Monday, February 14, 2011


When I was 24-years-old and writing Faith and the Good Thing with John Gardner looking over my shoulder, that writer/teacher gave me a bit of good advice regarding editors. He said before one turns in a manuscript to a publisher it should be as perfect as one can possibly make it. One should not rely on an editor to fix or repair anything in one's work. Furthermore, Gardner said, when an author becomes famous or well-known, editors have a tendency not to touch his (or her) work. In other words, many successful, celebrity writers don't receive the benefits a good editor can provide.
Almost exactly a year later, I stumbled on an example of what Gardner possibly meant. I was at Viking Press, meeting with my editor, the late Alan Williams, for Faith. He told me Saul Bellow was in the building, so I asked if he'd introduce us. Alan walked me down the hallway to an empty conference room. At the end of a long table, Bellow, that literary lion, sat hunched over the galley for his novel Humboldt's Gift. He'd flown in from Chicago and, with his coat off and shirt sleeves rolled up, was tearing the galley apart, revising, intensely focused on those pages already set in type. That impressed me. Bellow, a perfectionist, knew that this was absolutely the last chance he had to work on this novel before it was published and he had to finally let it go. And, as we know, every contract in the early 1970s said that if an author changed more than 10% of his book when it was in the galley stage, he (the author) had to pay for those changes. (This was, of course, no problem for Bellow, who was a millionaire.) After that novel was published, Bellow received the Nobel Prize for literature.
I believe Gardner was right. But I also feel that even the most accomplished writer can be helped by a second pair of good eyes---those of a learned editor steeped in literary culture like my editor for Middle Passage, the late Lee Goerner at Atheneum---looking over his( or her) work and catching small things the writer may have overlooked in the heat of the creative process.

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