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Archive for the ‘Great Editors’ Category

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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potterOne thing I’m discovering in my quest to sing the praises of the unsung heroes of publishing is that, too often, the unsung heroes like it that way. They’re quiet. They stay in the background. They enjoy the vicarious experience of watching their authors bask in the fame of a book that becomes a phenomenon.

Chances are, you’ll know the name of the author, but the editor of said book? Not so much.

So you know the author of the Harry Pottter series. (Who doesn’t?)

But do you know the name of her editor? (I’m guessing you don’t.)

Today meet Arthur Levine, the man behind the magic.

He actually has his own imprint (Arthur A. Levine Books founded in 1996) within Scholastic.  I just finished reading an interview with him in The Washington Post, published in July 2007 just prior to the release of the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Of course he, as editor, knew how the saga ended before the rest of us anxious readers. But he didn’t get caught up in the hype (well, he was thrilled, but he kept his focus in the right place).

“I’m responsible for the books,” he says.

I’m going to mention a couple of his great quotes from that article here, but I encourage you to read the entire interview by Bob Thompson: “The Wizardly Editor Who Caught the Golden Snitch.”

As I wrote about with Maxwell Perkins and F. Scott Fitzgerald, we might not have had J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter if not for Arthur Levine. The Harry Potter series was first published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, but . . .

It wasn’t Bloomsbury’s responsibility to sell the U.S. rights to Harry. The company didn’t even own them. But when Levine showed up in Bologna seeking future classics for his new Scholastic imprint, Bloomsbury’s rights director gave him a set of Potter galleys. He read them on the plane home. When the book came up for auction, he kept bidding until, at $105,000, his last competitor dropped out. “I would have been willing to go further than that if I had to,” he says.

Levine must have told this story a thousand times by now. But there’s still excitement in his voice as he describes how he got instantly hooked — “first chapter, first pages” — on Harry.

I recall having the same feeling. I knew from the first page of the first book that I was in for an extraordinary ride–it was Rowling’s incredible writing that blew me away. Not just the extensive plotlines and characters and pacing and all of those things an editor looks for; it was her use of words. I remember how, when the first movie came out, and the camera pans into the great hall, I thought to myself, Yep, that’s it. That’s how I saw it when I read it. Her writing and descriptions absolutely astounded me.

Imagine being her editor! Levine lets us in on a little bit of the process:

He [Levine] was as surprised as any ordinary fan, he says, by plot and character developments as they arose. Which is exactly how he and Rowling wanted it. . . .

Sometimes, he would say, “I do not know what’s going on here,” and Rowling would say, “I didn’t want you to have that reaction at this point, so I think I’m going to move some information.”

At other times, when he asked about something in one of the earlier volumes, she would say, “That’s a good question. I’m okay with your wondering that here. I will answer that in Book 5.”

Blown away!

But Levine understands that aside from the hype and the merchandising and the trinkets and the Disney World theme park, it all comes back to where it started. With the books.

For a while, he’d felt as though he were living his own version of the Harry Potter story: Mild-mannered editor becomes publishing wizard. “I can still remember thinking: ‘Wow — even more people have discovered Harry Potter,’ ” he says. But eventually he decided “to be happy whenever something great happened” and then to bring “my focus back to where it needed to be.”

On the books.

Which, he maintains, are what’s driving the phenomenon in the first place.

And that’s where all great editors land. No, they aren’t at the book signings. No one is chanting their name. No one is standing in line awaiting a copy of their book at the worldwide midnight release date . . .

But for the great editors, that’s just fine. Great books are being put out into the world.

And that’s what matters.

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My decision to use my blog to focus on the unsung heroes of publishing–the editors in the trenches–has sent me on an adventure of websites and book reading and rather intense study. But I am loving every minute of it. It’s just not all happening as quickly as my self-imposed blogging schedule might like. But I’m learning along the way about what makes great editors, and I want to pass what I’m learning along to you.

In any case, my trail led me from Maxwell Perkins (see Part 1 and Part 2 of my homage to him) to Bennett Cerf (one of the founders of Random House publishers, more about him later) to Robert Loomis, legendary editor at Random House who retired in 2011 after 54 years.

Right there. That should make him a hero.

You’ve probably not heard of him. But chances are, you’ve heard of some of the people he edited, such as Maya Angelou and William Styron (Loomis edited Sophie’s Choice, among others).

Indeed, the title of an article in The New York Times about his retirement announcement captures his essence: “Nurturer of Authors Is Closing the Book.”

The New York Times article says that upon hearing of his retirement, Maya Angelou said in an email, “Robert Loomis has been my editor since 1968. He has guided and encouraged me through 31 books. I can’t imagine trusting a manuscript in the hands of anyone else. I am not finished writing, so I cannot let him retire.”

That’s the kind of relationship great editors have with writers. The writers need those editors. They love them. They entrust their works and words to them. They know those editors make them that much better as writers. As the article title says, great editors are nurturers of writers.

In fact, from The New York Times archives is this tidbit from “Making Books; Familiarity Breeds Content“:

But while the news accounts go to the authors and editors who pop from one publishing house to another, the less celebrated but more interesting tales are those of continuity and loyalty. Sometimes they even become the stuff of literary legend.

Which brings us back to Ms. Angelou. Her editor is Robert Loomis, an executive editor at Random House, one of publishing’s hall of fame editors. “We are an item,” Ms. Angelou said. ”I would go with Bob if he left and went to a university press. He knows what I hope to achieve in all my work. I don’t know anybody as fierce, simply fierce, but he’s as tender as he’s tough.” . . .

Here’s an insight to a writer-editor relationship. Ms. Angelou said: ”He’s a nuisance. He asks these questions: ‘Why did you put a semicolon there, to give the thought some breath? Is that the word you really want?’ I’ve said to him many times you’re bullheaded, I’ll never speak to you again and then I send him night letters or telegrams telling him he’s right.

”When he finished the manuscript of my last volume he said: ‘Maya, thank you. This is great.’ In 33 years he never used that word for me. Great is good to him.”

In fact, Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House (did you know they were so named because they printed “random” books?), counted on the relationships his editors had with their authors to bring those authors into Random House and onto their publication lists. If Random House was able to lure an editor away from a competitor, often that editor’s authors came along.

at random

In his book, At Random: The Reminiscences of Bennett Cerf (Random House, 1977), Cerf describes great editors like this:

A good editor, I think, like a good author, has to be born with some of the necessary talents, like a good memory and some imagination. But he also needs to have acquired a fairly broad range of interests, a working knowledge of the English language and a good supply of general information–the more the better–so that he can understand what an author is trying to do and be of help to him in doing it. An editor has to have read widely enough to be able to recognize and appreciate good writing when he sees it. . . .

An editor has to be able to get along with authors–which is not always easy. When the relationship is a good one, an editor can be extremely helpful by serving as a kind of sounding board for an author’s ideas and intentions, and by making suggestions aimed at sharpening and clarifying what the author wants to say. Also, the editor can be of value in pointing out parts of a manuscript that should be cut out because they are repetitive, or dull, or unnecessary. (219)

Being a good editor means caring about books, caring about language, and being a constant learner. Being one of the greats takes perseverance, relationship-building, honesty coupled with kindness, and a big dose of nurturing.

All of that because of a deep desire to help an author write the best book possible.

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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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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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