Monday, June 29, 2009

same again

Came across an interview on Poets & Writers of Chuck Adams, formerly of Simon & Schuster, now an editor at Algonquin Press.

When I was at Simon & Schuster, they started this thing on diversity in publishing, and we were all supposed to go through diversity training. To my knowledge, I'm the only person who was not summoned to go through diversity training. I think it was because I wrote them such a scathing reply to their initial query of "How do you feel about diversity in publishing?" I said, "There is no diversity in publishing and we're not likely to get it as long as you just pay lip service to it." There are virtually no African Americans in this business, there are virtually no Hispanics, virtually no Asian Americans. It's because we don't pay competitive salaries, we don't make an effort to recruit them, and, frankly, if they came in and really had a sense of their area of publishing, the bosses wouldn't know what to do with them and probably wouldn't give them a chance to do anything anyway. They expect you to be white like all the rest of us. There's too much of the elitist school culture in New York. The only people who can afford to take jobs in publishing are those who come from enough money and whose parents will help support them. We don't encourage a diversity of people in the business. We don't. We just want more of the same because they're the ones who can afford to work in it.



Go back to this notion of working very closely with an authorwith the reader in mindto make something as commercial as possible. What are the nuts and bolts of that process? What does the page look like?
Physically, it's a mess. I write all over it. I'm not a shy editor. I edit in ink, and I just sit down as a reader. I start reading, and when I come to a word or whatever that makes me stop, then I think, "Okay, there's a problem." Because any time a reader stops—whether it's because they didn't understand something, or the word is an odd choice and it throws them off, or a character does something slightly out of character—then you have to stop and say, "This is a problem. How do we fix it?" Usually I will have a fix that I just go ahead and write in. I always tell the authors, of course, that my fixes are suggestions. I say, "You don't have to do it this way, but you've got to do something here. Whenever I find a problem, you've got to address it. You can't ignore it. You can find your own solution, but you have to do something."

I go through the whole manuscript that way. Sometimes I just write in the margins, sometimes I write pages of notes and type them up and send them to the author. Sometimes it's just a matter of cutting and connecting and writing little one- or two-word transitions. But it's always a matter of taking the reader with me. I want them to be able to follow everything that's going on and not have to stop and puzzle anything out.


We don't hear people talking much about "the voter" for, I would have thought, fairly obviously reasons; there are many voters, each with a range of interests which may or may not influence voting patterns ( Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, by Andrew Gelman et al., offers one example of the kind of analysis needed to get a handle on this). When an agent or editor talks about "the reader" I - well, I don't necessarily want to shoot myself, but I do think, as so often, how much happier I would be among statisticians. Readers are not clones. Plenty of readers, presumably, would have no problem with the crucial clue in Lee Child's first Jack Reacher book: a scrap of paper that read "e unum pluribus" meaning, allegedly, "out of one many". (Awwwww.) And plenty of readers (though, probably, a different subset) have no problem with a sample size of one.

Some of you may think that the disadvantage of a sample size of one would be immediately apparent if a sample size of two threw up two radically different opinions. Ha.

What's the most satisfying big edit you've ever done?
It was probably Kitty Dukakis's memoir. It was one of the first manuscripts I was given to edit at Simon & Schuster. It was an unusual situation: It had been bought jointly by Alice Mayhew and Michael Korda, who are two radically different editors. The manuscript was huge, about five hundred pages. Alice called me into her office and said, "Chuck, there's way too much in here about politics. People want to know the personal story. You need to cut out a lot of this political stuff." Michael called me into his office and said, "Chuck, there's way too much personal stuff in here. People want to know about the politics. You've got to get rid of a lot of this personal stuff."

I sat down and thought, "Okay, who are you going to please?" I decided to just please the reader.

Oh. Um, right.

Whole thing here.


Mithridates said...

My favorite: "Because any time a reader stops—whether it's because they didn't understand something, or the word is an odd choice and it throws them off, or a character does something slightly out of character—then you have to stop and say, 'This is a problem. How do we fix it?'"

He should have just said, Any time the reader has to stop and think.

Odd = Problem.

Goodbye Faulkner, goodbye Stead, goodbye Joyce, goodbye Stein, goodbye Woolf and Kelman and Bolano and Kafka and everybody else worth a damn.

I don't really understand the purpose of editors. I understand the purpose of proof-readers but not editors. The two interviews with editors you've posted show the same approach: editing's all based on a series of inexplicable feelings about a made-up creature called the reader. Now, a book is often the result (or so I've heard) of a series of gut feelings that can't and probably shouldn't be explained. (Not that writers don't make conscious decisions.) So one insane thing about this is that an author's gut instincts are pitted against the editor's. The editor's have authority, the author's don't. And what about the parts that are the result of conscious decisions? The writer has to waste time explaining why those things were included in the book. But even if his reasons are more developed and persuasive than the editor's, it looks as though that doesn't matter because the writer "has to do something." Editing seems to be based on the cliche of the writer as idiot savant who writes more than he knows. But look at it this way: a person who, um, CREATES something and spends, um, MONTHS and sometimes YEARS creating it, has less authority than someone who hasn't created it, who hasn't written anything, and who has only his gut instincts to guide him. I can't imagine someone editing de Kooning. That would be absurd. But why is it absurd in other artforms like painting and sculpture (although not in music, which is often a product of the producer's vision) but not in writing?

Mithridates said...

Continued (blogger said my comment was too long):

Another reason I don't see the purpose for editors is that (not to be tooooo cynical about it) nobody reads most of what they buy, and the goal is to get people to buy. I read way too much, but I own way more books than I'll ever get to read. So most people BUY books and never READ them, or never get all the way through them. And if they do read them, most readers care very little about a word here or there, a character doing something out of character, or something not making sense. The sort of reader who cares about these things, I would imagine, accounts for a tiny fraction of the reading population. Otherwise, I have absolutely no idea how you explain the Harry-Potter-on-campus phenomenon. Harry Potter is chockablock with cliches and bad writing and all sorts of things that should "make the reader stop." I used to say that this was just my opinion, but even fans of the book that I've talked to admit this. Despite this, graduate students and professors are devoted fans. Perhaps the book has tapped into the larger infantalization phenomenon, like the recent Twilight series, which gives it an edge over other poorly written books, but one would think that the bad writing would make intelligent readers stop. (They call it pleasure reading, but I can't see what's pleasant about horrible writing; it's the writing, at least to this reader, that's pleasurable.) But they don't stop; they keep reading, they keep buying copy after copy. So I would think that the money spent on paying editors and the money lost by stalling the productive writer in the editing process should go to increasing the budget for the cynical marketing that creates buzzes around whatever shit they decide to publish.

That way, writers would at least be left alone to write more books. In the time that it takes for a writer to go through the editing process with some person whose job it is to act on his vague feelings of what sounds right and what doesn't to some fantasy in his head called "The Reader," the writer could be well on her way toward completing her next book. And wouldn't publishers rather have another book to hawk than just one that's been worked and reworked to adhere to a bunch of baseless standards that most readers don't care about in the first place?

Helen DeWitt said...

mith - I knew you would love this.

Mithridates said...

an editor would certainly have a problem with "fans of the book that I've talked to admit this" - the book that you've talked to? - but a person working on his dissertation shouldn't be re-reading overlong blog comments he shouldn't have spent a half an hour writing in the first place.

Jenne said...

It's funny, I was just telling a friend about The Last Samurai and saying something like "and I really love this book because it seems like she doesn't really care about the reader--she's just going to write whatever she thinks is interesting, and too bad if you can't read Greek."

Mithridates said...

Jenne: That's interesting because I had the opposite reaction to Last Samurai. (Helen already anticipated this, by the way, when she wrote Your Name Here, the title of which seems to suggest that everybody reads differently.) I got the impression that HD wanted to expose people to languages. When I read LS I thought, Maybe I could learn Greek. So I took three semesters of Attic Greek. But I do love the sense of confidence that comes across in that book, the willingness to include challenging material and to take a variety of other chances.

Helen DeWitt said...

Er, yes, the Greek was my idea of looking after readers, the sort of reader who might have liked to tackle Greek if given a chance. Admittedly many editors thought readers would be happier without it.

Jenne said...

Well, I didn't put it very well, but that's basically what I meant, that there wasn't this mythical "reader" who "of course" doesn't speak Greek.

It seemed like a book that didn't have a lot of expectations about who should or shouldn't read it.

Jenne said...

...And I mean that in a really good way.

Ugh, there's a reason I'm not a writer, I can't explain myself well at all!

Anyway, all I was trying to say is that I enjoyed the book a lot, and I liked that it had things that some people might find challenging.

Valerie O'Riordan said...


The Last Samurai made me want to go out and learn Greek immediately.


Helen DeWitt said...

Jenne, well, I guess the way I saw it was this. Plenty of readers, probably, would prefer a book with no Greek, no Japanese, no Old Norse, no strings of numbers on the page and no quotations - the whole couched in blameless punctuation. If you walk into a bookstore and pull a novel off the shelf absolutely at random, you can be virtually certain that it will contain no Greek, no Japanese, no Old Norse, that the Eskimo Book of Knowledge will not figure, and so on and so forth. So those readers are very well catered for. But the sort of reader who might like one or more of the above features can go through hundreds, even thousands of books and not find one with, as it might be, a quick intro to Greek. Don't they deserve even one book? For all we know, there might be more of them out there than editors think. How can we know if we don't try? Etc.

So in some sense I was blithely ignoring readers' preferences - that is, I was blithely ignoring the preferences of the kind of reader presupposed by most of the books we see published. In that sense you were quite right. (And I did realise that you liked the book, and am very glad you did, whether because of or in spite of all this extra baggage.)

Valerie: I'm thrilled!