Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The Importance of Being Edited: New Yorker Articles Show Why

Taken together, three recent articles in The New Yorker are the biggest argument in favouring of editors that I’ve come across in some time. Two of them concern writers of great talent who had difficulty in finding their voice—Raymond Carver and Malcolm Lowry. The third, by Adam Gopnik and available on line only as an abstract, talks about the great changes made to accepted masterpieces in a new series of abridged versions.

Raymond Carver had the good fortune to have Gordon Lish edit his work. Lish took quite good stories and pared them down to bone and sinew. How he did it—and the effect it had on Carver—is clearly seen in “track changes” version of “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” now posted on The New Yorker’s website.

Malcolm Lowry’s most important book Under the Volcano was shaped by his collaboration with his wife, Margerie, we learn in “Day of the Dead” by D. T. Max. Unlike Carver, who quit drinking about the time the quality of his writing began to be recognized, Lowry drank heroic quantities until his death. Margerie, who also drank a great deal, nevertheless helped him refine his voice, construct his story, and find the framework on which to hang his exuberant language. Without her, Max suggests, Lowry could have wallowed forever in a surfeit of words.

The Gopnik article is an appraisal of what is cut from the Orion versions. Not much of the action, it seems, but much of the idiosyncratic meanderings which give depth to the works, and raise them from simple story-telling to something more, he suggests.

If Gordon Lish and Margerie Lowry are excellent examples of the editor who can see genius underneath layers of verbiage, Gopnik warns that it is quite possible to go too far in the other direction.

Writing is among the most solitary of occupations. To do it really well, writers need to have the opinion of others about their work. That is both the good thing and the bad thing about current writing. By throwing rough drafts and casual thoughts to the winds of the Internet, a writer may find kindred spirits who will help him or her along. But because this kind of writing is by definition amateur, no editor is there to guide it, shape it, see what’s really there underneath the dross.

My own experience with editors has been positive. The best, like Marc Côté of Cormorant Books which will bring out my novel The Violets of Usambara in March, see what's wrong, ask questions, and then allow you to find the answers. The writer is ultimately responsible for what is written, but the editor has helped him or her immensely.

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