Editing: An Act of Generosity, Not a Stab at Co-Authorship

Editing a book is an act of generosity. It’s a mind-meld, an act of love–love for the work. The true editor enters a manuscript and asks, What is best for this book? What padding needs to be shorn, what rumination added? Is this the right word? Which flat characters need rounding? Would A talk that way? Would B know C at this point in the story? Where does the tone go wrong? Is this a good argument? Is this an argument at all? The editor may propose solutions or simply point out problems. In either case, the result, if the editor’s work is done well, is to make the work more fully itself–and not a collaboration.

These thoughts came to mind after I read D.T. Max’s piece in The New York Times Magazine (Aug. 9) on Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish–or was it Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver? That’s exactly the question Mr. Max poses in his irresistible and disconcerting (irresistible because disconcerting) piece of literary detective work. When he plunged into Mr. Lish’s archives at the Indiana University library, he found plenty of smoking blue-pencil work: documentary evidence that Mr. Lish, former fiction editor at Esquire and Alfred A. Knopf, had pared Carver’s famously piercing stories into the minimalist masterpieces widely heralded as original contributions to American literature. Mr. Lish stripped away many whole sentences, sentences often devoted to inward rumination. He added new sentences that played up the lovely obliqueness in Carver’s work, the sense of a beckoning or frightening space the reader must leap over to make the work connect. He made huge cuts and rewrote endings with aplomb. Evidently, not only did Mr. Lish have a lot to do with discovering Carver, catapulting him onto the literary map, but he had a good deal to do with the lay of the land that came to be known as Carver’s. The distinction between early Carver and late Carver is as stark as Mr. Lish’s handwriting on Carver’s manuscripts. The documents certainly make the case that Mr. Lish entered into the spirit of Carver’s work.

Or do they? What is the marrow of a writer’s work, anyway? Wherein lies the Carverness of a Carver story? In the fierce, Lish-boosted compression of early Carver, or in the looser, perhaps more forgiving emotionality of the late, Lishless Carver? Or in the former for some years and the latter for later years? No easy way to answer.

In the investigative spirit of this time, for all the postmodernist blather about relative truth, we like to think we can penetrate to the essence of things–the real Carver, the real Bill Clinton. We long to unmask, to bring low the high and mighty. We think that handwriting experts settle the matter of authorship with incontrovertible facts. But facts, as Ronald Reagan gloriously said, are stupid things. This age of pathography–Joyce Carol Oates’ memorable term for biography that strips the flesh off the subject, leaving a quivering carcass of neurotic tics–is also the age of investigative criticism. Academics do it, journalists do it. The deconstructionist habit that began in the academy has passed into popular writing. What Michel Foucault called “the death of the author” (a passing that did not lead him to take his name off his books) has devolved into Gotcha! scholarship.

Tom Engelhardt has edited five books of mine over the course of 16 years–two when he was at Pantheon, then my first novel (as a friend, pro bono). In recent days, he has finished laying hands on my second novel, for Metropolitan Books, where he is now a consulting editor. (I don’t have to get on his good side by writing this–he’s already finished his demoniacal labors. The gall of the man, to stop me from sprinkling my work with false notes.) Many a time over these years, he has known what I wanted to say better than I did. When we first worked together, he x’d out a long passage at the beginning of one chapter. I looked at the gash and thought, Damned if he isn’t right, this is a long throat-clearing and doesn’t belong here. Fifteen or 20 pages on, I thought, Yes, that earlier passage belongs right here. I turned the page to see a note from Tom: “Todd, that passage I cut at the beginning of the chapter goes here.” The good editor knows these things because he or she has entered into the work’s fiber.

Tom Engelhardt is not unique; I have been blessed with Sara Bershtel on three books now, too. (I am evidently the kind of writer who needs all the help he can get.) I hear good things about some other editors blessed with the skill, devotion and time to make a book the best possible version of itself. But I do not hear good things about many. The actual editing of words–what is called “line editing” as opposed to acquisition–is, let’s face it, rare. It’s not necessarily cost-effective. It does not necessarily give good lunch.

Scribner’s renowned Maxwell Perkins edited Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, the latter so massively that, without Perkins, Wolfe might have been well-nigh unreadable. (He’s rough enough even with Perkins’ help.) But nobody would mistake Look Homeward, Angel for A Farewell to Arms . For many if not most writers, editors are probably indispensable. But editors are not authors. Perkins knew that.

The issue D.T. Max does not raise in “The Carver Chronicle” is why Mr. Lish archived his own edits in the first place. If not to burnish his reputation, why save them at all? Certifying one’s contributions sounds like itemizing expenditures during a marriage to start building a case for a post-divorce settlement. An editor ought not to be preoccupied with his or her subsequent reputation. He ought not to be proud of having shepherded a whole stylistic movement among writers he edits–the School of Lish, as someone once dubbed it. He ought not to be honing his own style on someone else’s plots, characters, moods, notions. The satisfaction ought to be that the work is good. If the writer Carver declared independence of Mr. Lish after a point, that was his perfect right. His readers were free to note that his style had changed–meaning that his final decisions had changed. Carver seems to have honored Mr. Lish often enough. Mr. Lish ought simply to have been pleased that the work was good. End of story.