Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Editor Hall of Fame

Every author knows how invaluable a good editor is. I had a really great one work with me on Deadly Reflections. His name’s Noah Wright and he was everything an editor should be: patient, insightful, perceptive. I’m a pretty good editor of my own writing, but it’s impossible to catch every little solecism or inconsistency in the manuscript—especially when it’s your own stuff—and having a second pair of eyes that you can trust is extremely important.

Great editors do more than simply line edit manuscripts, though. They help shape the material, they help with tone and structure, and they help make the good stuff great and the great stuff magical. Behind every literary masterpiece is someone who played an integral role in its creation and didn’t get nearly the credit he or she deserved. But the authors themselves know it all too well. That’s why you see a lot of books dedicated to editors, along with other expressions of an author’s gratitude. (For a mere $25,000 you can own one of the few verified statements Thomas Pynchon has ever made—a heartfelt thanks to his editor.)

Maybe editors should have a more prominent credit in books, or any credit, really. When you think of their contribution, it’s a little baffling that they don’t get a little mention on the title page or somewhere on the first few pages. I’m not saying they should be mentioned on the cover (although I wouldn’t mind that at all), but, just as the cinematographer’s name can be found in the credits of every movie (while the director’s name is prominently displayed above the title in all promotional material), you should be able to find the editor’s name somewhere in the book. I plan on including a credit for Noah in future editions of Deadly Reflections as well as in any book he helps me with from this point on.

And I think there should be an Editor Hall of Fame. This would include the very best editors in the history of letters, the ones who represent the absolute zenith of their indispensable profession. Here are my suggestions for the three inaugural inductees…

Maxwell Perkins.

Edited: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe.

Mr. Perkins was the ur-editor extraordinaire, at least for American novels. He worked on the novels that became the foundation not only for the august Scribner’s publishing house, but also for the 20th century canon. He worked with a wide variety of authors, all with wildly varying temperaments. Mr. Perkins demonstrated an astounding versatility in the way he handled each individual—Hemingway needed a light touch, Wolfe was the kind of author who wrote reams and reams of words that had to be pared down to a publishable novel, and Fitzgerald required lots of patience (and personal loans, which Mr. Perkins never failed to grant upon request). Under Mr. Perkins’s guidance, these authors produced their best works, which included The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, and Look Homeward, Angel. Every editor holds Mr. Perkins up as the ideal, and every author would give anything to work with someone like him.

Robert Gottlieb.

Edited: Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, John Cheever.

Mr. Gottlieb is one of the last editors from an earlier generation still around. When he was starting out, he was one of a few people who believed in a particular author’s manuscript he thought was special. It was only a couple of chapters at that point, but over the next few years he worked with the author in developing the work and together they turned it into a novel spanning many hundreds of pages. Those short chapters became the first novel by Joseph Heller, Catch-22, an instant classic that did nothing less than enrich American idiom and change the way we think. Mr. Gottlieb went on to work with a panoply of other luminaries including John Gardner, Michael Crichton, and Bob Dylan. His fierce intelligence and enduring dedication make him one of the most respected people in the literary community.

Michael Pietsch.

Edited: David Foster Wallace, James Patterson, Alice Sebold.

Mr. Pietsch is the Executive Vice President and Publisher of Little, Brown. He seems to handle all the big books over there, whether it’s Patterson’s thrillers, Keith Richards’s memoir, or new high-profile acquisitions like Chad Harbach’s The Art Of Fielding. But what earns him a spot in the Hall of Fame is the work he did with the late David Foster Wallace—specifically on Wallace’s important, generation-defining novel Infinite Jest, which Mr. Pietsch said he wanted to work on more than he wanted to breath. Wallace regularly praised Mr. Pietsch, never failing to bring him up during interviews (even going so far as to spell his name on the Charlie Rose show). By Wallace’s own admission, his books—which constitute the best writing by anyone of last fifteen years—would have been impoverished without Mr. Pietsch’s help, and for that, recognition must be given to one of the very best editors working today.

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