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Archive for the ‘Classic Literature’ Category

So as it turns out, if it weren’t for an editor, there might not have been The Great Gatsby.

Yay for editors!

I have decided that–while it’s terrific to review books and interview authors–I’m going to go a slightly different direction in my blog in the coming weeks. I’m going to study up on some great editors from the past, and I’m going to interview some great editors of the present.

Because, well, I’m an editor. I know what it takes to work in the salt mines of editing manuscripts to make the good–the great–that much better. I know what it means to study typeset pages until your eyes cross, making sure no typos slip through because I want the author to look good. I know what it means to be in the background and let the author have the credit (as it should be).

I just want to bring some of these people out of the shadows and learn from them and, in so doing, pass along some info to you, my readers, and to the students in my editing classes.

After my last post about teaching editing, Rich Adin (who writes the blog “An American Editor“) commented, “We can teach people to be editors like me; we cannot teach people to be an editor like Maxwell Perkins. Perkins had that rare gift that made him the Michelangelo of editing.” Thanks so much for that comment, Rich, because that sent me on a quest to learn from the best.

perkinsAnd that sent me to A. Scott Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1978).

Seriously, I’m so excited about what I’m reading I can barely stand it.

Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947) was the editor at Charles Scribner’s and Sons for the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. The book is filled with quotes from correspondence between Perkins and these writers and anecdotes of how he worked with them–cajoling them, encouraging them, offering insight and advice on the big picture of each manuscript, and advocating for them at the meetings of the editorial board.

Mind officially blown.

No, I will never be Max Perkins–and, no, I cannot teach anyone to be Max Perkins. The next Max Perkinses will arise from folks with that internal “gift” that is, simply put, God-given.

But I want to learn from the best and pass along to my students what they, too, can learn from the best.

And for my students out there–I tell you this all the time–you probably won’t start out as full-fledged editors. Max didn’t even study literature or writing in college (Harvard); instead, he studied economics. But his real love was words, and it was a freshman English instructor who, as Berg puts it, “certainly . . . developed Max’s editorial instincts” (32). After graduation, Max went to work writing for The New York Times as the writer who hung around all night and picked up the “suicides, fires, and other nocturnal catastrophes” (33).

His first job at Charles Scribner’s and Sons was in the advertising department where he spent four and a half years before ascending to the hallowed fifth floor–the editorial floor.

And, students, guess what he did there . . .

He was a proofreader!

For the most part, Maxwell Perkins’s duties as an editor were limited to proofreading galleys–long printed sheets, each containing the equivalent of three book pages–and to other perfunctory chores. Occasionally he was called upon to correct the grammar in a gardening book or arrange the selections in school anthologies of classic short stories and translations of Chekhov. The work demanded little creativity. (12)

But then here’s what happened. A regular Scribner author named Shane Leslie became friends with a young author from Minnesota. Leslie sent this young author’s manuscript to the editors at Scribner. It got passed from editor to editor (no one liked it) until it ended up on Perkins’s desk. While he liked it, he was forced to write to the author and decline it (the lowly proofreading editor didn’t have much sway at first). But Perkins saw something in the young man’s writing, and the rejection letter held out some hope and encouragement to the young man who went to work revising and revising and revising.

The manuscript came back much improved, and Perkins went to work doing everything he could (and it was a lot) to get Scribner’s to publish it. At one tense editorial meeting, he said, “My feeling is that a publisher’s first allegiance is to talent. And if we aren’t going to publish talent like this, it is a very serious thing” (15-16).

The young author was F. Scott Fitzgerald. The book was This Side of Paradise (Scribner’s 1920).

What about The Great Gatsby? More on that next week.

Suffice it to say, Maxwell Perkins is my new editorial hero. And I’m his newest student.

 

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I have to admit–this has been a bit of a struggle, this whole grad school English major thing. This summer and this semester I’m taking literature classes. I’m trying to become an academic and think deeply and write position papers and do critical analysis.

I’m definitely out of my comfort zone.

As I noted in this post, much of my learning curve has to do with being back in academia after 33 years.  But, just as I advised my children during their college years, I made myself appointments with my professors.

I asked the first professor about critical analysis. “Really,” I asked, “hasn’t everything been said? How can I possibly find something more to say about Shakespeare or Hawthorne or Emerson or Twain?” He acknowledged that, indeed, there are whole conferences devoted to certain authors and their writings, and academics read papers to one another and everyone sits around and talks more about that particular author or book.

“We’re really kind of nerdy,” he admitted.

“And,” I added, “isn’t there a point where we’re starting to see things that never crossed the author’s mind? Isn’t there a point where we’ve beaten something to death and now we’re into territory the author wouldn’t recognize?”

His answer surprised me. Sure, it’s possible to beat something to death–and no one wants to do that. But, he explained, when these authors put their words out there in print, those words become ours. We can look at them through any lens we want. We can interpret by what we see there because, ultimately, that’s what all writing is. It calls for a response from us. Those authors are trying to say something, and it behooves us to figure that out, but ultimately we may never know completely. He explained that often there is indeed new scholarship that arises–new letters or papers written by the author surface somewhere and get published, thereby changing scholarship by showing that an author really wasn’t being sarcastic in that story (or was) based on opinions revealed in those papers.

So it can indeed be an ever-changing landscape.

And the classics are classics because of some timeless element that keeps us reading. They show us something about the time period but also something about ourselves. They cause a reaction in us. They make us look at ourselves or our own world differently.as you like it

And he encouraged me about what it means to be a scholar, an academic. “Anyone can have a response to a piece of writing. They like it. They don’t like it. It made them laugh or cry or think more deeply about something. But it takes a scholar to look at a piece of writing and consider the time and culture of its writing, compare it to other writing, look at the language, etc. Nothing is written in a vacuum; every author writes from (or against) influences in his or her life.” He encouraged me that by writing a paper or doing a critical analysis, I’m simply joining the academic conversation with another nuance, another point of view.

“Joining the conversation.” I like that. He told me to picture myself walking into a room with a whole bunch of nerdy people talking about As You Like It. Stand there and listen for awhile (translated as read a few academic journals and see what people have said about the topic I choose in that play). Then, from how I read it through my own lens of learning and life experience and study, I can add to the conversation. And I do indeed have something to add if I’ve done my homework, read the work carefully, and read what others have said.

An email to my other professor reiterated this. After I apologized for my seemingly basic question, she wrote this: “Focus on locating critical texts about AYLI and seeing what conversations currently surround the text. As you get familiar with the criticism, one or several things will likely happen: 1) You’ll find a gap where the critics aren’t quite touching on a theme or issue that you’d like to emphasize, 2) you’ll seriously or even partially disagree with someone’s point of view, which opens the door to your own argument, 3) you’ll see connections among previously separate arguments and you can help thread them together into a larger argument.”

I think I can do that.

So as I contemplate a position paper on Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I realize that maybe I have something to say.

I’ll let you know.

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He always arrived in a rumpled brown suit and a wide, striped 1970s-style tie. He would bustle in the door of our apartment in Germany, run his stubby fingers through his mop of gray hair, say “guten Abend,” and sit down in the chair beside the piano bench.

And I duly took my place beside him on the bench.

We opened the book.

I had one piano book when I studied under Herr Mueller. Not a book for scales or a separate book to write in and draw the little notes on the staff and practice making the G-clef. I was way more advanced than that. I’d been taking piano since I could remember.

My piano book

My piano book

So when we arrived in Bonn, Germany, in my freshman year of high school, my parents set about finding a piano teacher.

And they found Herr Mueller.

I wish I knew his whole story. He had been the pianist for the some big orchestra in the United States. Thus, in his younger days, he had played in large concert halls to crowds of appreciative symphony goers. I’m sure he’d worn a tux and, when he approached the piano bench, had deftly tossed the tails behind him. He had been applauded.

And now, he sat beside a high school girl who didn’t appreciate that she was learning piano from a genius.

I ache to think of it.

We practiced from this one book–a big red book filled with music from the great composers. The cover and spine and title page are all missing, so I can’t even give the title. But when I sit down at the piano thirty years later and open the book to page 44, I can still play Beethoven’s “Adagio ‘Moonlight’ Sonata.” I can still play parts of “Fur Elise” (page 48) from memory.

When we opened to a new song that came from an opera, Herr Muller told me the story and where, in the opera, this song appeared. He told me how to play Edward Grieg’s, “Anitra’s Dance” (from Peer Gynt) based on the action at that point in the story, and he could hum every melody from the entire opera.

I think of those days now. I remember how I’d hold my breath when he leaned in close to scribble on the piano page and his bad breath floated into my nostrils. I remember how his stubby fingers flew across the keys. I remember how he loved, loved, loved the piano.

Herr Mueller's fingering notes on my piano page

Herr Mueller’s fingering notes on my piano page

If I could just take lessons from him now. These thirty years later I would cherish every word. I’d have a notebook beside me where I would write down the context of every melody he assigned just as he told it to me.

And I’d just offer him a breath mint and be done with it.

I worked hard for him. I practiced hard. I loved the piano too, for a time, even accompanying my high school chorus for a few programs.

Herr Mueller, I wish I could thank you. I’m sure you’re long gone from this world, but I thank you for your love of the piano and great music. I’m sure that some of my love for great literature comes from hearing Herr Muller tell me the great stories of the operas with unmatched passion. And the fact that I could accompany my high school chorus as they sang Bob Dylan’s, “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” was because I had pounded away at Bach and Verdi and Grieg and Tschaikowsky and Wagner.

The same is true for writers. We’re readers first for good reason. We read great literature (past and present) because it helps us with our craft. We read because we love love love the words on the pages–and we’re amazed when, like the music notes floating on the staffs, the words come together in a way that gives us goosebumps. We want to learn to make that happen in our own writing.

We’re creating a melody in our manuscripts.

I wish I had appreciated the privilege of studying under Herr Mueller. Likewise, I wish I had appreciated the time I spent reading the classics in my literature classes both in high school and college (this summer I’m rereading many of those classics that any self-respecting English major should be conversant about!).

Because now, I understand. Now I appreciate them.

Thank you, Herr Mueller.

Me at the piano with appreciative baby sister as my audience (ca. 1970).

Me at the piano with appreciative baby sister as my audience (ca. 1970).

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