By Richard Curtis
There's been a lot of talk lately about the decline of editing. These are fighting words.
The problem with evaluating this allegation is that everything editors do today is invidiously compared to the accomplishments of that quintessential master, Maxwell Perkins. Perkins practiced his art at the offices of Charles Scribner's Sons from 1914 until late in the 1940s and midwifed the masterpieces of such immortals as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe. "Where are today's Maxwell Perkinses?" is the plaintive cry of authors who discover horrifying grammatical, syntactical, factual, and typographical errors in their freshly minted books, or, worse, have them gleefully pointed out by friends and critics. Every such erratum is a rebuke to the hallowed memory of that figure who has been depicted as gracious, patient, erudite, nurturing, precise, demanding, polite, and modest, a man whose love of authors was exceeded only by his love of good and well-made books. Let's assume that he truly did possess all of the virtues ascribed to him, and more if you wish. I have no desire to desecrate either his memory or his achievements.
I just don't happen to think that "Where are today's Maxwell Perkinses?" is a very good question. It oversimplifies editing both then and now, and fails to take into account the fact that today's editors simply don't perform the same tasks that their forebears did. I know a number of great editors working today, but they're great in many significantly different ways from the great editors of yesteryear.
Just about every aspect of publishing has changed since Perkins's era. The types of books published are different. Agents exert far more influence. The paperback industry has revolutionized the marketing of books. Computers and digital technology have been created and refined. Bookstore chains and amazon.com have swept countless independent bookshops out of business. Printing technology has improved immensely. Books today are not acquired, edited, produced, printed, or distributed the same way they were earlier in the twentieth century. They are not even written the same way.
We must also define "editors" before we apply the word irresponsibly. Editing is a highly complex set of functions, and no single individual is capable of exercising them with equal aplomb. The editor who wines and dines agents and charms authors may be a clumsy negotiator; the dynamic deal-maker may have no patience for the tedious and demanding word-by-word task of copyediting; the copyeditor who brilliantly brings a book to life word by word, line by line, may be completely at sixes and sevens when it comes to handling authors.
It is certainly easy to wax nostalgic about editing in the Good Old Days (which really ended only about twenty-five or thirty years ago). If accounts and memoirs of that era can be trusted, editors then were steeped in fine arts, philosophy, languages, and the classics. They were a breed of compulsively orderly and fanatically precise individuals who ruthlessly stalked and destroyed typos, solecisms, and factual inaccuracies, and who conducted prodigious debates with authors about linguistic nuances. Their pride in their labors matched - and sometimes exceeded - that of the authors themselves. And when it came to money, they placed literature high above crass commerce, and discussed author compensation with the same delicacy they reserved for childbearing.
Today's editor, industry critics claim, no longer has that pride and painstaking compulsiveness. Indeed, it has been contended, editors today do everything but edit. The nurturing of authors has given way to the acquisition of properties. Editorial taste and judgment have been replaced by the application of success formulas devised by editorial committees. Risk-taking, hunches, and commercial instincts have yielded to the conservative application of bottom-line buying policies dictated by bookstore chain managers and implemented by rigid computer programs. The new breed of editorial animal, it is asserted, looks down his or her nose at line editing and production details. The time and money pressures of today's monolithic and highly competitive publishing business have devalued good book-making. The result is books that fall apart, prematurely yellow with age, and are scandalously rife with typos.
Unquestionably, a shift has taken place in the role of trade book editors from what is generally characterized as line functions to that of acquisitions. The earlier role, the one that we most sentimentalize, combined nurturing parent and stern taskmaster, a person who could get a great book out of an author, then groom and curry the text until it virtually sparkled. Although editors then, as now, worked for publishers whose profit agenda seldom coincided with that of their authors, the editor was thought of as the author's friend, protector, and advocate.
The emphasis today on the acquisition role of editors places them in a more adversarial role with authors. Negotiation often pits them against each other, and the residue of resentment and distrust that remains after the bargain is sealed makes it difficult for authors to feel completely comfortable with their editors.
In Part 2 of this article we'll see how the rise of literary agents redefined the role of editors.
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
Photo courtesy of Encylopedia Brittanica