Thursday, August 14, 2008

lost in transmission

Wyatt Mason discusses Michael A. Lofaro's edition of James Agee's A Death in the Family, published after JA's death by editor/publisher David McDowell. McDowell, it seems, claimed to have published the book essentially unchanged while making radical alterations - moving chapters around, deleting material, using material from earlier versions for flashbacks. Mason comments:

It would be time wasted to debate the disingenuousness of McDowell’s “A note on this book.” But we should still ask: to what end were McDowell’s editorial acrobatics? That is the larger question that the Lofaro edition asks, and it’s a useful question, particularly when not a few writers find themselves in the position of having their novels edited desultorily. Over the years a number of younger writers have confessed to me their frustration at seeing their manuscripts tidied but barely touched before flowing into type (just as any number of readers have asked, “Is anyone editing these things?”). Novels need good editors, editors of taste and vision, to reckon with the imperfections that the novel, in seeking its perfections, generates. The list of books that have been shaped by editors as much as their writers is long and interesting; the invocation of the name Max Perkins serves as flag and totem to the cause.

In the case of Agee’s novel, we readers and amateurs of literature have a rare chance, if it suits us, to see just what an editor does or can do. And specifically, if one were to read the Lofaro Agee first and the McDowell Agee second, a reader would see how well, and not just what, Agee’s editor really did do, after all.

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