Not everyone tells stories, but we all create and embrace narratives as we move through our lives. As human beings we do this for a number of reasons, including making life seem more orderly and secure than it actually is.
For example, it’s commonly said that during a time of war anyone who serves in the military is a hero — in part for risking their life, and in part for doing a job the rest of us don’t want to do. The reality, of course, is much different. People in uniform are no different than people out of uniform. Even during a time of national emergency there are military murderers, pedophiles, psychotics, traitors, and on and on.
But that’s not a narrative that makes us sleep well at night. We need to believe that the people in the military are highly-trained professionals keeping us safe from harm, and we don’t want to feel guilty about not taking that risk ourselves. So we buy into a narrative of dedicated heroes who put our physical safety ahead of their own lives. The military encourages this narrative because it helps maintain their funding, and because it shields them from analysis that might force a change in doctrine or structure.
We embrace such narratives because they allow us to get out of bed and slog through our day without freaking out about existential pointlessness or worries that the people we are forced to rely on are letting us down. It’s ultimately an extension of childhood, where you can’t see your parents as individuals partly because you don’t have the cognitive capacity, but also because you know on a primitive level that you are wholly and completely reliant on them for your survival. No matter how many times a parent hits you or passes out in front of you from drugs or alcohol, you know they’re good people down deep because they have to be.
As someone who tells stories for a living, I see these kinds of narratives in every aspect of life, every endeavor, every organization, every business, every profession. Despite the example above, I also see the utility of these narratives, and the benefit to individuals both within and outside organizations that use narratives to further their cause or justify their existence.
Unfortunately, it’s often the case that such narratives are not a function of genuine personal, societal or cultural need, but rather an attempt to exploit the very idea of a narrative for self-serving reasons. You can see this most clearly in all aspects of politics, where messaging and rhetoric aspire to nothing more than sloganeering and nationalism of one flavor or another. Maddeningly, this kind of narrative marketing usually works, and all the more so when threats of imminent death are churned into the mix.
It should not come as any great surprise, then, that various players in the publishing industry embrace and attempt to export their own narratives. I’ve already dealt with one of these narratives, which I’ll belatedly call the myth of the agent as victim. Today I’d like to talk about another equally self-serving publishing narrative, which is the myth of the infallible editor.
As I’ve been looking at and trying to understand the publishing industry over the past six months or so, I’ve run across several editorials and blog posts extolling the virtue, service and necessity of editors. That these pieces were written by editors and publishers should be noted, but shouldn’t discount the validity of their arguments. (I don’t want the fact that I’m a writer to allow anyone to dismiss points I make about writing.)
The common thread running through these writings is that editors (and by extension publishing houses) are much more important than you’ve ever known. To the extent that most of what an editor does happens behind the scenes, I would probably agree. Book editors, like film editors, tend to toil behind closed doors. (Even your average rock-show roadie gets more face time with the public than an editor does.)
It’s one thing to say that editors are unsung, however, and quite another to say that editors are as important, or even more important, than authors. But that’s actually the narrative some editors and publishers promote in service of their own profession: that they are the ones who really matter. The thrust of this narrative is that it’s not just good editing that takes placed behind the scenes, but the very creation of literature itself. Like a record producer pulling together a great album for a strung-out diva, book editors touting the infallible-editor narrative are not just unsung, they’re heroes. (See also the second paragraph in this post.)
In this way the infallible-editor narrative also exploits the crazy-writer narrative, which says that all writers — including the professionals who never miss a deadline — are badly dysfunctional, socially inept, deeply disturbed, substance addicted and dangerous. In effect, if it weren’t for staid, sober and deeply serious editors and publishing houses these crazy, flea-bitten, barely-house-broken writers wouldn’t be able to eat or use the toilet. Because of their heroic and unsung service to humanity, however, editors and publishers are able — through the kind of hard work and selfless dedication you can only dream of on your best day — to shape the first-draft bowel movements of crazy writers into literary gems.
Just as there are good and decent people in the military there are good and decent editors in the publishing industry who want nothing more than to do their jobs as best they can. These are not the people putting forward the idea that editors are unsung heroes. Every editor can tell a story about a book they saved, in large part because there are so many ways in which a book can be stillborn, crippled, destroyed, or otherwise defeated. Authors save books. Editors save books. Readers save books. Librarians save books. Bookstore owners save books. It’s the nature of the process.
But that’s not what the infallible-editor narrative says. What the infallible-editor narrative says is that nobody knows more about writing, editing, publishing, literature, truth, justice and the American way than editors do. Editors are not simply indispensable , they are the publishing industry.
To see what I’m talking about, consider a recent New York Times op-ed by Mr. Jonathan Galassi, a publisher and editor. At the beginning of his editorial, Mr. Galassi quotes William Styron regarding Mr. Styron’s long association with Random House:
As Mr. Styron himself later said, both Mr. Haydn and his subsequent Random House editor, Robert Loomis, had a “genius for catching me out in my weakest or most slipshod moments, but never tried to impose their ideas on mine. It’s the moral support that’s been so valuable.”
To anyone familiar with the process of writing fiction, it’s clear here that Mr. Styron is giving his editors due credit for being good editors, while simultaneously crediting himself with the process of creation that produced his books. And from my point of view that’s both the proper and professional thing for Mr. Styron to have done. Editors are worth their weight in gold not because they create, but because they help creators overcome the blindness inherent in the act of creation. We cannot see our own writing clearly after a time, and we cannot — by definition — avoid our own weaknesses.
Mr. Galassi is after more substantial concessions, however, and after quoting Mr. Styron he devotes the remainder of his editorial to detailing the exhaustive and heroic measures by which Random House and its editors made Mr. Styron’s works safe for human consumption. At which point Mr. Galassi asserts that Random House and its editors deserve co-credit and perpetual compensation for Mr. Styron’s work:
A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.
An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created.
By Mr. Galassi’s logic, William Stryon’s stories were not created until Random House helped create them. There was no full first draft of any merit, no authorial talent deserving of notice, no reality, until Random House validated Mr. Styron’s existence. That is the narrative of the infallible editor.
William Styron was nobody without Random House and its line-by-meticulous-line editors. As if Mr. Styron himself bashed out prose in the dark, never re-reading a word, only to submit his literary carnage to an interdisciplinary team of geniuses including a steely-nerved diamond cutter, a bomb disposal expert, a code-cracking whiz-kid, and a no-nonsense bureaucrat who loves his country more than you will ever know.
From my point of view as a thinking being, Mr. Galassi’s claims on behalf of Random House are patently absurd, yet he is quite clearly making them with a straight face. More importantly, from my point of view as a writer, these assertions are incredibly insulting to the reputation and ability of William Styron. Which brings me to the first of several rules I think editors and publishers should embrace when talking about their contributions to a given author’s work:
- Infallible Editor Rule #1:
If you believe you are due more credit than you got for your work on a particular author’s project(s), you should have the decency, if not the courage, to state your case while the author is still alive and able to rebut your attempted larceny. Waiting until after an author has died to explain how important you were to that author’s success — or how much money you’re due — is as embarrassing and revealing of character as it is disgusting.
I would like at this point to say that this sort of insane argument is rare, but it doesn’t seem to be. While reading Mr. Galassi’s ode to editorial infallibility I was instantly reminded of another editorial which also embraced the infallible-editor narrative. Written by Steve Ross — former President, Collins Division at HarperCollins and Sr. VP, Crown Division at Random House — and titled, “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” — A Manifesto of Sorts“, the article (which I previously addressed here) closes by valiantly asserting the heroism of the infallible editor:
Why do we demonize publishers as greedy, monopolistic and backward when they are peopled by such idealists and lovers of literature trying their best to navigate a ship that was corroding from decades-old rust well before the economic collapse placed icebergs in the water?
It’s not that publishers and editors have caused any of the problems the industry is now facing. No. It’s that publishers and editors have been heroic in fighting a tide that mere mortals would have succumbed to long ago. Again, with a straight face.
By the same token, shortly after reading Mr. Galassi’s editorial I happened across a post by Joe Esposito, entitled How Not to Negotiate for Digital Rights, which chastised Mr. Galassi not for his attempt to appropriate authorship or legal rights from Mr. Styron’s estate, but for doing so badly:
Galassi’s moral argument to the Styron estate is that publishers invest time, money, and expertise into an author’s work and deserve to share in the rewards. Thus, the publisher of the printed book should participate in some fashion in the publication of the digital book, as the digital edition benefited from the editorial labors of the printed book.
The problem with this argument is not that it is not true (it is definitely true) but that authors cannot hear it; they don’t want to be beholden to any editor for the shape of their work, though they will diplomatically compliment editors in the Acknowledgments—typically by noting that an editor “helped me fulfill my vision.” My vision. The line-by-line editing of Random House’s celebrated Bob Loomis and the assiduous work of the copy editors can all be read as strikes against the author. As a sales pitch, Galassi’s comment may be heard as something of an insult.
I admit here that my responses in the comments to Mr. Esposito’s post were not detached. To read a comment from someone so baldly contemptuous of authors that they would assert that editors and publishers are the eternal victims of authorial ego is to read an attack on the very meaning of professionalism that I aspire to as a writer. Unlike Mr. Galassi’s editorial, this is not an argument being leveled at one writer in one particular instance, but an attack on all writers in all instances. Not surprisingly, it also champions the infallible-editor narrative — albeit with a level of gusto that perhaps others might not care to embrace.
Even now I find it almost impossible to respond to this scathing indictment of authors with anything but expletives. Mr. Galassi’s editorial might have been “heard as something of an insult by authors,” but Mr. Esposito’s comment presents no such ambiguity. His words are a direct insult to any author who has worked diligently with an editor to make their work better.
But Mr. Esposito’s comment is also something else. It’s an acknowledgment by Mr. Esposito that he himself doesn’t have the slightest idea what is involved in facing a blank page or writing a book. Which bring me to the second rule that editors and publishers should embrace when championing their contributions to a given author’s work:
- Infallible Editor Rule #2:
If you’ve never actually written a book of the type you believe you helped co-create in your capacity as editor, then you quite literally do not know what you are talking about. You may think that you do, but you don’t, and anyone who has written a book of that type will know by your claim that you are an idiot.
As an aside, while responding to Mr. Esposito’s post, I discovered that the New York Times had added the following correction to Mr. Galassi’s editorial:
An Op-Ed article on Sunday, about e-books, incorrectly described the publishing history of William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness.” It was first published in 1951 by Bobbs-Merrill, not Random House.
Note, however, that even though Mr. Galassi apparently got his facts wrong in asserting that Random House was responsible for co-creating and perfecting Mr. Styron’s first novel, authorial supremacy does not revert to Mr. Styron himself simply on the basis of Mr. Galassi’s colossal blunder. Rather, Bobbs-Merrill should now be seen as the rightful co-creator of Mr. Styron’s first book.
As I noted with regard to agents and their narrative of victimization, not all agents are inveterate whiners. Similarly, when I read the complaints of Messrs. Galassi, Ross and Esposito I’m reminded that many if not most editors do not have the same contempt for authors that they clearly have. (At some point the following question needs to be asked of editors and publishers who genuinely believe they are the real heroes in the publishing world. If you really have done all the heavy lifting on the books you’ve helped bring to market, aren’t you really saying that you’re incapable of finding, hiring or otherwise working with talented professional writers? Or are you literally making the case that there is no good writing without your heroic, unsung involvement?)
Offhand I can think of three editors who, to me, embody the spirit, professionalism and craft of a good editor. First, there’s the celebrated Robert Gottlieb, about whom I know almost nothing except what I learned in this video clip. Starting at the 18:03 mark, here’s a representative quote:
[Editing] is not brain surgery. And…uh…I’ve felt for years, that the cult of editing and the whole gossip about publishing was extremely overdone. Who cares, you know? You do your job, it’s great — I did a very good job I think — but does it really matter?
Now, this is the man who edited Catch-22 with Joseph Heller (about which he comments later in the clip). And yet here he is being self-deprecating and professional about his work and his contribution to books. No embrace of the infallible-editor narrative. (I encourage you to listen to the remainder of the clip, because in doing so you’ll hear the stark difference between an editor concerned with craft and an editor concerned with ego and money.)
The second editor I think of when I think of a consummate editing professional is Thomas McCormack, who wrote a wonderful book called The Fiction Editor — about which I have already commented here and an excerpt of which can be found here.
This is a man who was an editor for the bulk of his career, while also rising to become CEO of St. Martin’s Press. Yet when he decided to write a book about editing he didn’t write a tell-all book detailing his unsung and heroic contributions to books that St. Martin’s had published, he wrote a book about how fiction works and how editors and writers can better understand the craft of editing. Again, no embrace of the infallible-editor narrative.
The third editor I would mention is L. Rust Hills, long-time fiction editor of Esquire magazine. Like Mr. McCormack, Mr. Hills — about whom I’ll have more to say in subsequent posts — turned his long editing experience into a book about the craft of writing, which also makes no claim that editors are the true heroes of the literary world.
I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Hills early in my writing life, and I can tell you from direct personal experience that I never heard him say anything about writing or writers that was not complimentary of the effort that it takes to face a blank page. In fact, here’s a quote on that very subject from his own book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular:
All of my friends, and most of my acquaintances, are writers of one sort or another, or editors or agents who deal with writers constantly. But it’s remarkable how little I know of what happens to writers when they’re actually alone writing.
If the way my mind works when I’m trying to write has any resemblance to the way real writers’ minds work, then I pity them all.
In writing these words Mr. Hills not only refuses to take up the myth of the infallible editor, he actually destroys it by pointing out that writers do something that editors rarely do, and that’s confront a blank page. No amount of experience editing or agenting or publishing or reading can prepare anyone for that experience, and no amount of editorial or publishing support can make up for or replace that initial effort.
Taken in sum, these three editors put the focus on the work and the craft of writing, and on supporting authors in their goal of writing good stories. This is in contrast with Messrs. Galassi, Ross and Esposito, who seem first and foremost concerned with who will profit from such efforts. Which brings us to our third rule:
- Infallible Editor Rule #3
You may be a great corner man, but if you’re not stepping through the ropes and getting punched in the face yourself you don’t get tell people you won the bout. If you make a deal with a fighter and you get paid, then you’ve been properly compensated, even if you think you taught that fighter everything he knows.
Which brings us to the heart of the infallible-editor myth. What editors and publishers want is not to be authors. What the good ones want is to help authors tell good stories. What the bad ones want is to own authors and their works.
Not surprisingly, the myth of the infallible editor is rarely employed in instances where the editor or publisher already owns a given work. In those cases the editor is almost always effusive with praise about the author’s genius, if only as a means of furthering sales. In instances where the editor or publisher has been cut out of a deal, however, the myth of the infallible editor rears its money-grubbing head, sniffing the ground and rooting through moral arguments in search of cash.
To those editors who say that I’m being unfair to their profession, I admit that I’ve been overly general in my condemnations. I would point out in reply, however, that I don’t see a lot of editors taking this narrative to task themselves. Where are the grief-stricken admissions of editors who took a perfectly good book and badly damaged it through negligence or incompetence? Where are the confessions of editors who were drunk or on drugs half their working life, or who routinely offered inane or petty comments while wholly ignoring high-level editing issues like character and plot? Is it really possible that no editor has ever disimproved a work, or failed to understand a writer’s intent? Has no editor ever usurped a writer’s authorial control for their own egotistical ends? Has no editor in the entire history of publishing ever used their position of authority for any reason other than the furthering of great art and gentlemanly commerce?
If you are a writer, all of this should give you pause. It should also be clear that at the end of the day nothing matters more than protecting your copyrights. One good way to do so is to avoid entering into relationships with people who think you are crap, or who think that what they are being paid to do in the service of helping you tell your stories is as difficult and important as your own contribution.
There are many good editors and publishers out there, hanging on by their fingernails even as the industry goes through a fundamental transformation. There are also many bad editors and publishers out there — some with lofty reputations — who are looking for nothing more than an opportunity to exploit you and your labor. The first step is getting you to buy into the narrative that editors are infallible saviors who will keep you safe.
Being a writer is inherently scary. It’s lonely and often returns no real compensation other than the act of creation itself. This fragility and uncertainty is easily exploited by such narratives, making it feel as if you are gaining some certainty or reassurance in return for submitting to the myth. You are not. Like all such narratives you are simply choosing to embrace something that makes you feel good while choosing to ignore things that frighten you.
It’s one thing to buy into a narrative about things over which you have no control. You can’t do much if anything about hostilities directed at your country, so embracing the idea of soldiers as heroes meets an emotional need. The myth of the infallible editor, on the other hand, only meets the needs of people who are looking to exploit you and your work — and you do have a way to fight back.
The best defense you will ever have against editors or publishers who are angling for your wallet or otherwise looking to co-opt your work for their own ends is to learn how to edit yourself. Read books on the subject, including the two mentioned above, and try your hand at reacting to the work of other writers. Like any craft, it takes practice, but it’s well worth it, and central to your own success.
Because you’re not infallible yourself.
— Mark Barrett