Monday, February 14, 2011


There has been a sharp decline in positions for traditional media since the mid-2000s. Will editors soon become extinct? Will vanity publishing, bad writing and marketing grammar become as prevalent as emo haircuts?

Or will we resort to stringent peer review measures like the scientists?


"As human beings, editors may be far from self-effacing, but. . .They're the ghosts in the machine, the secret sharers, the anonymous power behind the throne." 

From the UK OBSERVER. 

Black day for the blue pencil

By Blake Morrison 

"Once they were key figures in literary publishing, respected by writers who acknowledged their contribution to shaping books. But, argues Blake Morrison, editors are now an endangered species."

Has editing had its day? A Dutch publisher recently described to me how a British author had sent her the first draft of his new book. Though a great admirer of his work, she felt that this time he hadn't done justice to his material. So they sat down together and mapped out a different perspective and storyline and he went away and rewrote the book. It's not often you hear publishers speak of being so frankly interventionist - and I wondered if that was why the author had sent his book to a Dutch editor, because this kind of intense collaborative process between author and editor no longer exists in Britain. 

A novelist friend, hearing the story, said: "When I hand in a book, I've usually been working on it for several years, so I like to think there'll be little left to do to it. But if I did need editing, I'm not sure, these days, I could get it." 

A graduate student of mine at Goldsmiths College expressed similar nostalgia in an email: "I have a notion of editors in days of yore," he wrote, "being straight-backed and terrifying, all integrity and no bullshit, responding to a vocational calling and above all driven by a love of the word, brave enough not only to champion the best but also to tell their authors whatever might be needed to improve the work. And that now such personalities are as distant a myth in publishing as yer Shanklys and yer Cloughs are to football, that sharp-dressed corporate beasts run the show, reluctant to make decisions of their own, and ill-equipped to challenge those who rule a star-led system, so that everyone from JK Rowling to David Eggers suffers from the lack of scissors that might have been to their benefit." 

Just after getting that email, I read about a literary conference at which both writers and agents were complaining that, because of the pressures they're under, modern-day editors simply don't have the time to edit. A news item about an initiative by Macmillan to encourage first novelists left a similar impression - the authors will receive royalties but no advances; however, if their books needed significant editing, they will have to pay for the services of a freelance editor, since no one can do it in-house. 

If editing is in decline, that's bad for literature. History suggests that while some authors work alone, more or less unaided, the majority benefit from editors - and that a few are utterly dependent on them. Take Thomas Wolfe, not the white-suited New Journalist and author of Bonfire of the Vanities, but the other Tom Wolfe, his outsize predecessor, a man of 6ft 6", who used to stand up while he was writing, using the top of a fridge as his desk. Clearly standing didn't inhibit Wolfe's productivity. The typescript of his first novel, as submitted to Scribner in New York, was more than 300,000 words - what a contemporary publisher would call "fuck-off long". But a young editor at Scribner, Maxwell Perkins, agreed to publish it, if Wolfe agreed to cut 90,000 words, and between them they did the job. . .


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