Sunday, August 07, 2005

Editors: ghosts in the machine

Blake Morrison writes about the value of editors in The Guardian:

There are, of course, many different kinds of editor — from fact-checkers and OKers (as they're known at the New Yorker), to line-editors and copy editors, to editors who grasp the big picture but skip the detail. But in popular mythology they're lumped together as bullyboys, bouncers or, to quote Nabokov again, "pompous avuncular brutes".

It's a wonderful essay, replete with examples from DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, and F Scott Fitzgerald. These are the reasons why I wanted to be an editor, to shape literature but also writers and readers. There is an editor's life perhaps a little more meaningful than the one where I ease the dissemination of research on the latest radiographic technology. (Important, sure, but not very Romantic.)

When people speak of writer's block, they think of the writer stalled over a blank page, or of throwing scrunched-up bits of paper — false starts — into a wastebin. But there's another kind of block, which is structural, when you've written tens of thousands of words, but can't figure out which are superfluous and what goes where. Something's wrong, but you don't know what it is, and that can make you pretty desperate, so that if some new acquaintance rashly expresses an interest in what you've written, as happens to the Californian wine buff and would-be published author Miles in Alexander Payne's recent film Sideways, you foist your typescript on them, which in Miles's case means retrieving from the back seat of his car not one whacking heap of pages but two, and even though you know this will a) place the recipient in an awkward situation b) sprain his or her back and/or c) ruin a beautiful friendship, still, you do it anyway, because you're desperate.

And that's why editors matter, not as butchers and barbers, but because what's wrong with a book can be something the author has repressed all knowledge of, something glaringly obvious which, the moment an editor or other reader identifies it, you think yes, of course, Eureka, and then you go back and fix it. Editing might be a bloody trade. But knives aren't the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.

Writers, editors, readers: take heed.

But think for a moment of another kind of culture, where nothing is edited. A culture where we're all so logorrheaic we haven't time for each other's words or books or blogs, where everything goes into the ether — and there's no sign that anyone reads it all. A culture that doesn't care about editing is a culture that doesn't care about writing. And that has to be bad.


Suzanne said...


Reminds me of some physician writer's defense of the often-maligned peer review process: If it were abolished, in about 1 year it would be created anew because scientific research needs a filter.

Same thing with prose of all sorts.

Thanks for this link!

melinama said...

Big bestsellers, horribly written - the public doesn't notice any more? - where were the editors? Why did they not spare us this drek? A good story told abominably - editors don't have the power or respect they once had.