Monday, September 22, 2008

Max Perkins, alive and well (in spirit)

Several people sent me the link to this piece Richard Curtis wrote over at The Writer's Edge. The title: "Are Editors Necessary?" Everyone wanted to know what I thought.

First, I want to thank Richard for a wise and nicely worded article. Please read the entire thing; it's wonderful. He talks about the supposed demise of "great editors" like Maxwell Perkins--you know, those genius editors who found those genius authors and worked with them painstakingly on manuscript development and personality management.

Actually, the reason I love Richard Curtis the most is because he talks about how unfair it is to say there are no great editors left. As he points out, the industry has changed massively, and if you're not sensitive to the huge pressures editors are up against, you might misunderstand how much work they're actually doing for you.

One of my personal favorite lines:

Editing is a highly complex set of functions, and no single individual is capable of exercising them with equal aplomb. The editor who wines and dines agents and charms authors may be a clumsy negotiator; the dynamic deal-maker may have no patience for the tedious and demanding word-by-word task of copyediting; the copyeditor who brilliantly brings a book to life word by word, line by line, may be completely at sixes and sevens when it comes to handling authors.


So. What is a good editor?

I don't want to bore people who've hung around these parts for a long time, so I'll refer you to this earlier piece on things I hope you can expect from your editor. If you're in the process of having your agent submit a novel, print it out and use it as a check list.

It's true, we can't all be masters of everything. And in fact almost all of us are really only masters of one of those three things, and perhaps a bit awkward in the other two.

But the fact is, there are things you deserve in an editor for your book. One of them is an editor who can at least hold their own in each of Richard's three mentioned categories. You deserve someone with good taste and judgment. You deserve someone who can hold their own socially to the point that they'll be able to express why your book is great to other people. And you deserve someone whose reading of your text will make it better than you could have made it on your own.

And yeah, we exist. We do. I'm that person (she says oh-so-modestly). No, but seriously, I am. I'm not a genius at any of the three areas, but I know I need to do my very best regardless. And I hold my own.

And so do a bunch of other friends and colleagues. Really, we exist.

The people who think Max Perkins's spirit is dead are the same ones who think the publishing industry is also dead. They're the ones who can't cope with fresh ideas to counter fresh challenges. Which is sad for them, not me.

But we're here. Really, we are.


Kiersten said...

And trust me, we want you very, very much.

Did I say very? VERY much.

cindy said...

i'm most definitely a believer.

Kim Kasch said...

It's the same with writers.

In my critique group, one of us is great at dialogue, one can find any tense changes, one is astute at POV, one grasps the whole picture.

None of us are experts at all categories but we try to hold our own - still each of us shines in one area.

JES said...

Curtis's piece (as mentioned in a footnote) "was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in [the book] Mastering the Business of Writing." No date on the Locus appearance, but the book had a copyright date of 1990.

I mention this because when Curtis says that the golden age passed "twenty-five or thirty years ago," we now must read it as forty to fifty years ago. Which means that it was gone well before almost every one of us here would have cared about much more than just growing up.

Griping about the dear departed Max Perkins (and I say that without sarcasm) is just a specific form of general complaints about the absence of things we've never actually experienced, just heard about. And as Curtis implied at least 18 years ago, as MR is implying here, Perkins himself would have had difficulty adjusting to the way things are now.

Ha -- now that I'm thinking about it, if Perkins were an editor now, I can picture him at lunch with his colleagues, complaining bitterly about the dearth of Hemingways and Thomas Wolfes. Like, "Er, Max... you do know that the world itself has moved on, right?"

Charles Gramlich said...

I think this kind of thing is common to humans in all areas. I see in faculty members that some are great teachers, others great researchers, etc. Seldom does one person possess all the needed skills at a high level. But most of us try to meet all the demands as best we can.

Julie Weathers said...

Great post, Moonie.

Personally, I would happily "settle" for Moonie. If I could find an editor like that, yeah, I would be bouncing off the walls.

I think we wax nostalgic about the good old days, but I'm not sure they were ever really that great. Time heals all wounds.

But, back to Moonie's editor list. I think that is spot on. As Kim said, the best critique groups are the ones that are diversified. Personally, enthusiasm covers a lot of ground with an author, agent or editor. Having an agent or editor is competent in all areas and stellar in one would be lovely.

Sooo, when I get an agent, can I ask them to be sure and submit to Moonie?

Anonymous said...

I just want to put in my two-cents ... I've been working with an editor at a major house on revisions to my book for the past year. She is AMAZING. She has taken careful, real time with this book -- she has written pages upon pages of probing, high-level criticism over multiple revisions, and she has made me a much better writer in the process. She's made it utterly clear that we aren't operating on a pre-set schedule, but with the sole purpose of making this the best book it can possibly be, and then we'll go from there. I'm unpublished as of yet, but it is my fondest desire to spend the rest of my career working for this editor, and I often find myself wondering what she gets out of our relationship -- I feel like I'm such the ridiculous beneficiary that I wish there was something I could give her other than my gratitude and unwavering loyalty. So there you have it. This writer believes great editors exist because he's seen one.


Beth Kephart said...

I am (I apologize, I do) a newcomer to this marvelous site, but I love the jazz of this conversation, the topics chosen. I've had, hmmm, seven editors now, for multiple-genre books. The great minds are still out there; they are. The truly great are those who give all they have even though or if the book has Literary (vs. Commercial) written all over it. I've been lucky with editors like Alane Mason at Norton, and Laura Geringer and now Jill Santopolo at Harper in that way.

Jolie said...

Yay! Thanks for commenting on that article. I was one of the folks who sent you the link. It's comforting to hear from an editor that capable, conscientious editors are still out there (and maybe I'll snag one of them for my own book someday).

Demon Hunter said...

I hope that I get a really great editor whenever I get published. There are really great ones out there and I hope I'm lucky enough to get one. :-)

E-Reads said...

Richard Curtis here, and thank you so much for the wonderful comment. I'm not blushing; my face ALWAYS turns red when the temperature goes down. :-)

I do want to address the comment (by "jes") that my piece, originally written almost twenty years ago, may not necessarily be valid any more.

I've been republishing my columns on the Writers Edge and the Ereads websites, but before releasing them I update them to make sure they're still relevant.

When the time came to republish this article I asked myself whether the things I'd written then are still valid today. And the truth is, I don't think I changed more than a few words before posting it.

I stand by it. Since the late '80s, or for that matter since the late '20s of the Perkins era, everything in publishing has changed - except the ideals that brought dedicated young people into the business then. Those same ideals bring them in now and motivate them to keep the light glowing in an increasingly dark world.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Here is a question if you have time and inclination some time. I sold five books, and aside from copyediting none of them were edited at all, which makes sense to me since bookselling is not that profitable an industry. I have also seen books by others which were not even copyedited. So I appreciate and admire editors who spend years poring over a book trying to make it better, but how do they justify that investment with all the other things they have to do? And the same goes for agents: how do they justify the investment?

Now that I know what an incredibly conscientious person you are I may send you my next masterpiece just to see what you do with it.