“My troublesome self and interminable composition” – James Joyce and his editor, Harriet Shaw Weaver

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On 6 November 1921, James Joyce wrote to his long-suffering editor Harriet Shaw Weaver. Ulysses was being prepared for publication, and the author anxiously sought her reassurance and approval:

 Since the completion of Ulysses I feel more and more tired but I have to hold on till all the proofs are revised. I am extremely irritated by all those printer’s errors. Working as I do amid piles of notes at a table in a hotel I cannot possibly do this mechanical part with my wretched eye and a half. Are these to be perpetuated in future editions? I hope not. I am glad the first proofs I sent didn’t go astray. I feared either that they had or that you were ill or had read them and disliked them as you did not write. I sent you a new batch yesterday . . .

I am very grateful for your unremitting loyalty to my troublesome self and interminable composition which is at last to be offered to a mystified world.”

You can read the full letter here.

Of course, Weaver was much more than an editor to Joyce. As Rachel Cottam writes in the Dictionary of National Biography, “From 1916 Joyce and Weaver corresponded almost daily: she commented on his manuscripts, corrected his proofs, discussed his frustrations and aspirations, and gradually became involved in every aspect of his own and his family’s well-being. Though she was aware that he spent money recklessly and sometimes drank to excess, she endeavoured to provide him with an assured family income by transferring him substantial sums of her capital.” (Weaver, who had inherited money from her family, is said to have given the author about £1.5 million during her lifetime.)

She was less enamoured with Joyce’s next project – the “Work in Progress” that eventually became Finnegans Wake. On 20 November 1926 she cautiously shared her doubts with him:

the worst of it is that without comprehensive key and glossary, such as you very kindly made out for me, the poor hapless reader loses a very great deal of your intention; flounders helplessly, is in imminent danger, in fact, of being as totally lost to view as that illfated vegetation you mentioned.”

Joyce responded with this memorable defence of his art:

One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.”

Weaver’s opinion did not alter, and she expressed her criticisms with more candour in her letter of 4 February 1927:

Some of your work I like enormously – as I am sure you know – especially the more straightforward and character-analytical parts and the (to me) beautifully expressed ghost-parts . . . but I am made in such a way that I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately-entangled language system. It seems to me you are wasting your genius. But I daresay I am wrong and in any case you will go on with what you are doing, so why thus stupidly say anything to discourage you? I hope I shall not do so again.”

According to Richard Ellman, “Joyce was now so upset that he took to his bed.” Relations between author and editor were strained ever after, though Joyce did make Weaver his literary executor in his will. Again, to quote Ellman: “Her generosity continued for the rest of Joyce’s life, and even after it, for she paid for his funeral.”

Eleanor Catton: in praise of editors and publishers

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I am very aware of the pressures upon contemporary publishing to make money and to remain competitive in a competitive world, and I know that it is no small thing that my primary publishers, Granta, here in London, and Victoria University Press in New Zealand, never once made these pressures known to me while I was writing this book.”

In her eloquent Man Booker Prize acceptance speech, Eleanor Catton warmly praised her publishers for the support they had given her during the writing and editing of The Luminaries: “I was free throughout to concern myself of questions not of value, but of worth. This is all the more incredible to me because The Luminaries is and was from the very beginning, a publisher’s nightmare. The shape and form of the book made certain kinds of editorial suggestions not only mathematically impossible, but even more egregious, astrologically impossible.

“A very sensible email from one of my two editors, Sarah Holloway or Max Porter, might have even earned the very annoying and not at all sensible reply, ‘Well you would think that, being a Virgo.’”

I am delighted for Eleanor Catton, whose work I have admired since I discovered some of her short stories a few years ago. I am also pleased for her editors, whose contribution often goes unrecognised, and her publishers, whose importance to the author is increasingly questioned in the digital era. Granta and VUP are clearly proving their worth, and more power to them:

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have found a home at these publishing houses and to have found friends and colleagues and people who have managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money.”

Donna Tartt in conversation with her editor

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Every book is different and the editor’s job is always the same: to work with the writer in the way they want to be supported, to understand as well as possible what it is the writer has set out to do, and to point out any places where the editor believes that the author has not lived up to the expectations they have created. It’s an intimate process, and an extraordinary trust to be allowed to see a writer’s work before it goes out into the world.”

Editor Michael Pietsch in a revealing conversation with his author Donna Tartt. Read the Slate article.

An excerpt from The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Deborah Treisman on editing Alice Munro

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Editing Alice Munro’s stories is sometimes a lesson in feeling extraneous . . . But the process is one of excitement and deep investment in the story at hand. Whenever she disagrees with a suggested edit, I virtually always see, afterward, that it was the correct thing to do.”

An excellent insight into the editor/author relationship by Deborah Treisman, Alice Munro’s editor at the New Yorker.

Read Alice Munro’s New Yorker stories here.

On Editing: Muriel Spark

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“I don’t strike out much. I write on … I do one draft. I do the editing in my head first … I very seldom change paragraphs and things around … I’ve heard that it’s very useful for people who do move things about to have a computer, but it wouldn’t suit me because I just write on.” (BBC Radio 3 interview with John Tusa)

Muriel Spark’s minimalist approach to editing and revising her work appears to have differed markedly from that of the last author I featured in this little series. Spark is relatively unusual in having been a publisher’s editor herself, working for Peter Owen in the 1950s, an experience she memorably drew on in her novel A Far Cry from Kensington (more of which below). Owen has acknowledged her skill in the role and regretted that he hadn’t always heeded her judgement: “When she was my editor, she did want to bring in Samuel Beckett – and that was one of my mistakes.”

Another formative experience was a précis-writing course which she did in Edinburgh rather than going to university. As she explained to John Tusa: “Well, I always liked to keep it short, and I thought probably I would get some ideas how to express myself as briefly as possible. It was a challenge … I always wanted to keep it short and pithy.”

Her facility with composition was a subject she returned to when she spoke to Stephen Schiff for a New Yorker profile* in 1993: “I don’t correct or rewrite … because I do all the correcting before I begin, getting it in my mind. And then when I pounce, I pounce. I can invent very easily. It really seems to come through my hand.”

When interviewed by Mark Lawson for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in 2004 she spoke admiringly of Georges Simenon and the way he deliberately limited his vocabulary. This is in stark contrast to the practice of one of her greatest creations, Hector Bartlett in A Far Cry from Kensington. Bartlett is clearly based on her bitter experience as an editor of being stalked by an aspiring author with a huge ego and little talent to justify it. Spark (like her narrator, Mrs Hawkins) knew bad prose when she saw it:

“At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story … Pisseur de copie! Hector Bartlett, it seemed to me, vomited literary matter, he urinated and sweated, he excreted it.

‘Mrs Hawkins, I take incalculable pains with my prose style.’

He did indeed. The pains showed. His writing ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words.”

Spark illuminates the well spring of her own beautifully limpid style in another absorbing interview with Eleanor Wachtel from 1999: “I consider that my books are mostly poetry, although written in prose, and not in poetic prose, but [with] poetic insight, I think … Whether it comes off or not … I leave that to others, but I do know the method.”


* The New Yorker article is available to subscribers only, alas.

On Editing: Tobias Wolff

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I am always fascinated to discover how authors I admire approach the process of editing and revising their work. Here are some thoughts on the subject by Tobias Wolff. As well as producing short stories, novels and volumes of memoir, Wolff lectures in creative writing, which makes his observations on the craft both practical and inspiring. I particularly enjoyed his comments on his relationship with Raymond Carver and his account of Frank O’Connor’s endless tweaking of his stories, even after publication. Follow the links after the quotes below to the full interviews. 

“I revise constantly as I’m writing . . . These are not holy texts. This isn’t the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is work that as long as it’s available to me to make better, I will.”

“I think you almost do have to cultivate a kind of split identity as a writer. One, you have to be this free spirit who allows the work to come out and not to be critical of yourself too much when you’re writing or you’ll paralyze yourself, constipate yourself. And then after it’s down, you have to become this cold-eyed editor who hates you and wants to find fault with your work. You consider every sentence guilty until proven innocent.” (Panhandler magazine)

“I’ve always had very good experiences with my editors . . . I find it immensely helpful to be given different ways of looking at something I’ve done . . . I guess the point is, as you go on in this life you become aware of the folly of thinking you did something all by yourself. We’re held up by others all along the way.” (Paris Review)

“I don’t think that anyone can be taught to be a writer. Absolutely not . . . What you can do is help people become good editors of their own work . . . I can think of no better way, in fact, to learn to appreciate the complexity and infinite possibilities of literature than to try to write some yourself.” (Missouri Review)

The Role of the Editor in the Age of Ebooks

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A recent article by Harriet Evans on the Guardian Books blog made some thought-provoking points about the changing relationship between authors and editors. As ever in the online arena, some of the thoughts it provoked were less considered than others, with one commenter opining: ‘Editors were perhaps once useful, for encouragement, for…test readings etc, but now they’re irrelevant.’ A more constructive view came from a reader who said: ‘The ebook / codex debate is only about form and irrelevant to the points raised in this article. The issue of the text deserves more attention in such debates.’

This, of course, is the heart of the matter: it’s all about the writing. But the one point on which I disagreed with the article was Harriet’s suggestion that the editorial process is inevitably an adversarial one. As a former editor herself, she is ‘passionate about the process. And yet I cannot tell you how much I hate it.’ The mortifying experience she goes on to describe in which she is on the receiving end of harsh criticism of her work is not one I recognise from my own working life. The author / editor relationship is a collaborative one, which requires honesty on the part of the editor, but tact and discretion as well. Above all, it’s about creating an atmosphere of trust.

That’s why I don’t believe any reputable freelance editor would either withhold constructive criticism or flatter an author simply because they were being paid by the author rather than the publisher. For the record, I seldom work directly for authors, but as the landscape of publishing changes I can see this happening more often in future. I’d like to think that whether I’m working on ebooks or p-books, I’ll apply exactly the same level of professionalism to the task.

Publishing Samuel Beckett


A new book, described as the first to explore Samuel Beckett’s relationship with the publishing world, has recently been announced. This should make interesting reading, detailing as it does Beckett’s long journey as an author from the world of little magazines to publishers like Olympia Press and Éditions de Minuit in Paris, Grove Press in New York and Faber & Faber and Calder in London. Seán Kennedy contributes an essay on ‘Beckett Publishing in Ireland’ and there is also a piece on his dealings with Chatto and Windus, or ‘Shaton and Windup’, as Beckett disparagingly referred to them.

Indeed, Beckett was not always well served by his publishers. In an excellent essay (not included in the book, but available to read here), S.E. Gontarski writes: ‘It is no small irony that for a writer so punctilious about his texts — especially their performance — Samuel Beckett’s work has been subject to so much inept editing and so many publication blunders that he could lament to his “official” biographer, James Knowlson, “My texts are in a terrible mess.”‘

Edited Highlights: A Bad Novel about Bin Laden… & Other Stories

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  • I once read a novel submission about the hunt for Osama bin Laden in which the plot hinged on OBL’s capture following the discovery of one of his shirts in a local laundrette; the shirt, you see, had his name-tag stitched into the collar. I passed, but I was reminded of the manuscript by recent events, and by this piece suggesting that in the age of ebooks, publishers should be less squeamish about bad writing and less dismissive of the slushpile. Are the floodgates about to open?
  • Everyone’s a critic… The Turkish government has launched a prosecution against an edition of The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs on the grounds of ‘incompliance with moral norms’. What intrigued me most about the case, however, is that the prosecution also attacked the novel’s literary style, accusing it of ‘lacking unity in its subject matter’ and having ‘a fragmented narrative style’, matters that are not normally debated in a court of law. 
  • The Guardian reports on its favourite publishing howlers, including a misprint in a cookery book which suggested that a recipe for tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto should include ‘salt and freshly ground black people‘, rather than pepper. This absurdly long list of corrections to a recent American title, Modernist Cuisine, is an eloquent reminder of why publishers need copyeditors. 
  • And finally… Richard Ford wrestles with the notion of writing as work; P.G. Wodehouse, on the other hand, didn’t agonise over the process too much: ‘I just sit at my typewriter and curse a bit.’ 


    Edited Highlights: Robert Gottlieb on Working with Words… & Other Stories

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    A roundup of links that have interested me lately …

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