Robert Gottlieb. The Art of Editing

In their fall 1994 issue, The Paris Review published Robert Gottlieb, The Art of Editing. Interviewed by Larissa MacFarquhar. The entire article will be presented in a four-part series on this blog. The following excerpts present Part I.

Gottlieb graduated from Columbia in 1952, the year his first son was born. He has since had two more children with his second wife, actress Maria Tucci. He spent two years studying at Cambridge and then in 1955 got a job at Simon & Schuster as editorial assistant to Jack Goodman, the editor in chief. Robert Gottlieb worked for years at Simon & Schuster, where he became editor in chief. My interviews with Gottlieb, who looks something like a taller and less rufous version of Woody Allen,gottlieb_robert took place in the living room of his townhouse on East Forty-eighth Street—two blocks from the Knopf offices on Fiftieth, and half a mile from The New Yorker on West Forty-third. His living room overlooks the Turtle Bay Gardens. He has helped to shape some of the most influential books of the last fifty years, but nonetheless finds it difficult to understand why anyone would be interested in the nitpicky complaints, the fights over punctuation, the informal therapy, and the reading and re-reading of manuscripts that make up his professional life.

The interviewees in this piece were suggested by Gottlieb himself. Their comments and Gottlieb’s responses were combined afterwards—there was no direct conversation. Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, John le Carré, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Crichton, Chaim Potok, Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, and Mordecai Richler are all authors Gottlieb has edited. Charles McGrath worked with Gottlieb at The New Yorker, where McGrath is deputy editor. Lynn Nesbit is a literary agent who has worked with Gottlieb on a number of books.


When I finally completed my second novel, Something Happened, The New York Times interviewed me about having finished the book, and I talked to them about Bob’s value to me as an editor. The day the interview ran, Bob called me and said he didn’t think it was a good idea to talk about editing and the contributions of editors, since the public likes to think everything in the book comes right from the author. That’s true, and so from that time on, I haven’t.


Of course, if anybody says nice things about me in print it’s pleasant. But the fact is, this glorification of editors, of which I have been an extreme example, is not a wholesome thing. The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one. The last thing anyone reading Jane Eyre would want to know, for example, is that I had convinced Charlotte Brontë that the first Mrs. Rochester should go up in flames. The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations: I don’t want to know that! As a critic, of course, as a literary historian, I’m interested, but as a reader, I find it very disconcerting. Nobody should know what I told Joe Heller and how grateful he is, if he is. It’s unkind to the reader and just out of place.


Some of Bob’s suggestions for Catch-22 involved a lot of work. There was a chapter that came on page two hundred or three hundred of the manuscript—I believe it was the one with Colonel Cathcart; it was either that or the Major Major chapter—and he said he liked this chapter, and it was a shame we didn’t get to it earlier. I agreed with him, and I cut about fifty or sixty pages from the opening just to get there more quickly.


What makes Bob a great editor, probably the best of his time, is that he has read everything, is soaked in the best that has been said and thought and brings this weight of experience into use when he judges the work of his authors. You may think that this kind of background should be taken for granted. Well, once upon a time one could assume that an editor in a serious publishing house had read, could make comparisons. But these days this is not what you find in publishing houses.


A lot of things one doesn’t usually think about can affect the reading experience. The way you structure the book, for example—whether you divide it into chapters or let it run uninterrupted, whether you give the chapters titles . . . Years ago I edited a wonderful novel that later became a successful movie, Lilith, by J. R. Salamanca. It was a powerful and affecting book, and the character who dominated it, who sparked it, was the character named Lilith, but she didn’t turn up at all in the first sixty or eighty pages. I don’t remember what the original title was, but I suggested to Jack that he change it to Lilith, because that way through all the opening pages of the book when Lilith hadn’t yet appeared, the reader would be expecting her. So just by changing the title one created a tension that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.


Bob will tell me how he understands a story, and where he feels slightly disappointed, perhaps; where the satisfactions are not what he expected, or something of that kind—it remains very loose. He will say to me, I’m going to draw a wavy line down these pages; for me, they’re too lyrical, too self-conscious, too over-the-top. And I will say, OK, for the moment I disagree because I’m in love with every word I’ve written, but I’ll rake it over and lick my wounds, and we’ll see what happens. Or he’ll say something like, Actually you didn’t need this beautiful passage of description here . . . in fact I think it’s really a pain. As a rule, he has no quarrel with my characters, though he has always felt I am weaker on girls than on boys, and I think that’s true. Occasionally I’ll say I disagree, in which case we will leave the matter in suspense until I recognize that he is right. In no case have I ever regretted taking Bob’s advice. In all the large things, he’s always been right.


For a while I was editing the two best writers of quality who were writing spy novels, John le Carré and Len Deighton, and you couldn’t find a more perfect pair of opposites in the editorial process. Le Carré is unbelievably sensitive to editorial suggestion because his ear is so good and because his imagination is so fertile—he’ll take the slightest hint and come back with thirty extraordinary new pages. Deighton, on the other hand—who is totally willing, couldn’t be more eager for suggestions—is one of those writers for whom, once a sentence is down on paper, it takes on a reality that no amount of good will or effort can change. So you can say to him, Len, this is a terrific story but there is a serious problem. He’ll say, What is it? What is it? And you say, Well, on page thirty-seven this character is killed, but on page a hundred and eighteen he appears at a party. Oh my God, Len says, this is terrible, but I’ll fix it, don’t worry. Then you get the manuscript back, and you turn to page thirty-seven, and he’ll have changed it to, He was almost killed.


A Perfect Spy is the novel of mine that is closest to my heart. It is also my most autobiographical novel, and it skates along the edge of a great deal of childhood pain and stuff. It’s always a queasy business when a writer starts moaning about his childhood, so the only way I could redeem the situation was by making the son much less pleasant in many ways. Bob pointed out the places where he felt that the fiction became so autobiographical that it became embarrassing—where he felt that I had really spilled into private experience and had thrown away the mask. He was terribly good at that. What we left on the cutting room floor still makes me blush.


Bob became my editor when David Segal, who had been my editor and heart’s friend at Knopf, died at the age of forty-two of a heart attack just before Christmas 1970. On that same day, or within a week, Bob and Maria’s little daughter Elizabeth was born. Bob called me from the hospital right after her birth and said, Don’t worry, you’re not abandoned, your editor is gone, but I am here, and I will be your editor and publish you. Don’t feel that you’re deserted or lost. It was one of the most astounding acts of generosity I’ve encountered in my life. It occurred in the middle of birth, death, bewilderment, grief. Now, very often when I am writing, I have something like a bird sitting on my right shoulder, a watchful bird looking over my shoulder at what I am doing. I want that bird’s approval—I have to get it. It is a very critical bird, who is in a way a burden, but also grants me permission. This bird is the mind of Bob Gottlieb. It is to him I present what I am working on when I am finished, and it is him I want to satisfy, and more than satisfy—gratify.


I never write with Bob in mind; that would be very bad for me. He isn’t the ideal reader for the product, but he is the ideal editor for it.


The first thing writers want—and this sounds so basic, but you’d be surprised how unbasic it is in the publishing world—is a quick response. Once they’ve finished a new manuscript and put it in the mail, they exist in a state of suspended emotional and psychic animation until they hear from their editor, and it’s cruelty to animals to keep them waiting. I’m lucky, because I happen to be a very quick reader, so I can almost always read a new manuscript overnight. Besides, when I receive a manuscript from a writer I’ve been working with I’m consumed by curiosity to know what he or she has written. But easy or not, one’s first job is a swift and honest response—tempered, of course, by tact.

It took me some time, when I was a very young man, to grasp that a writer—even a mature, experienced one—could have made an emotional transference to me. But of course it makes sense: the editor gives or withholds approval, and even to a certain extent controls the purse strings. It’s a relationship fraught with difficulty, because it can lead to infantilizing and then to resentment. Somehow, to be helpful, an editor has to embody authority yet not become possessive or controlling.


Bob became my editor just after he had moved to Knopf from Simon & Schuster in 1968. Lynn Nesbit was my agent. She recommended Bob partly because she thought I’d like him and partly because he was an overnight person. I was being driven mad by the usual publishing business of waiting a month for manuscripts to be read, because in those days I was in medical school and medicine is so fast. To send a manuscript to New York and wait a month—well, you might as well wait for your next reincarnation.

When I sent Bob a draft of The Andromeda Strain—the first book I did for him—in 1968 he said he would publish it if I would agree to completely rewrite it. I gulped and said OK. He gave me his feelings about what had to happen on the phone, in about twenty minutes. He was very quick. Anyway, I rewrote it completely. He called me up and said, Well, this is good, now you only have to rewrite half of it. Again, he told me what needed to happen—for the book to begin in what was then the middle, and fill in the material from the beginning sometime later on.

Finally we had the manuscript in some kind of shape. I was just completely exhausted. He said to me, Dear boy, you’ve got this ending backwards. (He’s married to an actress, and he has a very theatrical manner. He calls me “dear boy,” like an English actor might do.) I don’t remember exactly the way it was, but I had it so that one of the characters was supposed to turn on a nuclear device, and there was suspense about whether or not that would happen. Bob said, No, no, the switch has to turn itself on automatically, and the character has to turn it off. He was absolutely right. That was the first time I understood that when there is something wrong in writing, the chances are that there is either too much of it, too little of it, or that it is in some way backwards.


What Bob actually said to me was that he thought the manuscript should be factually persuasive, like a New Yorker piece. I thought that was a very interesting idea, but I couldn’t see how to do it. I couldn’t take his suggestion literally, because in those days the signature of New Yorker writers like Lillian Ross was that they were using fictional storytelling techniques in their nonfiction, and my problem was that I had to get away from fictional techniques. Finally, I began to think about what I would do if the story were real. Suppose this had actually happened and I were a reporter, what would my book look like? There was a book on my shelf at the time by Walter Sullivan called We Are Not Alone. I started thumbing through it, noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.

As soon as I began to do that, it became clear to me that the author of a nonfiction account would not have the access to the characters’ innermost thoughts in the way that you assume for fiction. So I began to take all that stuff out and make the book colder and more impersonal—but I didn’t do it completely. Bob read it and said, Look, this book can either go this way or that way, and you’ll have to decide what you want to do. Ultimately he thought I should just take all the novelistic passages out. He thought the characters shouldn’t have any relationships with each other, and that all the dialogue should advance the plot.

He took a much more radical step than I would have dared. It was never again as it was with The Andromeda Strain, mostly because I think in the process of working on it Bob taught me a tremendous amount about editing. I never again sent him a manuscript in such a mess. A part of me became Bob, or acted like Bob, and as I was writing I would sit there and think, This is what he’s going to say, and I’d go fix it. Before The Andromeda Strain I didn’t really know the extent to which you could write a draft and not accept it but rather tear it all apart, move things around, rework them, and then put it all back together. I had never gone through that process in my previous writing, and Bob put me through it. Occasionally Bob has said to me, The new book doesn’t work. Forget it. Which I have done. That has happened a few times. But it was in part a result of my method of working, which is to go off and tell nobody what I’m doing and write something; sometimes it would work and sometimes it wouldn’t. I guess because of my youth it didn’t seem so devastating. I just thought, Oh well, that didn’t work, I’ll go do something else. I don’t work that way anymore—I’m too old.

Even now, when Bob first calls me back about a manuscript, I panic. But I’ll tell you, I think every writer should have tattooed backwards on his forehead, like ambulance on ambulances, the words everybody needs an editor.

Part II of this article will appear two days from now. Bob surrenders completely to a text, to respond intelligently to it. You have to be inside that book and do your best to make it as good as it can be, he explains.

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