Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Golden Age of Editing

Last month, in an article in the Guardian, Blake Morrison expressed nostalgia for a “golden age of editing” and lamented the decline of editing in the contemporary publishing industry. I was interested in what Morrison had to say, but also puzzled by it. Much of the article is devoted to a discussion of the invisibility of editors and the consequent difficulty in measuring the contribution that they make to any given work. So how then can Morrison assert with any degree of certainty either that there once was a golden age of editing, or that the practice of editing is now in decline? It would appear to be difficult to gather sufficient evidence to support either contention.

On the point about the contemporary decline of editing, Morrison’s evidence is anecdotal. He, a novelist friend, and one of his graduate students, speculate that the intense collaborative editing process of yore no longer occurs in Britain. He has read about a literary conference at which writers and editors complained that modern day editors don’t have the time to edit. My own evidence is also anecdotal. I have certainly read books that I thought would have benefited from some judicious pruning. I too have heard writers complain about their editors. However, they complain about over-zealous editing, not about a lack of editing. Or they complain about editorial requests that are motivated by commercial interests rather than concern for the integrity of their work (no doubt an in-house editor would feel these motivations are consistent with one another rather than antagonistic, but writers often seem to feel otherwise). I also have heard many writers speak fondly and respectfully of their editors and of the contribution that those editors make to the final work. I am prepared to believe that changes in the publishing industry have changed editing practices, but I won’t be persuaded on the basis of purely anecdotal evidence.

Morrison makes a stronger case for “the golden age of editing” that he describes. Concrete evidence of the roles played by the editors of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is available thanks to the preservation of letters and original typescripts. But there are still a couple of holes in Morrison’s argument. First, it’s debatable whether the intensive editing that Morrison favours in fact improved the texts that he discusses. Dan Green (of The Reading Experience) asserts that this sort of highly interventionist editing may not improve the literary quality of the text (Sons and Lovers) and that, in some cases, it may do more harm than good (Thomas Wolfe’s oeuvre).

Second, even if we could agree that intensive editing is desirable, Morrison doesn’t give us any reason to suppose that this model of editing was the rule rather than the exception during the time period that he discusses (he identifies the years 1912 to 1925 as “the golden age of editing”). I suspect that were all of the books published during that time period available to me, I would be just as likely to find one that strikes me as poorly edited as I am when faced with a shelf of contemporary titles. But since poorly written and under-edited volumes are unlikely to have survived alongside The Great Gatsby, they may not be available to serve as a point of comparison.

Morrison recommends Stet, Diana Athill’s memoir of her nearly fifty years as editor and later also partner at André Deutsch, as an unusually informative and revealing account of the editing process. Athill enters the picture well after the close of Morrison’s brief “golden age of editing” but she is nevertheless part of the “then” to which the “now” of contemporary publishing is forever being compared. I picked up Stet thinking that I might gain some insight from it into the foregoing debate about editing.

Athill’s book is an engaging memoir that provides an inside perspective on the rise and fall of one particular publisher and on several decades of publishing history. But I wouldn’t say that it is particularly revealing about the editing process. Athill’s emphasis is on the role of the editor in ensuring that a manuscript is produced despite substance abuse, mental illness, and marital discord, rather than on the role of the editor in shaping that manuscript. No doubt this emphasis reflects Athill’s publishing savvy as to what readers are interested in rather than the day-to-day realities of her life as an editor. But even when Athill directly discusses the nuts and bolts of editing, the practice she describes is a long way removed from the interventionist editing style that Morrison lauds in his golden age editors.

Athill recounts only one instance of highly interventionist editing: “It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained (a good deal more satisfying than the minor tinkering involved when editing a competent writer)” (37-38). She makes clear that this was a rare occurrence and I suspect that the title concerned has since slipped into obscurity. On the whole, Athill, who has been described as one of the best editors in London, demonstrates a lighter touch. Here are the two “editorial ground-rules” that she observed throughout her career: “It was a rule with me that I must not overdo such tinkerings: it must always be the author’s voice that was heard, not mine, even if that meant retaining something that I didn’t much like. And of course it was an absolute rule with all of us that no change of any kind could be made without the author’s approval” (60).

I am inclined to believe that there have always been a few very good editors, many competent editors, and some bad ones, and that the value of the contribution that an editor makes to any given work likely rests on matching up the right editor with the right author. As to whether there have been any grand shifts in editorial practice in recent decades, I’m still not sure. Next up in my quest to understand the history of editing is A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. I will report in after I’ve read it.


hugh said...

I have to say, the parts Pound chopped out of the Wasteland are really, really bad. They reminded me of the worst stuff I would get when I was on my college literary review's editorial board. It's interesting to see that the inspiration to write this drivel coexisted with the inspiration to write what we now know as the Wasteland.

(Not that this has a whole lot to do with your post.)

Kate S. said...

I certainly wouldn't argue that intensive editing is never a good idea, just that it isn't always a good idea. I haven't seen the marked up typescript, so I don't have a personal opinion on Pound's editing of Eliot's The Wasteland. By all accounts though It appears to have been a magical pairing of the right author with the right editor which served the text very well.