A World of Editing

The recent announcement of Shakespeare and Company’s “Paris Literary Prize,” to be awarded to the best novella by an unpublished writer, set me thinking about my inspiration to go into publishing: Shakespeare and Company’s founder Sylvia Beach. (Like many teenagers with literary aspirations, I spent an intense few months working for the bookshop’s current owner, George Whitman.) Beach’s Paris bookshop and lending library was more than just a space where writers could meet and find inspiration; it became a publishing house as well when Sylvia stepped into the breach to produce the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Sadly, without a mother in Princeton to whom I could cable “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money,” I was forced to take a more conventional route into publishing: I got a job as an editorial assistant at Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House UK. And given that I was unexcitingly conventional, it was initially hard to see how I could inspire writers to want to work with me. I couldn’t give them an exotic bookshop to hang out in, or—at that point—sign up their novels and trumpet them to influential friends in the media. The only thing of value I had to offer, I decided, was my willingness to read their books closely and carefully, and to make suggestions about how those books might be improved. Thus began my attempt to teach myself to be a good editor.

In the years that followed, I often felt an anxiety about whether I should really be giving so much of my time to editing. Was it economical? Was it actually what authors wanted from a publisher? The other day, I met up with novelist Sandra Newman, who is rereading the classics in order to write a humorous guide to Western literature. “The one thing all the writers have in common,” she noted glumly, “is a lack of money.” Indeed.  Joyce didn’t need Sylvia Beach to help him rework Ulysses. As his long-suffering typesetters understood only too well, he could do that for himself. No, he needed her to produce and sell his book. And his poem of thanks to her praises just that:

Then to Sylvia let us sing
Her daring lies in selling.

As the digital revolution reconfigures the publishing industry, the role of editor will come under increasing scrutiny. What is a publishing house? Is it a machine for production, distribution and sales, or is it a nurturer of talent? For a long time now, publishers have aimed to keep all these attributes under one roof, but the task is becoming increasingly difficult. The “demise of the editor” has been a frequent lament in Britain and America over the past twenty years as the economic imperatives of large-scale publishing necessitate the prioritization of marketing over the costly, time-consuming process of working on texts to make them as good as they can be. The massive increase in the number of literary agents has been, in part, a response to the failure of publishers to give authors enough editorial time, itself in part a catalyst in the breakdown of close author-editor relationships.  The editor’s role is threatened still further by the difficulty of generating income from e-books. When authors argue that their e-book royalties should be higher because productions costs are lower, they open a can of worms about overheads, because of course producing a text doesn’t just involve the cost of printing, paper, and postage: in the large organizations, where overheads are extremely high, those responsible for efficiency savings may well start to think that the often-invisible work done by editors is something that can be cut. As Alberto Rollo, who directs the Italian fiction list for Feltrinelli, said, when I asked him about the editor’s role in Italy: “There is no e-book without asking ourselves what writing means, what editing means, and, yes, what publishing means.” And so, at the beginning of the first post-iPad year, I thought it might be interesting to ask editors around the world how their work compares to that of editors in other countries, and how they envisage the future.

I should say, first, that I have chosen to concentrate on the creative editing of literary fiction, as opposed to genre fiction or nonfiction, or what one might call “copyediting” (the correction of mistakes). This is because such editing is the hardest to justify in a business environment. Not only is it difficult to prove that it sells more copies, it is not always appreciated by those it aims to assist: authors who create what they see as works of art are often reluctant to countenance changes suggested by an editor. Take Greece, for example, where according to Angela Sotiriou of Psichogios, very little editing of fiction goes on. Angela puts this down to the unprofitability of publishing in the Greek market, making it impossible for publishers to spend money on editing, but also to the refusal of authors to be edited. She doesn’t think this will change: “Young editors don’t dare edit thoroughly, and young authors are increasingly self-confident.” Spanish editor Enrique Murillo talks of a similar authorial attitude in Spain—“If the author is God, and his work a godsend, why should anyone intrude?”—as does Clara Capitão, editor at Objectiva, who describes Portugal as having “a culture of formal veneration of authors.”

It is easy to see why authors might resist being edited. What qualifies an editor to suggest changes to a book? Have they ever written one themselves? Do they truly understand the writing process? Both France and Italy have a long tradition of writers as editors, which continues today. Italo Calvino was at Einaudi, André Gide at La Nouvelle Revue Française. French editor Jean Mattern cites the continuing presence of writers in the editorial team at Gallimard as a sign of how important the editorial process remains in French publishing houses. “The relationship between writer and editor is certainly closer in France than in many countries,” he says, “and this is probably also the reason why most writers don’t feel the need to look for an agent.” (Similarly, the lack of literary agents in Japan is given by Kazuto Yamaguchi of Kodansha as one of the reasons for the robustness of the editorial process in Japan’s publishing houses.) 

An editorial suggestion from a fellow writer may well be easier to take than one from a less-qualified reader, but it also comes freighted with the aesthetic preoccupations of that particular writer. In Italy, as in France, the writer-editors were the directors of “collections,” bringing together books that fitted their perception of good literature. The story of how the classic Italian novel Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard came to be published is legendary and involves two writer-editors: Elio Vittorini and Giorgio Bassani. Vittorini turned The Leopard down for Mondadori because it contravened what he thought the novel should be: for a communist like Vittorini, The Leopard’s classical realistic style and cynical philosophy of history were a betrayal. Giorgio Bassani, on the other hand, recommended the novel for publication at Feltrinelli. It went on to become perhaps the most successful book ever published in Italy.

In this instance, Vittorini and Bassani were not acting as editors in the sense that I have been using the term, but rather as professional readers and publishers. Indeed I discovered from Feltrinelli editor Alberto Rollo that the term editor only came into the Italian vocabulary in the early nineties. Before then, there was the redattore: someone who organized the copyediting and proofreading of a manuscript, but without a close creative relationship to the author. The term redattore with its Latin root is echoed in the word for editor in many European languages. For English speakers, it might have slightly sinister connotations in that the verb “to redact” is now used widely to mean “to censor.” Editors can certainly play a role in censorship. They did in the Soviet Union, and in China it is still part of the editor’s job to make sure a text doesn’t say things it shouldn’t. Chinese authors I have worked with in translation have been initially suspicious of my intentions, thinking I might be going to somehow censor their texts by “Westernizing” them. One might argue, as the Chechen author German Sadulaev does in a recent blog he wrote for Harvill Secker, that the commercial constraints of crowd-pleasing also create a kind of censorship. From time to time I’ve had to calm authors’ fears that I might want to dumb their text down.

Censorship, however, is the polar opposite of what Alberto Rollo is thinking of when he describes what has happened with the transition from redattore to editor. According to Rollo, the rise of the “professional editor” in Italy is closely allied to the relatively recent arrival of the narrative-driven novel in Italian fiction. Paradoxically it was Umberto Eco, one of the main advocates of the anti-narrative neo-avant-garde, who “crossed the frontier” with The Name of the Rose in 1980, and opened up a whole new way of writing for Italian novelists. Rollo’s excitement when he describes this development is palpable: suddenly authors feel able to be helped, and editors are empowered to help. He talks of how, over the last twenty years, “editors and writers have learned and changed together. Working alongside. Trying to understand together how to deal with that strange and still mysterious thing: the telling of a story.” The result is a new professional identity for the Italian editor, borrowed from the American publishing industry. 

It is clear that there is a strong link between the strength of a novelistic tradition in a country and the power of the editor. André Gaspard of Saqi Books cites the fact that novels are a relatively new literary form in the Arabic language as one of the reasons why there is no strong editorial tradition in the Arabic world. In India it is in English-language publishing that editing thrives, partly because other Indian languages have different publishing traditions for fiction (serialization in magazines, or authors’ cooperatives for example) but also because of the predominance of the novel. Several Indian editors mentioned David Davidar’s impressive work with Vikram Seth on A Suitable Boy. The influence of British and American ways of publishing is evident here, and it goes without saying that the “American editor” is always held up as the supreme example of someone capable of knocking a novel into shape. As I researched this piece, I began to realize that the history of a tradition that culminated in the likes of Maxwell Perkins was more a subject for a PhD thesis, and not something I could do justice to here. Hans Jürgen Balmes of Fischer in Germany traced a line for me from Erasmus and Manutius to great nineteenth-century German publishers like Rudolf Steiner, who responded to the rise in literacy and concomitant demand for affordable literature. He talked of the founding of S. Fischer Verlag in 1886 and the proprietor’s lifelong friendship with Thomas Mann. Clearly these traditions had a major influence on American publishing, which in turn sent its influence back, exporting not only inspiring novels but the idea of the creative editor.

But if a novelistic tradition is a prerequisite for strong editors, then so is an economy that can a) afford the luxury and b) values that luxury. In Holland you can study the practicalities of editing at university. In Denmark, the National Writers’ School teaches students to “expect sparring with their editors,” as Johannes Ries of Gyldendal puts it. In both these countries, the skills learned on such courses can be put into practice within publishing houses. In Russia, however, the picture is somewhat different. Moscow’s Institute of Literature nurtures young editors but, according to agent and translator Elena Kostioukovitch, the editors trained there can’t find jobs because the post-Soviet publishing industry is too young to have developed an editorial tradition. Instead it concentrates on printing as many titles as possible with as low production costs as possible. In such an environment the “editor” has to become marketeer, concentrating on writing copy and finding publicity opportunities for authors.

This kind of ruthless commercialism is only just beginning to affect editors in places like Holland and Germany. Hans Jürgen Balmes writes of how “more and more tasks are being piled on an editor’s desk, making him or her look like the production manager of a very complicated process, and leaving little time to attend to the author’s needs.” But he doesn’t believe the switch from “editor” to “production manager” has yet been fully implemented. It is only “on the horizon,” says Balmes, and he would be unhappy if it took place. Enrique Murillo is less sanguine about the relationship of Spanish publishing houses to their editors. “In Spain, editors are like pigs in a sausage factory: they smell bad, but are hard to dispense with. Nevertheless, efforts to get rid of them are proving more and more successful. In some of the big corporate companies, an editor is merely someone who reads readers’ reports, not even books.” For Murillo, hope is to be found in a new crop of small, independent publishing houses, his own included, where time is taken to work with authors, and it is definitely a current trend that the creative relationship between writer and author is starting to migrate away from large publishing companies.

Generalities are dangerous, though, when discussing a profession that is so much about individuals and personal relationships. British and American editors often mention a belief that, in other countries, editors don’t edit, but this wasn’t borne out by my conversations with foreign publishers. One thing that characterized all the editors I contacted was their eagerness to talk about the subject of editing, and their passion for what they did. They all had stories of exceptional editors: Carlos Barral, who brought modern literature to Spain in the fifties and sixties and to whom Vargas Llosa attributes lots of helpful suggestions about his work; or Grazia Cherchi in Italy—by all accounts an extraordinary woman, who nurtured the likes of Stefano Benni and Alessandro Baricco, following their novels through many drafts, visiting them in their homes, holding dinners for them to introduce them to useful people. Clara Capitão quotes the major Portuguese novelist António Lobo Antunes as saying that “in Portugal, it is more difficult to find a great editor than a great writer.” But this was in the context of his lament for the untimely death of his editor, of whom he said that it was almost inconceivable for him to go on working without her.

Editors don’t always receive such public acclaim from the writers they work with. Muge Sokmen of Metis in Turkey tells me that, in her twenty-eight-year-long editorial career, only one author has publicly thanked her for helping shape his book to make it the success it was. Muge modestly makes clear that she doesn’t expect public thanks: it is, after all, the editor’s job to make a book better. But she is concerned that if an author refuses to recognize the role an editor plays in his or her success, they will “never try to write a better text, but always rely on others to fix it.” This is indeed very far from Alberto Rollo’s evocation of the almost miraculous alchemy that can occur when an author and editor are open to each other: “In two very different ways, the text on which they worked together doesn’t belong to them. The editor goes back to his company. The writer goes back to his life. The time they shared is just as far from the company and its business as it is from the writer’s ego and its desire to express itself. But it is essential time, otherwise the writer fails, the editor fails, the publishing fails.”

Amy Spangler, an agent who represents Turkish authors, believes the alchemy needs a third element: the reader. She is optimistic about the future of editing in Turkey. As she sees it, “a currently burgeoning mass of discerning readers will demand better of their publishers, and therefore publishers will be forced to allow their editors more time to help shape individual titles. Writers in turn will have to get used to being more open to criticism and taking advice. Call it utopian if you wish, but that is my vision.” I confess it is my vision, too, otherwise I might have given up by now. In a book I am publishing later this year, This is Not the End of the Book, Umberto Eco talks of how, for a writer, a book is never really finished, and how digital publishing opens up the possibility of giving the reader access to a continually developing text. It is true that the perfect text is an impossible ideal, but to my mind the one thing that will remain constant in the rapidly evolving industry in which I work is that writers will always want someone to talk to about how to make their texts better. That person might work in a publishing house, but they might equally well work in an agency, a bookshop such as Shakespeare and Company or, like Grazia Cherchi, at a series of café tables. The important thing is that this person has a desire to put aside their own prejudices in order to immerse themselves in another’s creativity, and help that creativity find form. And fortunately there are people like that everywhere. 

The quotation from James Joyce’s poem to Sylvia Beach is taken from Beach’s memoir Shakespeare and Company (Plantin Publishers, London, 1987)

Copyright 2011 by Rebecca Carter. All rights reserved.