The Editor’s Lot

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‘Reviewers tend to say that books are either well written or badly edited. It’s the editor’s lot.’ (Fergus Barrowman)

This is a succinct comment I came across recently from a reader of a blog post by Rebecca Carter, editor at Harvill Secker. Rebecca was writing about her survey of how editor/author relationships differ from one country to another. The article itself, ‘A World of Editing’, is excellent, and can be read here.

For further insights into the editorial mindset, literary agent Andrew Lownie has posted wish-lists by several prominent UK editors of the kinds of books they are hoping to commission in 2011. It’s interesting to note that Edmund de Waal’s surprise bestseller The Hare with Amber Eyes is cited both as an example of innovative and ambitious non-fiction publishing and evidence that ‘readership is not dumbing down’. There may be gloom and doom in publishing, but hope springs eternal . . .

Editing Jane Austen

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It is a truth universally acknowledged (within publishing, at least) that the relationship between editors and authors will always be misunderstood by the reading public.

Take the recent controversy about academic research into Jane Austen’s manuscripts. According to an article in the Telegraph, this is supposed to prove that ‘her finished novels owed as much to the intervention of her editor as to the genius of the author.’ (The editor in question is thought to have been William Gifford.) In rushing to defend Austen’s reputation, however, the Guardian manages to spread a myth of its own: ‘In the long war between writers and their editors (the secret war that readers never see), this looks like a major victory for editors.’

It is as far-fetched to suggest that Gifford (above) should be entitled to share equal credit with Austen as to assert that there is invariably conflict between editors and authors. Editing tends to be a collaborative process, not an adversarial one, and while we don’t appear to have documentary evidence to prove this was the case with Gifford and Austen, I’d be very surprised if changes were imposed on Austen’s texts by coercion rather than ‘persuasion‘.

Are Some Authors Beyond Editing?

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In her recent review of Patrick McCabe’s latest novel, The Stray Sod Country, I was struck by Joanna Briscoe’s concluding remarks: ‘The Stray Sod Country does not possess the sustained, addictive darkness of McCabe’s finest work. It would accomplish more if its ramshackle meanderings were more tightly focused, yet to impose shape or editorial intervention upon such an explosive imagination would be useless and even destructive.’

These comments interested me for a number of reasons. In the first place, I assume an editor was involved in the publishing process. But what kind of input can and should an editor have in the case of an author whose books are as successful and dictinctive as McCabe’s? Is it really impossible for an editor to make a useful contribution to work of this calibre?

I was reminded of the late Iris Murdoch (above), who has been described as ‘a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text’. That always sounded to me like a contradiction in terms; if anything, a good editor can help an author get closer to the perfect text.

The Great Editing Debate: A Round-up

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Book editing used to be one of the dark arts, but a recent spate of articles and blog posts has brought the profession into the limelight. The person widely acknowledged to have started the public debate is the Guardian‘s literary editor, Claire Armitstead (above), when she voiced her frustration at the standard of book editing. Andrew Motion chimed in with his comments on judging the Man Booker: ‘Not nearly enough novels get the editing they need.’ (Those with longer memories may remember James Naughtie saying much the same thing last year.) Even the BBC has got involved.

However I bookmarked an article by Liz Thomson on the London Book Fair website back in January on ‘The Lost Art of Editing’, so perhaps this isn’t such a new complaint. Liz gives a valuable perspective on the editorial process from within the publishing industry. While her conclusions aren’t as downbeat as the article title suggests, she admits that: ‘While the best authors recognise the added value a good copy editor brings to their work, the skill is under-valued, training largely inadequate.’ At around the same time, Stephen Guise (former editor at Little, Brown, now freelance) took a bleaker view, asking ‘Who’d Be an Editor?’: ‘In the future there’ll be fewer editors in-house, and less editorial experience further up the greasy pole. Not only must this have an effect on the quality of books published today, it also suggests the question: to whom will the editors of the future turn for advice?’

And indeed, to whom will authors turn? In this regard it’s cheering to see a novelist (Ed Hogan) openly praising his editor (Francesca Main at Simon and Schuster): ‘Francesca’s comments on The Hunger Trace were illuminating. So much so, in fact, that my first reaction was to get a bit upset! Once I started work on the changes, however, I realised not only how vital they were to THT, but how they would change the way I approached my work in the future.’ Ed goes on to say: ‘I don’t think any of this stifles creativity. Having someone you trust at the other end means you can experiment a little more, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be told if it doesn’t work.’ Sam Leith is another grateful author, but has slightly more mixed feelings about the editorial process: ‘The experience of being line-edited is awe-inspiring, professionally heartening and completely horrible. No hostile reviewer can be as withering as a friendly line-editor.’

Perhaps the last word should go to another editor, Alex Bowler at Jonathan Cape, whose blog post sheds light on why some of us got into this profession in the first place: ‘There is a rich and serious pleasure to copyediting which goes beyond those of the pedant … When you’re lucky enough to have the time to copyedit well, you develop a unique, intimate knowledge of whatever it is you’re working on; you start to see patterns, structures, traits, secrets, and feel that for a week or so you’re closer than any reader in the world to the strange, alchemic magic that makes a book great.’

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