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The lost art of editing

Alex Clark
Guardian,11 February 2011

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 wingclipping 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 labourintensive 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 Bookershortlisted 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 Tibn. 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 Carr,
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.

Diana Athill

Very often I'm brought to a halt by some ridiculous mistake that hasn't been
picked up by an editor, which makes me think there can't be much line-byline editing going on in publishing houses these days. I don't know that it
matters all that much. It makes a lot of people absolutely furious so they
can hardly enjoy reading. But for me if what is being said comes clearly
across that's what matters. It is a bit pedantic to fuss too much about the

editing of detail. On the other hand, it does offend my personal instincts,


having been trained in the old-fashioned ways, which meant our texts
should be perfect. The answer I found for myself is that I take much more
trouble than I used to in the line-by-line editing of my own manuscript, and
I think authors should now take that responsibility on themselves if they
don't want to be annoyed by minor details. In nearly 50 years as an editor
for Andr Deutsch, I never came across a writer who objected to editing if
it made sense, not just in terms of mistakes, which all writers want to be
corrected, but the actual way something was written. A lot of writers, for
instance Jean Rhys, are perfectionists, so all the editor has to do is spot
typing mistakes. I would never have dreamed of suggesting alterations. If
we took a book on it meant we liked it; it might in certain respects or
details be improved, but if the author didn't want to change it we didn't
mess around with their texts.
Diana Athill is an author and former editor at Andr Deutsch.

Carmen Callil

Is there still enough good old-fashioned copy editing going on? Perhaps
there isn't, because over the last decades, publishers have turned more
attention to marketing and selling books properly. The old-fashioned editor
has to a great extent disappeared, but I'm not too sure that's a great loss;
and the improvement in sales, marketing and design effort, in my opinion,
more than makes up for it.

Editorial work is often farmed out to freelance copy-editors, and not done
in-house as it used to be. Have freelance editors got worse? I don't imagine
so. Also, was "old-fashioned" editing as great as it is often claimed to be?

Moaning about the good old days is as much a part of writing life as
drinking too much and a partiality for parties and too much smoking.
Authors perhaps miss the close relationship they had with an editor who
went through every word of their books, but the money saved by not
having such editorial bums on seats has been well used.

That said, perhaps publishers should pay their out-of-house copy-editors


more? When you encounter a truly great copy-editor, they are worth their
weight in gold. They were, and are, a rarity.
Carmen Callil is an author, founder of Virago and former publisher of
Chatto & Windus.

Blake Morrison

I discovered what it means to be edited while a postgraduate at University


College London, where I was supervised by Karl Miller, formerly editor of
the Listener and later editor of the London Review of Books. Twice a term,
we'd meet to discuss my latest draft, and I'd emerge from his office several
hours later, badly shaken but determined to write better next time. Editing
isn't just about putting in semicolons (though Karl was fierce about those),
but about engaging with content and ideas; it means seeing the blindingly
obvious flaws that the author through vanity or laziness has missed.
Nabokov called editors "pompous avuncular brutes". But my own
experience bears out Frank O'Connor, who compared his editor William
Maxwell to "a good teacher who does not say, 'Imitate me' but, 'This is
what I think you are trying to say'." To Bill Buford at Granta I owe the title
of my memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? (it hadn't been
my first choice) and the placing of the opening chapter (which I'd put

second). The editors of my subsequent books, Frances Coady, Ian Jack and
Alison Samuel, were less interventionist but equally helpful.

There are still some brilliant editors in publishing today. But it's harder for
them to have the autonomy that, say, Maxwell Perkins enjoyed when
taking on Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, let alone to
spend the acres of time he did improving typescripts. The rise of marketing
departments is often blamed for this. But publishers need to sell books, and
many an author has been helped by smart promotion. What has changed is
that editors are no longer the people expected to identify and nurture a
young talent. That role has passed to agents and, before them, to the
creative writing tutors through whose MA programmes and residential
courses the majority of today's new writers emerge.
Blake Morrison is a novelist and a former literary editor of the Observer
and Independent on Sunday.

Craig Raine

In 1986, the late John Bodley telephoned me about the typescript of


Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Ezra Pound. I was on a year's unpaid
leave from Fabers to get on with some writing. But I agreed to read
Humphrey's first draft. I could see why Bodley was worried and I came in
to the Faber offices to confer with Matthew Evans, the then chairman. He
sat there with a clear desk, a clean blotter and his Mont Blanc rollerball.
"You don't think it's much good. Is that right?" I nodded. "What do we do
then? Do we publish it or do we turn it down?" "No," I replied, "we edit it."
My letter to Humphrey began: "Brace yourself." Every morning for the
next three weeks or so, Humphrey came to my house in Oxford and we

went through his biography page by page. I am thanked by him in his


acknowledgments. But I also have a postcard saying, "Thanks for all your
help. I expect you still hate it."
It is tempting to identify two publishing trends here one in the ascendant,
the other in decline: the idea that the editor's job is effectively over when
the contract for a book is signed; and the idea that an editor should edit
when the book arrives. But it's 20 years since I was at Fabers, and I suspect
that there have always been lazy editors and obsessive-compulsive editors
and always will be.

Being edited by Deborah Treisman at the New Yorker is protracted,


diagnostically painful, and gratifying. At Atlantic Books, my editor is
Margaret Stead, who is brilliant. My copy-editor of choice is Donna Poppy,
whose clients include Claire Tomalin, Pat Barker, Zadie Smith and Roy
Foster. My novel Heartbreak has an epigraph from Ulysses: "the man in the
mackintosh loves a lady who is dead". Donna corrected this: "the man in
the brown mackintosh loves a lady who is dead". Typical of my
carelessness and her unerring diligence. I'm a lucky man.
Craig Raine is a poet, novelist and editor of Aret.

Jeanette Winterson

Editors have become linear and timid. They worry about how things follow
and Emma Bovary's eyes both change colour unexpectedly, and no one
minds. As Virginia Woolf wrote, "all my facts about lighthouses are
wrong". So there is wrong that is right, and that is better than rigid
rightness that is wrong. I find, too, that many younger editors simply don't

have the cultural resources to recognise a reference or playfulness therein.


But life is getting so much worse everywhere that we must not be too
gloomy about books . . . Books remain a pocket of air in an upturned boat. I
cannot think in a linear way and I do not care. I can only say what I mean
and often that raises editorial queries of the "translate from the Japanese,
please" kind. Copy-editing is not the skill it once was. There are computer
programs to do that for you because we no longer believe we need human
beings. I would like to see zest for difficulty making a comeback. Must we
always be transparent? Remember when TS Eliot was asked what he meant
by "Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree", he said: "I meant,
'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree'." I have no idea what
that means, but I am glad it didn't get edited into "Mrs, there's three wild
animals under that shrub". We should edit with good sense, of course, but
with a sense that sense is not everything. This is obvious enough in fiction,
but wonderfully eccentric stylists such as, say, Jan Morris or Harold Bloom
don't need their magnificent non-fiction to be turned into Google Notes.
Editing only looks micro. It is about the whole as well as the parts.
Jeanette Winterson is a novelist.