Do other people’s jobs wake them at three in the morning? It probably depends on how much the job matters and how much harm they can do if they cock it up. Anaesthetists and train drivers, I am willing to guess, experience their fair share of interrupted sleep.
Being a book editor (and mainly fiction at that), I do not hold the sacred vessel of human life in my pencil-hardened fingers, or not literally. But I worry all the time about the manuscripts I am working on because my work has an effect on the hopes, dreams and reputations of people I care about. There is also the future of Australian literature to think about, obviously, and it all gets worse after midnight, when the involuntary groaning starts. Aaaarrgghh flat ending, nnggoorrr weak supporting character, hhhnnn action scenes move like geological time Noooo naff sex words … I haven’t done enough, I’ve done too much … That’s not me in the spotlight, but you wouldn’t know it from the nocturnal angst. If you have ever gone to bed straight after a beef vindaloo and a bucket of cheap shiraz, you will be familiar with the general effect. But it is not all gastric reflux and halitosis. Let me give you a personal account of how fiction editing works.
I do not read a manuscript the same way I read a book for pleasure. If I did I would not be able to read for pleasure at all because an editor’s read is a mean, carping, joyless thing. It aims to find fault, to pinpoint sources of disappointment, to prod and poke at enjoyment and find it less than it appeared to be. It aims, in short, to detect what needs to be changed. But in a slightly schizoid way this read must still hold within it a normal read-for-pleasure. That means keeping an eye on how I would be enjoying myself if I were reading for pleasure, because that is what the editor is concerned to assess and improve.
I try to ride the shape of the book. I think about whether readers will be—am I?—patient with a leisurely opening scene; confused by an oblique, allusive one; uncomfortably jarred by a punchy one. Is the narrative climax paced right, or do we need to make readers wait a little longer, work a little harder? Have we made them wait too long and let the tension go slack? How many of the minor characters are wallpaper; how can we fill them out? That unorthodox chronology: has it created a shimmering ambiguity or just a bloody mess?
We always say our aim is to make each book the best conceivable version of itself, but we should add, for its readers. Editing involves an intense and problematic affair-of-the-mind with a writer, in which I represent the reader: I am their avatar and their advocate. My task is to identify and amplify any occasion the reader might find for un-satisfaction. Then I have to help the author fix it.
How? I talk to them. I write notes for them; I usually make a large number of intrusive remarks on their manuscript in 2B pencil. I may sit down with them and workshop solutions to intractable problems. (‘Yeah, but wouldn’t someone call the cops?’ or ‘At the moment the only reason for him running off with her is because you wanted to write a road novel …’) We will argue; they will explain why the things that do not work actually do work and tell me how much they love the bits I want them to dump. Eventually, having gone away and worked like hell to meet an unreasonable deadline, they will send me a new draft in which my suggestions are either incorporated or ignored. Or, more often, improved upon—and of course that is when we all know we are doing our best work.
Now we go in closer. I look at the flow between sentences and between paragraphs, I slash my 2B through clunky expression, clichés, redundancies, style inconsistency, lapses in voice. I remind the author that the elements of correctness—in grammar, in punctuation—do not fall into abeyance simply because they can be applied with a certain creative flexibility in fiction. Sometimes I say, We break rules to achieve the effect we want, not because we do not know any better and amazingly no-one has yet grabbed my pencil and stabbed me to death with it.
There is lots more, but that is enough to give you a taste. What I really want to talk about is why we are all crazy, and here is one reason: in my experience editing is an essentially bipolar occupation. Everything about it can go hard one way or just as hard the other and the difficult thing is not that you have to choose, but that you have to balance. Just to take a few examples:
The need to temper authority with humility. Authors cannot place confidence in your advice unless you offer it with the genuine assurance that comes from self-belief. But since they quite frequently (and sometimes rightly) ignore your suggestions anyway, you need to be able offer a principled argument and then give way graciously without thinking your gall bladder is going to explode.
The character of the relationship between editor and author, in which power see-saws in quite a freaky way. You are a taskmaster who issues deadlines, criticism, demands, sanctions. You are also a servant whose principal task is to make someone else look good and not be observed doing it.
The balance of instinct and self-questioning. The editor’s only real resource is judgement. You have to have absolute faith in it, but you must also interrogate it ceaselessly so as to keep the clearest possible distinction between the needs of the work and your own tastes or preferences.
The matter of professional self-image and other people’s regard, or as someone said to me at a party recently, ‘You’re really just handmaidens, aren’t you?’ In a cultural context where, I am reliably informed, young editors would go you with a broken bottle and leave you to bleed out if they thought it might create a vacancy they could step into, this is evidence of a creative tension. The challenge is to find the sweet spot between the envy of people who want your job and the disdain of those who think you are an obsequious drone, but too stupid to know it.
The needs of the book or the needs of the author? In fact it is not always possible to balance these and where there is a conflict, editors need to decide which they prioritise. Are you a Gordon Lish? Or a … someone whose name will remain obscure because they thought, oh well it is Ray’s book after all, and didn’t strongarm Carver into letting them make his work much, much better (to the probable detriment of the writer)? Sometimes the publisher has such a firm position on this that it might as well be in the house style manual, but there are always personal—some would say ethical—decisions to be made.
Your relationship with the book: the paradox of simultaneously holding and letting go. You develop an almost primal partisanship for your authors and a fierce commitment to their work. You must never, ever forget that it does not belong to you.
Your job is to make something perfect. It is not possible.
Here is another kind of balancing act or tension: publishing—publication—is about making things public, right? And yet, as the editor and author Jane Gleeson-White pointed out in a recent post on the Overland website, we are not supposed to talk about what we do. There is a cult of secrecy surrounding the work of book editors that, in her unimprovable phrase, does your head in. It manifests in the long-standing tradition that the editor receives no formal credit within the book—unlike the designer, typesetter or printer. This is no longer universal practice; but still, in most novels the editor’s work gets no acknowledgement unless the author chooses to make one. (There is upside. A few years ago I scored a very nice lunch by way of apology from a mortified author who hadn’t known. Also, when editors discuss this someone inevitably makes a crack about the books they would not want to be publicly associated with, and everyone shudders just a little.)
That is the tip. The iceberg is, as Gleeson-White points out, the neurotic silence that attends our work, and the strange pretence of invisibility. Oh, I’m sure we all go home and work-whinge—and everyone with a pulse gossips—but the subjects that can be canvassed widely and honourably are very limited.
‘The role of the editor’ is sometimes discussed in a general way, but it is all very anodyne. What about the nuts and bolts of the process? The names, dates and salty anecdotes? That side of things—the side that spotlights the editor as having a viewpoint, a personality and particularly an effect—is not legitimate fodder for the commentariat. It does not inspire panels at writers’ festival or articles in the Saturday papers; you do not get to hear about how Author X’s jokes always need to be rewritten or the progress of the War on Adverbs with Author Y or how many words Editor Z had to slash to get Novel Q right for publication. And when we do let slip a few details or a few opinions, as I am doing now, it all feels slightly dangerous, as if we are the bearers of information that could detonate on release and take a good chunk of the northern suburbs with it. You get the impression it is all right to talk about teamwork and so forth as long as the editor does not imply that anything they did had a material impact on the end result.
Am I complaining that book editors don’t get into the papers? No, not in the sense that I think we belong up there with the good folk who write the books, and not in a normal employment sense. My brother is a very good baker and he doesn’t get in the paper much either, except for the Leader classifieds. But it seems to me that perhaps being invisible is an issue when you work in the arts, in entertainment, in media. In public. Actually, I am not sure I think it is a problem. It is just weird. Particularly since it is much more to do with us not talking than the world not listening.
So what’s that about? Well, it is gendered obviously and I am not going to try and flog that old sack of horsemeat into a canter, but we all know that where there are a lot of women in the same line of work it tends coincidentally to be characterised as more servile and less prestigious: subtly less worth evaluating or acknowledging. Among other symptoms, the pay is rubbish and the most important aspect of our work practice is to efface ourselves completely. We whinge all the time about all of it and feel bad if anyone hears us, and privately we think most of it is our own fault—which it is if you accept that systemic inequity is the fault of those who submit to it—because how the hell can we still be maundering on about this in the twenty-first century?
The other—bigger, better—reason we do not spill the beans about work matters is the need to treat with care a peculiarly intimate kind of working relationship. They trust me, my authors—‘my authors’—to look after them.
Writers make things for us to love. The things they make are often beautiful, usually suffused with their secrets and longings, and always, quite properly, a vehicle for their hopes, their amour-propre and their ambition. These lovely people give me licence to get inside their work, which is to say inside their minds, and tamper. To criticise, argue, goad, suggest. We both understand that this may hurt; we know the hurt is offered with due gravity in the service of something further—something that varies according to the circumstances but extends, at any rate, beyond simple vanity.
My authors make themselves vulnerable in the understanding that I will take care of them. Consequently neither of us wants me to get around in public inadvertently creating the impression that their novel was an unpublishable pile of shit before I got my genius hands on it. Editors do not in general confuse themselves with the dude on the cloud receiving the spark from the finger of God. And because we don’t wish anyone to think we do—especially the dude—we do not talk much about our craft. Or, although we feel it acutely, our immense pride in doing it well.
But why should it be a breach of trust to acknowledge the segue from individual creation to collaborative finishing that occurs in most fiction? To allow that 30 per cent—or 15, or 1 per cent—of a published book is the product of teamwork, and to talk about precisely how that plays out? It is quite a fascinating subject.
It is only partly about trust, I think. It is also partly about what we want from a book.
In publishing we now talk about immersive narrative, mainly because we are tense about the future of books. People who love reading are in it for exactly that: to soak themselves in story. To forget whenever possible that there even is a story outside the book, particularly the bubble-busting story of how the book was made. As a reader, I cling to the sense that this all but transcendent experience comes directly to me from one individual imagination. The feeling I have when reading fiction—of a single mind feeding me experience and sensation—is seldom articulated but incredibly powerful. As a reader, I don’t want fiction to be a group project.
James Bradley has commented on the literary trade’s reluctance to acknowledge that published writing is the result of collaboration and thus depart from the romantic myth of solitary genius, and I do not think that is confined to literature. When humans make things we usually like to believe we do it alone. You could present a strong argument that groups are better than individuals at making things, since after all that is what got us down from the trees and into our caves and farms and villages and cities and factories. Nonetheless we want to adore ‘hero’ makers, and we want to be them, too. The lone scribe, the solitary painter. Thorpie, not the 4 x 100 relay.
And writing is indeed almost always a solitary craft. But writing is not the same as being published, a truth I am at pains to impress on members of the writers groups I speak to, almost all of whom will never be published.
The purpose of writing is to express meaning; the purpose of publishing is to transmit meaning from a single mind to a large number of other minds. The purpose of editing is to ensure the transmission proceeds as far as possible without impediment. As I hope I have indicated, the editorial process itself is not arcane. It is about attention to effect: to how the mechanics of writing operate on the apprehension of meaning. The meaning we are concerned with in fiction is different from that in, say, educational texts, chiefly because it prioritises feeling. But in each case the editor’s task is to ensure that the words and symbols achieve what they need to achieve and do not get in their own way.
Writers, by contrast, are concerned with something very close to magic, something to do with consciousness transported, with the generation of meaning, of feeling—of something that was not there before—by means that cannot (therefore) be apparent to me. I do not know how to help an author who cannot make, or is not making, magic. What I hope I can do is point out that the magic could be even more dazzling but for these things—here and here—obstructing it, occluding it. If I am really on my game I may even be able to spot some latent magic that only needs this new thing here to bring it out; and that is about as good as it gets.
Writing is a process of creation; publishing is commerce. We do not often use the word ‘writer’ in-house because it means someone who writes, and that is too broad a category. We say author: someone who has created something we can sell. So as an editor I consider my job to be fairly peripheral to the art of writing (except insofar as writers need to monetise their creativity in order to eat). But it is absolutely central to the business of publishing.
Over the last couple of decades we have heard a lot about editorial budgets under siege and the old saw that spending 20 per cent more on editorial does nothing to boost revenue. It is probably true, and even if it wasn’t you would not be able to tell because the process is both invisible and unreproduceable. You do not get to compare the sales performance of the same book edited and unedited.
But what a daft way of looking at it. Good editing is not just important for an individual book, it is crucial to the health of our industry and the survival of reading as a recreation. Nobody will ever recognise good editorial work—that is the point of it. (The best review I ever had said, ‘Not a word wasted, not a word out of place’, and did not acknowledge for an instant that it was praising anyone other than the author.) Most readers do not know inadequate editorial work when they see it: when punters complain to me about a badly edited book they mean one that has not been proofread properly. Even that leaves them with a sense of dissatisfaction, of course. Typos, like bad design, like factual errors, not only distract readers, they make a book feel sloppy, apathetic and not worth the money you paid for it.
But structural defects have a much more powerful and insidious effect. The more books we send out with plots that sag in the middle—or unconvincing dialogue or slightly limp endings—the more disappointed readers we shall have, and the more often they will feel that come to think of it they haven’t read a really good book for a while and maybe they’d rather play Farmville tonight.
Recently, in the time of new media and especially since we all started talking about e-books and digital publishing, I have noticed two things. First that readers, book-lovers, are starting to get a bit tribal about the way we choose to experience narrative: we are starting to define ourselves assertively (although obviously not exclusively) as readers. Second that, even to book-lovers, books are not the point. Of course today’s readers will always love the whisper of a crisp new page or the musty whiff of an old one, but for tomorrow’s, it may be a finger-flick on a touchpad that will spark the associations. The objects are not the source of the power, they merely absorb some of it and radiate it over time. The power comes from written stories: from the particular way reading brings stories to life in the human imagination.
People have more choices than ever about what tribes they join, about where and how they get their stories. That is why I want to make sure ours are really, really good.
–See the fruits of Mandy’s labour at Text Publishing