“What do editors do?” I asked my first literary agent, having established that it was not, as I had first thought, copy editing. I was very young.
She was an editor by training, temperament and still, occasionally, practice. “Teach you to write,” she snapped.
Over time I came to see that she was right, in one way. They intend to teach you to write what their employer desires to publish and/or knows he can sell. And they want an end product that will do just that.
This is how I think modern editing evolved.
Editors Keep You Legal
Back in the day when printer Samuel Richardson was writing Pamela to keep his presses busy, nobody edited fiction. Printers could be prosecuted for content, so such editing as they did of their clients’ work aimed to keep them out of the law courts. Fiction? Not a risk.
Editors Keep You Decent – and may have a go at saleable
Then came Zola. Publishing his novels in English cost Henry Vizetelly a prison sentence for “obscene libel” in 1889. His sons then tried to edit the text to satisfy the censors. Too late. The business failed.
Publishers’ readers, by this time, were making judgments we think of as editorial. George Gissing’s Thyrza was rejected for having too much “preachment” and not enough “go”. James Payn, the perpetrator of this harsh view, became the model for Jasper Milvain in New Grub Street. Payn was unlike Milvain in that he had talent and application (wrote 140 books and held several literary posts) but he wrote above all to make an income. And he edited authors to make them saleable.
Samuel Johnson might have approved. Gissing didn’t.
Editors Keep You On the Hop
The first truly modern editor has to be Maxwell Perkins, Scribner’s legendary editor in New York. In 1918 he saw something in 22 year-old Scott Fitzgerald’s ms The Romantic Egoist. Eventually he went into battle in order to publish Fitzgerald, taking on a management entrenched in Henry James and Edith Wharton.
But before he did so, he made Fitzgerald rewrite it. TWICE. It became This Side of Paradise.
In the same way Perkins championed Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. (Scribner’s didn’t like the profanity.) And he persuaded Thomas Wolfe – a writer who anatomised every moment of his story and then added a philosophical gloss to it – to CUT 90,000 words from Look Homeward Angel.
And yes, they kept him on the hop, too. He saw them variously through drink, illness, bad marriages, good drugs, debt, depression and Hollywood. All with self-effacing steadfastness and friendship. He gets and deserves an outstanding biography of his own.
Editors Keep You Inspired
We’re talking about the good ones here. When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes (that’s frustration and furious temper, you understand, nothing soppy), they call you up and kick your ass.
In a good way.
I once gave a superb editor a terrible first draft. Dull. No other word for it.
She didn’t need to say. I knew. She rocked a bit as if going into a trance. “You need to take time and—” she wove her hands round each other like a flamenco dancer “—surrender to the moment.”
“Give me firelight.” Even her voice went smoky.
“Give me emeralds,” she intoned, like Madame Arcati.
We were in quite a busy City restaurant. Wall-to-wall men in suits talking about forward rate agreements. I looked round nervously. Some of them knew me. Would they get the wrong idea?
She didn’t notice.
“Si, Signora,” said the waiter, heading for the kitchen.
She came to herself with alarming speed and slugged back her wine. “You can do it,” she said briskly. “On my desk by Wednesday.”