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 II.
It’s often the case that the most strained moments in books are the very beginning and the very end—the getting in and the getting out. The ending especially: it’s awkward, as if the writer doesn’t know when the book is over and nervously says it all again. Sometimes the most useful thing you can tell a writer is, Here’s where the book ends—in these next two and a half pages you’re just clearing your throat. When I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, to use an extreme example, I recognized that the book had come to an end, and that Chaim had written three hundred more pages. The material that was the motor of the book had worked itself out, and he had gone on to write the sequel. So I called up Chaim’s agent and said, I love the book and would like to talk to him about it, but please explain to him it’s only on the condition that he drop the last three hundred pages that I want to publish it; if he wants to leave it as it is, it’s a different book. Chaim immediately saw the point, so there was no problem.
Endings I always know, because that’s always what the book is about. The problem is getting there. I used to have these really awful beginnings—never really beginnings, they were starts—and Bob always caught them. He would say, This is not a beginning, the book is not grounded yet. I originally began Sula, for example, with what is now chapter two. Bob told me he felt the first words of the manuscript—“National Suicide Day”—were not the beginning of the book. So I spent a summer trying to write a beginning. And I did it to my satisfaction and, I think, to his.
I will tell you two stories, one about somebody else and one about myself. The somebody else is a close friend, also edited by Bob, who when writing a novel tends to find herself writing episodes or short stories. He said to her, Maybe that’s just how you write a novel: you have to write short stories, and then you put them together and that’s the novel. I, on the other hand, have begun novels and then abandoned them and they have become short stories. He said to me just the opposite: Maybe this is how you write short stories. You have to think you’re doing a novel, and then it turns out to be a short story.
Writing my first two books, The Bluest Eye and Sula, I had the anxiety of a new writer who needs to make sure every sentence is exactly the right one. Sometimes that produces a kind of precious, jeweled quality—a tightness, which I particularly wanted in Sula. Then after I finished Sula and was working on the third book, Song of Solomon, Bob said to me, You can loosen, open up. Your writing doesn’t have to be so contained; it can be wider. I’m not sure these were his exact words, but I know that the consequence of the remarks was that I did relax and begin to open up to possibilities. It was because I was able to open up to those possibilities that I began to think things like, What would happen if indeed I followed this strange notion or image or picture I had in my mind of this woman who had no navel . . . whereas normally I would have dismissed such an idea as recklessness. It was as if he had said, Be reckless in your imagination.
I remember the discussion with Toni as she was beginning Song of Solomon, because although we always did some marginal cosmetic work on her manuscripts, obviously a writer of her powers and discrimination doesn’t need a lot of help with her prose. I think I served Toni best by encouraging her—helping to free her to be herself. The only other real help I gave to her was noneditorial: I encouraged her to stop editing and to write full-time, something I knew she wanted to do. As I remember it, I reassured her about her finances—but what I was really saying was, You’re not an editor who does some writing, you’re a writer—acknowledge it; there’s nothing to be scared of. We always understood each other—two editors, two lovers of reading, and exactly the same age.
When I first handed in the manuscript of The Power Broker it was over a million words. With the technology of that time there was a limited number of words you could fit between two covers and have what they call a manageable trade book—something like seven hundred thousand words, around thirteen-hundred pages. Bob didn’t want to do the thing in volumes. He told me, I can get people interested in Robert Moses once, but not twice. So we had to cut three hundred thousand words. That’s like cutting a five-hundred-page book out of a book. It’s not easy. I would come into Knopf in the morning, day after day, and Bob was running the company, but he would shut the door of his office and we would work on the manuscript all day. Late in the afternoon when I left, there would be a line of people outside his office, waiting for him. I remember there was a point near the end when we thought we were done, but it turned out someone had miscounted. Bob called the next week and said, Bob, I have some bad news. We have to cut fifty thousand more words. It was a terrible thing.
It took a year. The Power Broker was Caro’s first book, and he had worked on it for eight years in isolation, just him and his wife. It was agony for him to cut it. It was painful for me, too, because I loved the material. I could have read twice as much, but I couldn’t print twice as much.
In order to get enough money to finish The Power Broker I had signed a two-book contract with Knopf. After The Power Broker I was supposed to do a biography of Fiorello LaGuardia. But I realized after I had signed the contract that I didn’t really want to do it. I had seen Robert Moses’s life as a way to study how power works in the cities, and I wanted to study the same thing on a national level through the life of Lyndon Johnson, since I thought he understood power better than any other American president. I also wanted to do it in more than one volume, because there were things cut out of The Power Broker that I thought should not have been cut.
I expected a big fight over this, because back then nobody was doing multivolume biographies except academics. So I went in to see Bob about it. Before I had said anything, he said to me, Bob, I’ve been thinking about you and what you ought to do. I know you’ve been planning to do the LaGuardia book, but I think what you should really do is a biography of Lyndon Johnson. And he said, I think you should do it in several volumes. It was really quite startling.
That’s something an editor can do—come up with an idea for a book. I’ve done this with happy results a few times. Potok’s Wanderings, for instance, was originally my idea. I thought, I am a Jew who knows nothing about Jewishness. I grew up in an atheist household; I never attended anything. I thought that Chaim could write a very popular and useful book that might instruct someone like me. Years later, I suggested Henry VIII’s six wives to Antonia Fraser, and she pounced on it and did a superb job. The most important instance was when I convinced John Cheever to let me put together his collected stories. He kept saying, Why do you want to do this? These stories have all appeared in collections already. I told him it was going to be an immensely important book, and that he should let me read everything, make a selection and see if he liked it—which is what happened. Eventually, after his death, I was asked by his family to edit his journals, for both The New Yorker and Knopf. It was the hardest job I’ve ever done—it involved wrestling a hundred and twenty-five thousand words out of several million. The material was very dark, and most of all, with no author to work with, I was out there alone—with all the responsibility of presenting not only John’s words, but his life. But it was also the most gratifying job I’ve ever done, and one of the very few times in my working life when I’ve felt I’d actually achieved something.
What I find most useful are the moments when Bob is disturbed by something in a book. He is a marvelous reader, and surrenders completely to a text, so when he finds something invalid or unpersuasive, or if something leaves him disoriented, I know it is important for me to go back to it. I pay a very rigorous attention especially to that level of comfort a reader needs in order to accept the kind of gestures of fantasy I include. I know and he knows I need to create a sense of absolute stability in order to be able to transport the reader into a realm that is not “realistic.”
You have to surrender to a book. If you do, when something in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have surrendered to a book, the more jarring its errors appear. I read a manuscript very quickly, the moment I get it. I usually won’t use a pencil the first time through because I’m just reading for impressions. When I reach the end, I’ll call the writer and say, I think it’s very fine (or whatever), but I think there are problems here and here. At that point I don’t know why I think that—I just think it. Then I go back and read the manuscript again, more slowly, and I find and mark the places where I had negative reactions to try to figure out what’s wrong. The second time through I think about solutions—maybe this needs expanding, maybe there’s too much of this so it’s blurring that.
Editing requires you to be always open, always responding. It is very important, for example, not to allow yourself to want the writer to write a certain kind of book. Sometimes that’s hard. My favorite of Heller’s books is Something Happened. When we are working on a manuscript, Joe is always telling me (rightly) that I want him to write Something Happened again, and that he could only write it once. Inevitably you will like some of a writer’s books better than others. But when you’re working on a manuscript, that can’t matter. You have to be inside that book and do your best to make it as good as it can be. And if you can’t approach it in that spirit, you shouldn’t be working on it.
Bob always zeroes in on those aspects of a manuscript I also have some questions about. He reads the entire book through, and then we talk about it. He is so tuned in to what I’m doing that we can talk in shorthand—someone listening to the conversation probably wouldn’t be able to understand what was being said.
Bob has an uncanny knack for putting his finger on that one sentence, or that one paragraph, that somewhere in the back of your mind you knew wasn’t quite right but was close enough so that you decided to worry about it later. Then you forgot about it, or you convinced yourself that it was okay, because it was too much trouble to change. He always goes right to those places. It’s an instinct. He and I share a belief that if you take care of all the tiny problems in a piece, all that small attention will somehow make a big difference. Sometimes I think that’s just a touching faith of ours, and that, in fact, nobody ever notices whether, say, you use the same word twice in a paragraph. At other times, I’m convinced that the details are all that matter.
Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader. That’s why, to be an editor, you have to be a reader. It’s the number one qualification. Because you could have all the editorial tools, but if you’re not a responsive reader you won’t sense where the problems lie. I am a reader. My life is reading. In fact, I was about forty years old when I had an amazing revelation—this is going to sound dumb—it suddenly came to me that not every person in the world assumed, without thinking about it, that reading was the most important thing in life. I hadn’t known that. I hadn’t even known that I had thought it, it was so basic to me.
Oddly enough, I find that reading noneditorially is a very different experience for me. When I’m reading for pleasure I don’t tend to think as an editor, even with books I’ve edited. I remember, for instance, that when the finished book of Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came into the office I decided to reread it although it had only been three or four months since I’d read it in galleys. It was as if I were reading something I had never read before, because I was reading it simply for fun. Very rarely have I had the impulse to make changes in a book I’m just reading for pleasure or instruction. It’s only bad translations that drive me to madness and make me reach for a pencil.
Bob is the best-read person I’ve ever met. I used to have a somewhat inflated notion of how well-read I was, but Bob makes me look like someone who’s just got his first library card. It’s because his ear is so well trained that he never falters in questions of tone.
Bob is very brainy in academic terms, much more erudite, much brainier than I am. He’s very cosmopolitan in some ways. He’s got quite a European soul, although he is also the quintessential New Yorker. I think he was at Cambridge for a couple of years, so he relishes the notions of understatement and disguise and so on.
I can never tell Bob—in fact I’ve only recently begun to tell anybody—what I am doing critically in a book. If I think I am recasting language in a certain way, or manipulating history so that it becomes flesh—whatever I think is radical and interventionist and different about my work in terms of American literature in general—the lit-crit stuff—I never get into that with Bob. He isn’t interested in it, and it wouldn’t be useful for us to talk about it, because enfin a book has to work as a book for someone who just isn’t going to pick up on all these clever things you think you’re doing. Sometimes Bob will say he thinks I’m editorializing, and I can’t remember a time when he hasn’t been right about that. He sees those places where, particularly earlier on, you didn’t know how to dramatize something, so you editorialized it. I always know what I will not alter under any circumstances. Sometimes I just say no, and Bob won’t pursue it, because he knows that if I say no it means something quite different from “I don’t want to.” It’s in the areas in which you did the best you could, but you weren’t entirely pleased, or you weren’t quite sure, that you need the third eye. Given a few more years I suppose I would identify the problem myself, but a good editor is a shortcut.
In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.
For some writers a solution provided by an editor is of no use. When I worked with Margaret Atwood at The New Yorker, for instance, whether there was a plot problem or a punctuation problem, if the solution came from her it worked wonderfully. But if I offered one myself, it never took. Now another writer might say, It’s no good your telling me this is the wrong word if you don’t give me the right word.
Of course, I have also spent a great deal of my life working with writers who are simply bad. I have fixed more sentences than most people have read in their lives. I remember Michael Korda and I, years ago, used to write whole pages of other people’s novels together. And sometimes problems are unsolvable. There are books that are never going to come fully to life, either because the idea was wrong, or it was the wrong idea for that writer, or the writer is just not good. Then the reviewers say, What this book needed was a good editor. But those are usually the books that have had the most editing.
Once I called Bob because I’d read a book he had edited and had found it redundant. I called him up and said, Boy, that book wasn’t very well edited. There was a very snarky silence because he did not take criticism well at all. There was this long silence. Then he said, Dear boy! I think you should consider, when you read a book that seems to you to be not well-enough edited, that perhaps it has already been incredibly edited. And of course that was probably true.
Bob knows how much to tell me and how much to leave to me. I think that is really one of his crucial virtues. There are so many young editors I hear of who are practically trying to write the book for you. Bob is like a good movie director with an actor—he’s just trying to get the best out of you.
Bob always says he is an editor, not a writer. He has a way of not competing with you, which is very reassuring. If you hear criticism from Bob you never think, as you sometimes do with other people, Well, he’s just jealous because he wants to be me. And that helps in terms of hearing things from him that you might not want to hear. It was from Bob that I learned to ask readers, Tell me how you reacted, not what you think ought to be done. Because very often people will jump to their sense of what needs to be fixed and bypass the initial reader’s perception of what was lacking in his experience. Also, I’m usually better at fixing my own writing than they are.
Your job as an editor is to figure out what the book needs, but the writer has to provide it. You can’t be the one who says, Send him to Hong Kong at this point, let him have a love affair with a cocker spaniel. Rather, you say, This book needs something at this point: it needs opening up, it needs a direction, it needs excitement. When people say to me, Oh you’re so creative, I try to explain that I’m not creative. I simply have certain other qualities that are necessary for my kind of work. It has liberated me, being happy being what I am. There are editors who will always feel guilty that they aren’t writers. I can write perfectly well—anybody who’s educated can write perfectly well. But I dislike writing: it’s very, very hard, and I just don’t like the activity. Whereas reading is like breathing.
I think we erroneously give pride of place to the act of writing rather than the act of reading. People think you just read because you can understand the language, but a certain kind of reading is a very high-level intellectual process. I have such reverence for that kind of sensitive reading—it is not just absorbing things and identifying what’s wrong but a much deeper thing that I can see would be perfectly satisfying. Anyway, this separation is fairly recent: not long ago the great readers were the great writers, the great critics were the great novelists, the great poets were the great translators. People didn’t make these big distinctions about which one was more thrilling than the other.
Writing for me is just a very sustained process of reading. The only difference is that writing a book might take three or four years, and I’m doing it. I never wrote a line until after I became an editor, and only then because I wanted to read something that I couldn’t find. That was the first book I wrote.
Part III of this article will appear two days from now. It says that any editor can take a piece and tart it up, and in so doing layer another sensibility or another vocabulary on top of what’s there, but Bob Gottleib doesn’t do that. He has a great ability to get inside a piece and instinctively understand the terms and the vocabulary of the writer, and make changes in those terms and that vocabulary. This is one of the hallmarks of great editing: when it is done right, you don’t notice it.