Cut and Dry: Book Editors Through The Ages On Getting Marginal

Posted by Nick Curley

An editor’s guidance proved fodder in two e-places today.  Two!  First, Galleycat brought forth startling allegations that Jane Austen was not a celestial perfection composed of gumdrops and diamonds.  Evidently, Austen had a longstanding rep as a first-draft slam dunker whose prose was pitch perfect from the moment it hit parchment.  Doubly evident: it turns out that she had an editor!  An editor who corrected her spelling and chastised her in letters.  Letters no doubt drafted in between bites of a giant turkey leg and pinches of his chambermaid’s bottom.  On the chicken scratch that comprised the first drafts of Emma:

“It is very carelessly copied. Though the handwriting is excellently plain and there are many short omissions which must be inserted, I will readily correct the proof for you.”

The piece elicits one final sigh of resignation by concluding with an explanation to the modern reader that Austen is that lady who wrote some thing upon which Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is based.

Meanwhile on the BBC’s site, an editor offers an editorial on editing.  An editorial that ironically looks unedited at press time.  The topic at hand is the 2010 nominees for the Guardian First Book Award, the British paper’s annual December pick for the best book, fiction or real-ish, published in the UK and written by a “new talent” born in the British or Commonwealth.  At no point does the BBC article actually list the nominees. For posterity, they are:


  • Black Mambo Boy by Nadifa Mohamed (novel detailing “a boy’s epic journey across Africa in the 1930s”).
  • Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman (murder mystery as told by “a collector of Nazi memorabilia with a chronic sweat problem”).
  • Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman (“elderly female patients in a Finnish hospital in the 1920s” get shook up by a new patient).
  • Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz (a non-fiction work on fallibility, how screwing up affects relationships, and the role of failure in creativity).
  • Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists, and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper by Alexandra Harris (a study of British writers of the 30s and 40s and their engagement of modernism).


Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead has a lot of good things to say about the nominees as “talented and energetic writers”.  Past First Book winners have included J.G. Ballard (Empire of the Sun), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), and Alex Ross (The Rest is Noise).  But Armistead also feels that these 2010 contenders “were not being reined [sic] in the way you would expect,” and adds that “An editor’s job is to point out where they’re going off track… what I felt is that editors are not intervening.”

The rest of the article is typical doom-and-gloom death of publishing’s old guard talk.  Marketing and sales expectations, say these Methuselahs, are new burdens weighing down editors, distracting them from developing a rapport with the writer and running over these new manuscripts with properly-toothed combs.  What’s striking about the article is its whimpering vagueness: it offers no specifics into what it is about these nominees that seems unedited.  No inventive solutions to publishing’s trials.  No exciting ideas of what a strong editor actually offers.  It is, to pull a phrase from my days as a bakery journalist, “a puff piece”.  Anyone who reads enough new stuff can find several books put out this year that are not just great, but clearly the products of meticulous revision.  The United Kingdom’s great literary near-miss of 2010 is that Her Majesty can’t lay claim to Skippy Dies author Paul Murray, a lifelong Dubliner.

What makes this a particularly strange and somewhat difficult criticism for the game’s Armisteads to undertake is that so many superb editors will tell you that they don’t want a reader to pick up on their efforts.  If we can recognize that an editor of renown has put their unique stamp on the work, it’s a bit like seeing the puppet master’s pulled strings.  Misspellings and poor sentence structure notwithstanding, great editing often suggests a seamlessness that allows a reader to get lost in the story and prose, and to forget the mechanics of the page and analysis of the work’s structure.  The best editors might then be characterized as ferrymen guiding writers toward self-reliance.  This metaphor in itself, I’ll grant you, could use a second pair of eyes.

The habit of great editors’ input to fade into the white space between the ink lends the author-editor relationship a kind of mystery.  The best in-house editors are often vague in explaining what they do, as if talking about it publicly will lower veils and diminish sexy auras.  Revising a long piece of writing can be so squeamish, emotionally arduous, and personal an experience that knowing what an editor has or hasn’t done with the work can come off like a therapist offering Cliff’s Notes of a patient’s most traumatic sessions to curious parties.

It’s for these reasons and others that it pays to be a combination writer-editor, for who knows me better than me?  Rest assured that the thoughts above emerged from a sweat-heavy session of talking to myself.  My Writer side sits in a blue bath robe on one half of the desk.  With a rush of clicked keystrokes he purges out some solid-but-malleable opinions.  I then change into a second bath robe, deep maroon in shade, to take on the role of Editor. This half of Me sits in a newer, better padded chair on the opposite end of the table.  It’s there that this more fastidious, heedful half of Me can begin the real labor of editing.  His exact methods cannot be revealed here, for they would illuminate too much.  Know simply that this handsome fellow sits nobly, red-leaded pencil in his chaperoning hand; tackling head-on the thankless task of spoting all pausible misteaks.


1 comment

  1. “But Armistead also feels that these 2010 contenders ‘were not being reined [sic] in the way you would expect,’ and adds that ‘An editor’s job is to point out where they’re going off track… what I felt is that editors are not intervening.'”

    Pardon me, but as an editor I feel compelled to intervene here and un-sic the phrase “reined in,” which is correct. It comes from the practice of using reins to keep one’s horse on course.