As I noted in last week’s post, I want to talk about the role editors play–and how vitally important they are. We can thank Maxwell Perkins for believing in F. Scott Fitzgerald and helping get his debut novel published. In his book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, A. Scott Berg describes the relationship between Perkins and Fitzgerald and quotes some of the correspondence back and forth as Fitzgerald worked on his novels.
After the great commercial success of This Side of Paradise, the publisher was ready and willing for more (funny how that works . . . ). Fitzgerald wrote short stories and another book for Scribner’s, and eventually he told Perkins about his next project, a book titled Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires. Perkins didn’t like the title. Fitzgerald had thrown out several other ideas, and The Great Gatsby was one, but Fitzgerald preferred Trimalchio in West Egg.
When the manuscript finally landed on Perkin’s desk, Fitzgerald sent a letter explaining that he wanted his latest title, but he wasn’t altogether happy with the middle of the book. “Do tell me the absolute truth, your first impression of the book, & tell me anything that bothers you in it” (64). Perkins reported that he loved it, but “said he had several points of criticism, all of which stemmed from his dissatisfaction with the character of Gatsby himself” (65). Perkins felt that he could spot Tom Buchanan if he met him on the street, but Gatsby’s character was vague. Perkins suggested that Fitzgerald describe Gatsby as distinctly as he had described Tom and Daisy.
Perkins also understood that Gatsby’s past needed to maintain a certain air of mystery, but Perkins didn’t want to shortchange the readers. He suggested that Fitzgerald pepper in some phrases that would give the reader some clues, “The total lack of an explanation through so large a part of the story does seem to be a defect” (65). That caused a problem at the novel’s fulcrum–the scene in the Plaza Hotel. Tom calls Gatsby’s bluff, but it wasn’t effective because the reader didn’t know what the “bluff” was.
Perkins wrote to Fitzgerald, “I don’t know how to suggest a remedy. I hardly doubt you will find one and I am only writing to say that I think it does need something to hold up to the pace set, and ensuing.” Perkins was also concerned that the parts of Gatsby’s past that Fitzgerald did divulge were all dumped together in one spot. Perkins suggested, “I thought you might find ways to let the truth of some of his claims like ‘Oxford’ and his army career come out bit by bit in the course of actual narrative,” although he added, “The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms” (66).
Fitzgerald began his revisions–from the title page. He went back to the title Perkins had liked, The Great Gatsby. He responded to everything Max suggested. He broke up the block of information about Gatsby’s past and sprinkled the details into earlier chapters. He made Gatsby’s claim of his time at Oxford come up in several conversations. And one key change:
Again stimulated by something Perkins had said, Fitzgerald worked a small wonder with a certain habit of Gatsby’s. In the original manuscript Gatsby had called people “old man,” “old fellow,” and a number of other affected appellations. Now Fitzgerald seized upon the one Perkins had liked so much, adding it a dozen times, making it into a leitmotive. The phrase became so persistent a mannerism that in the Plaza Hotel scene it provoked Tom Buchanan into an outburst: “That’s a great expression of yours, isn’t it? All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?” (69)
Through the process of writing, Perkins encouraged, advised, and offered suggestions, but always knew that the brilliance lay with the author. He simply wanted to make what was already great that much better. In the end, Fitzgerald wrote that it was Maxwell Perkins who helped him write a book he was proud of.
That’s what we editors do. We try to take what’s already brilliant and make it that much better. We hope we can help authors publish books that they, too, can be proud of.
You authors out there, have you worked with an outstanding editor? I’d love to know who that person is so we can all learn from the best!