As a way of filling a gap in my Saturdays (between the day’s first writing/procrastination session and the 3 o’clock Premier League kick-offs), the Guardian’s Review section rarely disappoints. Among the highlights of today’s edition is a thought-provoking look at ‘the lost art of editing’ from Alex Clark (the first female editor of Granta).
In an age when instant publication is very much possible, the role of any intermediaries between the draft and the polished, published text is increasingly uncertain. Those intermediaries would include agents, proofreaders, publishers – a whole hidden team of people who play a crucial part in shaping a book.
Anyone who doubts the importance of the editor would be well advised to look at this piece in The New Yorker, showing Gordon Lish’s ‘brutal’ pruning of Raymond Carver’s ‘Beginners’. Even a brief glance at the first paragraph reveals how much Carver’s trademark pithiness owed to Lish. Without the intervention of Maxwell Perkins, The Great Gatsby could still be known as Trimalchio in West Egg (Fitzgerald’s preferred title).
Alex Clark’s article is worth reading for the closing anecdotes alone: Craig Raine (whose own work is often informally edited by Ian McEwan) recollects the marvellous pedantry of his ‘copy editor of choice, Donna Poppy’; Jeanette Winterson retells the old story about T.S.Eliot, leopards and juniper trees; Blake Morrison proposes that creative writing tutors have, in many ways, assumed the traditional function of the editor.
Any thoughts on the importance of having someone else to edit your work would be appreciated. Who’s your first reader? How ruthless would you let them be with your work? Was Trimalchio in West Egg actually a better title than The Great Gatsby?