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Archive for the ‘Classic Literature’ Category

I hyperventilate when I go into used bookstores. For thirty years my husband has dragged me to antique stores and the only saving grace to these excursions (where eventually every antique begins to look the same) is that sometimes the booths will have books. I zero in on these, turning my head sideways to read along the spines. I don’t feel the same way in my local Books-a-Million, although if I have to go shopping that’s where I want to go.

There’s just something about the smell of used bookstores and the possibility of treasures to be found. If I’m going to by one of the classics or a book on my list, I don’t want one of those repackaged recent releases or (God forbid) the ones that put on the cover not the person but the movie star playing that person (seriously, a book about Julia Child with Meryl Streep on the cover?). And I’m not all worried about getting first editions or signed copies. Instead, I just want to pick it up and know that I’m giving it new life. It was written (by hand, in the case of those classics), edited, typeset (when typesetting was really setting type), printed bound, and sent out into the world. Someone bought it and put it on a shelf. Sometimes that person’s name will appear handwritten inside the cover. Chances are, that person read it. I love it when evidence of that shows up with underlines or marginal comments.

I love the feel of those books. I will often buy it if it feels right in my hands. I look forward to reading it just so I can hold it and turn the pages. The last time the book felt that was when that person decades ago did the same as I am doing now. It’s a kinship. We read the same words, get engrossed in the same story, get pulled away into the world that writer created.

What is it that pulls us into books? Why do we read, anyway? In her book, Ruined by ruined by readingReading: A Life in Books, Lynne Sharon Schwartz muses about why we are willing to spend hours of our lives with tales others have spun.

I have read for so many years but, like Schwartz, I wonder at why it is I cannot recall so much of what I’ve read. Thus I’m glad to know that others have been in the same boat. Schwartz writes, “I don’t remember much of what I’ve read. My lifelong capacity for forgetting distresses me. I glance at a book on the shelf that I once read with avid interest . . . and while I struggle for the details, all I recall is the excitement of the reading. . . . What do I have, then, after years of indulgence? A feel, a texture, an aura.”

Precisely for this reason of forgetting what I’ve read (and the accompanying distress), a few years ago I gathered up some of those lists of “must read” classic books. I began to work my way through it, hoping to recapture the wonder. As I began pursuing an advanced degree in English, I realized that I had to be able to actually discuss the classic works, not just pretend that I had read them or, even if I had, pretend that I remembered them. So the past few years I dove into Moby Dick and This Side of Paradise and The Old Man and the Sea and Portrait of a Lady among many others of the great classics. Some I enjoyed. Some I wanted to pull my eyes out (hello, Moby Dick. I’m sorry. I probably need to turn in my credentials to speak such blasphemy). But I felt accomplished reading them and saying I’ve read them and being able to, while perhaps not remembering all the details (a problem I wish I could overcome, but maybe no one remembers every detail), at least remember the basic story.

And that makes me feel something.

What is that feeling? And why do I feel it? When I finish a classic work, I join a club—a club of readers across months or years or decades or centuries who also have gently opened the cover, absorbed the words, turned the pages, finished and imbibed the story. No matter what I do, it’s there forever. Of course, not all the details (as I’ve already established) but the story. I am forever changed, I have a new view on the world, I learned something.

That tends to be my “divining rod” (as Schwartz calls it) helping me work my way through the morass of books stacked in teetering piles in used bookstores. I go straight to the reference section to find books about writing that I can use in my teaching. Then I’m over in the classics, then memoir, then the books of essays. I have never been a reader of romance or popular fiction. (On a visit, I once picked up a copy of a Danielle Steele at my mother-in-law’s house. By the fourth page I was so appalled by the terrible writing I laughed out loud.)

When I read, I want to learn something. And if a book isn’t pulling me along with its lyrical writing or keeping me turning pages or giving me info that helps me see the world in a new way, then I’m not interested and am not above putting it back on the shelf unfinished.

Life is too short to read a bad book.

But I feel like I came late to the reading game. I wasn’t precocious. In fact, I remember being mortified that many of my fellow fifth graders were reading from the advanced areas of the reading box when I was down in the “average.” I stunk at math and hated science, but reading? I loved reading. I felt like I should have tested right into those higher levels. It didn’t make sense.

I didn’t go to grad school until I was in my fifties and felt the sting of both not having read the classics and not being “up” on even recent authors. So I made my list of the must-reads and began to work my way through it.

Now I read voraciously, as if trying to make up for lost time. Which I am. But, again, why? It gets back to that feeling of knowing¸ of learning. Is my life better for understanding the whaling culture explained to me (ad nauseum) in Moby Dick? Actually, yes, I think so. Do I have a better understanding of writing from studying The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby? I do indeed. Is my writing life inspired by the writing of Flannery O’Connor and  Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekov? Yes.

In short, I read because it inspires me. Sometimes it is the grace of the writing. Sometimes it is the very encouragement I get to live better and be better and write better.

So tell me, what is it about reading that enthralls you?

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Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant story of Harriet the Spy drew cheers from some critics and groans from others. But the children took Harriet right to their hearts, and this book is now a best seller which seems destined for literary immortality.

So says the back flap cover of the dust jacket of my copy of Harriet the Spy. I impulse purchased it on Amazon a couple years ago remembering how much I had loved the book when I read it somewhere around age eleven.

harriet

I’m not sure where I first came across Harriet. Perhaps she arrived through a kids’ book club. Maybe I checked her out from the bookmobile that arrived in our subdivision every Saturday morning. But I recall being entranced by her. Harriet wore rolled up jeans and glasses and ran a spy route and wrote in her notebook her observations about the comings and goings and private discussions of the people she spied on. Outside under an open window, she listened to the Robinson family; from a rooftop skylight she peered down at Harrison Withers; sneaking into a dumbwaiter and pulling the ropes, she listened outside old Mrs. Plumber’s bedroom. I found it all fascinating. I wanted to be Harriet. I didn’t want to spy necessarily, but I did want to observe my world and I wanted to write.

“What are you writing?” Sport asked.

“I’m taking note on all those people who are sitting over there.”

“Why?”

“Aw, Sport”—Harriet was exasperated—“because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.”

After the book arrived from Amazon, I reread Harriet’s adventures. Looking through my adult eyes, the story came across as a bit weird. Really? Sneaking into someone’s dumbwaiter in order to listen to private conversations in the bedroom (well, yeah, the woman was an elderly woman alone and on her phone, but still!). Climbing onto a roof? Writing unkind things about your closest friends?

Looking at the book through an adult’s eyes, I suffered from what Ursula Nordstrom understood all too well—adults too often plastering children’s books with their own adult concerns and thus totally losing the beauty of imagination.

geniusI learned about Ursula Nordstrom by reading a book of her letters: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998). She was publisher and editor-in-chief of juvenile books at Harper & Row from 1940 to 1973. She is considered the Maxwell Perkins of children’s publishing; in other words, as Perkins was willing to take a risk with an author, spot talent, and then coddle that author along by way of encouraging letters, Nordstrom did the same but with children’s books. If not for Nordstrom, we might never have seen books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, E. B. White’s Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur, and Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Nordstrom believed in children. She believed that if she could get the books past the adults who buy them into the hands of children, the adults could learn from the children how to enjoy and understand what was being done in a truly creative work.

Harriet the Spy was published in 1964. When Louise Fitzhugh arrived at the Harper & Row offices, she had a manuscript that was originally no more than the scribblings in Harriet’s notebook. Nordstrom’s senior editor, Charlotte Zolotow, wrote a report on the sample pages noting that they needed to bring Fitzhugh in to talk. Zolotow saw that it wasn’t yet a book, but it could be. Nordstrom wrote to her senior editor later, thankful that the two of them had “drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise” (304).

The book managed to garner accolades as well as criticism. Nordstrom is credited with answering mail and constantly being willing to stand up for her authors. Regarding a complaint letter about Harriet, she wrote:

I still wonder what put you off so about Harriet the Spy. Was it the fact that she spied that disturbed you? I think most of us have forgotten the awful things we did or wanted to do when we were 10 or 11 or 12. I was brought up with the most stern drilling of what was right and wrong, kind or mean, thoughtful or inconsiderate, etc. etc., and never tell a lie no matter what. And to this day I would love to read other people’s mail and listen to their telephone conversations if it were not for this hideous conscience, well . . . But you are all for vigor in children’s books and Harriet seems to have such vigor and life. (229)

Nordstrom realized that it would sometimes take the force of her strong personality to help the publisher and the authors and then the librarians and teachers and parents read the books with a child’s eyes. To get rid of their “adult” concerns, open their imaginations, and enjoy what she called “vigorous” books. As she considered the sorry state of 1960s teen novels, she wrote, “The ‘rigid world of good and bad’ is infinitely easier to write about than the real world. Because the writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”

As I reread Harriet the Spy, I fell into the trap. I found myself wondering if I’d have wanted my kids to read it. I saw the danger Harriet was putting herself in writing true observations, hurting her friends. But that was the very genius of Nordstrom—she realized that children liked books about kids who did bad things sometimes, who had to go to bed without supper, who weren’t perfect little angels.

charlotteWhile I read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and Where the Wild Things Are to my children, it never occurred to me that somewhere along the line an author had to get an editor to understand that—yes—a talking spider is a really great idea! A spider! And a kid spying on the neighbors and writing down everything they do—also a great idea!

Somehow Nordstrom and her team got it.

I’m thankful that Nordstrom and Zolotow did indeed help Fitzhugh create Harriet. Harriet became my friend. She got herself into scrapes but learned how to deal with them. She was herself—willing to be different from everyone else. I think that’s what I saw in her as I sat reading this book on a quiet evening baby-sitting my sleeping baby sister. Harriet made it okay to be alone, to be observant, to want to write.

Children’s literature is a special breed that takes special people to navigate it. It needs adult writers and editors who have enough of a child’s mind to be able to see the possibilities. To know that a talking spider can save a pig’s life. To know that a talking mouse can be born to human parents. To know that a little bespeckled girl with a notebook might just inspire another little bespeckled girl to become a writer.

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to killYou’ve probably never heard her name–I hadn’t until last night when watching a TV special about Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and her unknown and previously unpublished second book titled Go Set a Watchman.

The editor’s name was mentioned in passing, and I asked my husband to pause, replay, and help me catch it. Tay Hohoff is described in a blog post by Clarissa Atkinson, a fellow employee at J. B. Lippincott, as a “respected editor” and a “challenging presence.”

Ms. Atkinson goes on in another post to describe the To Kill a Mockingbird years at the publishing house:

J.B. Lippincott . . . was a family-owned Philadelphia firm, old-fashioned even in the 1950s.  I worked in the branch office at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street – an editorial office, in which the New York tail wagged the Philadelphia dog. My tenure at Lippincott coincided with a few of the many years during which Harper Lee was working on To Kill a Mockingbird. According to office legend (more or less substantiated by Wikipedia), Lee had arrived from Alabama with a trunk full of mixed-up parts and pages of an enormous manuscript, she lived in a garret on macaroni while she transformed the pages into a stunningly successful book, and this was accomplished through the faithful support and encouragement of her Lippincott editor.

Is anyone surprised by this “faithful support and encouragement” from an editor? Not me.

We’ve all heard the story by now. How friends of Harper Lee’s gave her a year’s worth of pay and told her to just go write for that year. The result was this astounding book published in 1960 that was an instant classic and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. 

And those of us who write wonder how in the world this writer crafted one book (well, now we know of two) that had this kind of success. We can only dream of that.

I think it has much to do with her upbringing–her father was a well-respected lawyer in her small hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in the deep South in the days before the Civil Rights movement. She touched a nerve by taking on the topic of racism and showing what it takes to stand up for what’s right.

Still, she also had a good editor who helped to shape the book into something readable. In 2010, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, Newsweek ran an article titled, “Who Helped Harper Lee with Mockingbird?” that discusses Tay Hohoff’s role in the book:

Lee had dropped out of college during her senior year to move to New York to become a writerto the dismay of her father, who wanted her to be a lawyer. She spent nearly a decade doing odd jobs and scraping by before she submitted five stories to a Maurice Crain, an agent who, frankly, wasn’t overly impressed. But he and his wife liked Lee, and he encouraged her to try a novel. The result, then called Atticus, was a mess. “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning,” said Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippencott, who described the submission to Lee’s biographer, Charles Shields. Still, Hohoff and the others at Lippencott saw something promising in it and took a chance. Lee clearly needed guidance—but she would get it. Lee rewrote the novel three times over the next two and a half years. At one point, she threw the manuscript out the window and called Hohoff. Her editor persuaded her to go outside and gather the floating pages.

It’s a good thing, wouldn’t you say?

That’s the role of a great editor. Sending a writer back to keep rewriting. Being there when the writer is facing a brick wall and muddled pages. Making sure the pages tossed out the window get gathered up and worked on because the editor sees something that maybe even the author can’t yet see.

ADDENDUM 7/14/15: Reviews of Go Set a Watchman are popping up online, and most of them are not kind. This one, in particular, gives credit to Tay Hohoff for the work she did in shaping To Kill a Mockingbird, a touch clearly missing from this most recent publication. But I disagree with the sentiment that there aren’t editors like that around anymore–there are, and they work very hard to bring diamonds out of the rough.

7/25/15: Excellent commentary from The New York Times. Unfortunately, I do feel that this may have been far more about money than about the writing or the writer.

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That’s it–The Writer’s Craft. That’s the name of a required class in our Professional Writing department at Taylor University–a required class that I will be teaching for the first time this fall. I’m so excited to teach this class because we’re going to read great writing, unpack it, understand what makes it great, and learn what we can use to improve our own writing.

ProseThe class has traditionally used Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

I love this book because it gives examples of great writing in areas of words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. All of this is studied by way of what she calls “close reading,” taking the time to annotate a chosen text and study it carefully.

So I’m excited to bring to the students stories from John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor and John Updike and Tim O’Brien and Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce and Anton Chekov, among others. I can’t wait to have my students do close reading of amazing writing, discuss it, learn from it, be inspired by it, use it.

I’m just a little thrilled to teach this class.

It is important that writers read “textbooks” about writing–and those textbooks are the great works that have stood the test of time. Prose (don’t you just love that the author’s name is “Prose”?) writes that these great works are “textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction” (3). What is it about this piece of writing that makes it great? that has stood the test of time? that makes it classic? She continues, “A masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly” (11).

We’re not going to look at the big picture–the why of the writing. Instead, we’re going to focus on the mechanics, the how. What words does the writer use? How are those words making this piece sing? What about sentence structure? Paragraphing? How is this dialogue telling us the story without telling us the story? (For the last one we’ll read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”)

In his wonderful little book Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon talks about making sure we artists surround ourselves with other great artists (I talked about this book more in this post). He advises us to be collectors, collecting the things we love.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. My mom used to say to me, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It used to drive me nuts. But now I know what she meant. Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by. (13-14)

Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff. I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk.

The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work. (17)

So we’ve got our readings, our lesson plans, our pens, and our desire to collect and learn from the greats.

Can’t wait!

What great writers or particular pieces of writing have inspired you?

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As I continue to write about editors and editing, I came across some very interesting insights in Jack London‘s masterful work, Martin Eden. Written as a thinly veiled autobiography, the story follows a low-class man and his desire for self-improvement in order to impress a high-class woman with whom he has fallen in love. He reads voraciously; learns language, grammar, and syntax; and teaches himself manners, politics, and philosophy. Eventually, he decides to become a writer–after all, he has many stories to tell from his travels around the world as a sailor.

Alas, every story he sends in is rejected and returned in what we would call the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). For years, he toils. He goes back and rereads the magazines to which he’s submitting to discover the “secret formula” for getting accepted. He spends hours and hours working at his craft, steadfastly refusing to bow to pressure from the woman he loves (and everyone else in his world) to just “get a job.”

He knows he’s a writer. He can feel it in his bones. He knows he has stories to tell, and he knows his stories are better than anything he’s reading in the magazines.

His money runs out. He barely survives. And the rejections keep coming. Martin begins to wonder:

He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and entrusted them to the machine. . . . There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that change the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. (160-61)martin eden

The chief qualification of ninety-nine percent of all editors is failure. They have failed as writers. Don’t think they prefer the drudgery of the desk and the slavery to their circulation and to the business manager to the joy of writing. They have tried to write, and they have failed. And right there is the cursed paradox of it. Every portal to success in literature is guarded by those watch-dogs, the failures in literature. The editors, sub-editors, associate editors, most of them, and the manuscript-readers for the magazines and book-publishers, most of them, nearly all of them, are men who wanted to write and who have failed. And yet they, of all creatures under the sun the most unfit, are the very creatures who decide what shall and what shall not find its way into print–they, who have proved themselves not original, who have demonstrated that they lack the divine fire, sit in judgment upon originality and genius. (322-23)

Ever felt that way as a writer? Ever felt like the editors either don’t exist or are simply cogs in machines that send out nothing but rejections?

As an editor, I do have to take a bit of offense that Martin sees me as “unfit.” But as a writer, yes, I have at times wondered if anyone with any taste receives–and rejects–my queries, my articles, my blood-and-guts pieces of creative nonfiction.

I’m sure many writers feel the same.

But let me put in a little bit of a plug on behalf of myself and my editor friends.

  • We truly do want the very best writing. But, you need to understand how subjective that is. It’s a gut reaction to a piece of writing. And if you get rejected one place and you really believe in your piece, keep trying.
  • Everything needs to be edited–everything. Trust us. We will work with you to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Editors are human, and each one of us is different. No two editors will edit a piece the same way. Take the advice, but also understand that we are in a conversation with you when we edit.
  • We are busy. Sure, no one wants to wait months for a response, but we’re reading hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pieces. Hence, the form letters that get returned in your SASE. We simply don’t have time to give personal responses to everything. (That said, if you get any kind of response–such as a quick hand-written note on that rejection letter–take that as a huge compliment and keep on trying with that editor.)
  • And generally we aren’t failed writers who defaulted to editing. Many of us write on the side (and get the same treatment from fellow editors). There’s no club. Our work has to stand on its own, just as with everyone else. Many of us have no desire to write at all–editing is our calling and we’re committed to that.
  • Rejection doesn’t mean failure. A piece can be rejected for any number of reasons. It may be that your writing isn’t good–but if you’re in a critique group and you’re taking advice, that probably isn’t the case. It could be things you have no way of knowing–maybe a story like yours has already been accepted and now yours isn’t needed. It could be that gut thing I wrote of above.
  • We really do care about the submission guidelines, the formatting advice we give you, etc. Read these guidelines and follow them. Because we receive hundreds of manuscripts, if it’s apparent you can’t follow the simplest guidelines, then we won’t take the time to read what you sent.

Eventually, Martin Eden does find the success he so long sought, but it comes at a price. He discovers the down side of fame and some of the hypocrisy in publishing, which begins his undoing.

Bottom line, Martin Eden teaches us that it takes persistence, faith in yourself, and hard hard hard work to be a writer.

Don’t give up. Don’t let the editors get you down. Realize that they aren’t “rejection machines.”

Nothing’s perfect, but work with us. Your great writing will find its home.

Quotations taken from Jack London’s Martin Eden: The Annotated Edition by Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. Upland, IN: Taylor University Press, 2006. This edition is pictured above.

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While most of the editors I’m telling you about tend to be in the shadows, behind the scenes, I am thrilled to announce today that my hero Maxwell Perkins (you can read Part 1 and Part 2 of my posts about him) is about to be immortalized on film.

Yep! Really.

And the lineup includes Nicole Kidman, Michael Fassbender, and Colin Firth (be still my heart!), who is playing Maxwell Perkins.

The film is called Genius. The indiewire.com website explains that:

The film is an adaptation of the National Book Award-winning non-fiction work “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg, and focuses on Perkins’ (Firth) relationship with the (excellent, underappreciated) author Thomas Wolfe (Fassbender). A writer who poured words onto the page, Wolfe worked with and battled Perkins over the length of his books, with the editor cutting 90,000 words from his first novel “Look Homeward, Angel” (later restored in an updated version of the book, “O Lost!“). In time, Wolfe became resentful of what he perceived was Perkins receiving far too much credit for his work. But on his deathbed at the age of 37, Wolfe penned a tribute to Perkins who certainly helped make his career.

And according to Filmnation,

GENIUS centers on the real-life relationship between literary giant Thomas Wolfe and renowned editor Max Perkins (Firth).

Finding fame and critical success at a young age, Wolfe is a blazing talent with a larger-than-life personality to match. Perkins is one of the most respected and well-known literary editors of all time, discovering such iconic novelists as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Wolfe and Perkins develop a tender, complex friendship. Transformative and irrepressible, this friendship will change the lives of these brilliant, but very different men forever.

While I’ve discussed Maxwell Perkins’s relationship with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, I haven’t delved into the complex relationship he had with Thomas Wolfe. WolfeIn the book I’ve referenced in previous blogs and from which the film is being made, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, Berg recounts the piles and piles of manuscript that Wolfe laid on Perkins–leaving Perkins to attempt to make a manuscript that could actually be printed, bound, and published. Max would ask Wolfe to cut, only to discover that Wolfe had cut a few words and then added several hundred more!

So after reading about Wolfe, I decided to go to the source himself and read his book, The Autobiography of an American Novelist (originally published by Scribner’s in 1936; the version I have is Harvard University Press, 1983). This book, actually a collection of a few of his addresses, gives us, in Wolfe’s own words, a window into his intense emotions as a writer, his overwhelming feelings of inferiority, and his concern that nothing he did would be good enough. But, referring to Perkins, Wolfe writes:

During this time, however, I was sustained by one piece of inestimable good fortune. It was my good fortune to have for a friend a man who is, I believe, not only the greatest editor of his time, but  man whose character is also a character of immense and patient wisdom and gentle but unyielding fortitude. I think that I may say the chief reason I was not destroyed at this time  by the sense of hopelessness and defeat which these gigantic and apparently fruitless labors had awakened in me was largely because of the courage and patience of this man. I did not give in because he would not let me give in. . . . I was, myself, engaged in that battle, covered by its dust and sweat and exhausted by its struggle, and I think it is certain that at this time I understood far less clearly than my friend the nature and the progress of the struggle in which was I engaged. At this time there was little that this man could do except observe, and in one way or another keep me at my task, and in one way or another, in many quiet and marvelous ways he succeeded in doing this.

. . . My friend, the editor, has likened his own function at this trying time to that of a man who is trying to hang on to the fin of a plunging whale, but hang on he did, and it is to his tenacity that I owe my final accomplishment. (55-56)

One of the issues occurring in Wolfe’s personal life was an affair with Aline Bernstein. The Wall Street Journal article from Friday, October 24, explains that “[Kidman] is about to play Thomas Wolfe’s lover, the costume designer Aline Bernstein, in the film ‘Genius,’ about the book editor Max Perkins. . . . ‘She is a fiery, dark-haired, strong woman, flamboyant, ahead of her time. My kind of stuff,’ Ms. Kidman said.” Berg describes their relationship:

Aline Bernstein was forty-two and Tom Wolfe was twenty-four when they met on the deck of the S.S. Olympic in 1925. . . . She was settled in a passionless marriage. During their affair, Aline Bernstein supported Wolfe in every way through his struggles as an unproduced playwright and then inspired him to write his first novel. (Berg, 138-39)

However, by 1929, Wolfe’s passions had cooled but, unfortunately, Bernstein’s had not. The drama of this affair continued to affect Wolfe for many years.

Sounds like a story made for Hollywood.

But me? I’ll be watching it to see how Hollywood portrays my real hero, Maxwell Perkins.

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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.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

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!

 

 

 

 

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