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 III.



If Bob identifies a snag in a manuscript and neither one of us can immediately come up with a solution, he will always say to me, go figure it out, and then come back. His fixes are never, as often happens with other editors, editorial patches, impositions that don’t match the language or the tone of the writer. The point about Bob Gottlieb is that he never imposes.


I cannot tolerate editors who go in for line-by-line criticism, or who cross out words and substitute words of their own, or who will cross out two pages and write over them cut. Bob has never been so officious.


Many people have this vulgar idea that writers and editors are at each others’ throats, that they are antagonistic. That is craziness. No editor should work with a book he doesn’t like, because his job as an editor is to make something better of what it is. If you try to turn a book into something it isn’t, you’re doomed to disaster.

An editor has to be selfless, and yet has also to be strong-minded. If you don’t know what you think, or if you’re nervous about expressing your opinions, what good is that to a writer? I remember one book of John Cheever’s I was working on, I felt there was a minor problem with the ending. At first I thought, Who am I to be telling John Cheever to change the end of his novel? And then I thought, Well, I’m the editor he chose, and I can’t, out of cowardice, withhold what I think. I’m not forcing him to do anything. I’m saying, This is what I think is wrong, and it’s up to him to decide whether to take my advice or not. As it happened, he immediately got the point and found a solution.


I have a bad temper and, though Bob would deny it, so does he. While we were editing we were always jumping up and getting out of the room to cool off. Now he, of course, had the great advantage over me because when we were working at Knopf he could leave and go to somebody else’s office and transact some business, but I had no place to go but the bathroom. I went to the bathroom a lot, as I remember. And oh, his tone! If you heard his tone! It gets me so angry I have to try to drown it out. I try not to hear the insulting things he’s saying because, as I said, I have a very bad temper.


Bob Caro and I are always shouting at each other and carrying on because for him each manuscript has been so much work, so much effort, so much obsessive concentration, that everything is of equal weight because everything is of total weight. Your job with a writer like that is to be able to say, You may have done an equally brilliant job on all of these things, but this has more weight than that, and you have to give some of that up. Sometimes in the heat of discussion, that can seem to a writer like an attack. And that’s not helpful, though at times it can be therapeutic. If you are a good editor, your relationship with every writer is different. To some writers you say things you couldn’t say to others, either because they’d be angry or because it would be too devastating to them. You can’t have only one way of doing things; on some instinctual level you have to respond not just to the words of the writer but to the temperament of the writer. That may be hard for some editors; I haven’t found it hard, perhaps because I like to please people. Joe Heller and I, for instance, have never had a bad moment because he is perfectly detached. When you’re editing a manuscript with him the two of you can look at it as though you were two surgeons examining a body stretched out upon a table. You just cut it open, deal with the offending organs, and stitch it up again. Joe is completely objective, he has that kind of mind, even immediately after finishing a book.

We worked like dogs on Catch-22, and then just before it went to press I was reading it again, and I came to a chapter I’d always hated. I thought it was pretentious and literary. I said to Joe, You know, I’ve always hated this chapter, and he said, Well take it out. And out it went. He printed it many years later in Esquire as the lost chapter of Catch-22. That’s Joe Heller. Now that doesn’t mean he’s better than Bob Caro. It means he has a completely different temperament in relation to his work. Joe is a pragmatist; Bob is a romantic.

Doris Lessing also has a very removed attitude to her writing. You can say to Doris exactly what you think without fear either of wounding her or overly influencing her. The day after she gave me the manuscript for The Summer Before the Dark we were walking in Queen Mary’s rose garden in London; she asked me what I thought about the manuscript. I said I liked it very much and told her I was sure it was going to be her most successful book. She said, Now that’s interesting, because it’s by no means my best book. There are not many writers whose clarity and disinterestedness are such that they could say that about a book they had just finished.


There are some writers who put in a first chapter and need lunch immediately. They need babysitting; they need to be able to call up at two a.m. and say they’re about to slit their wrists and so on. I don’t want to see my publishers, editors, or anybody until I’ve produced my baby. If I have frightful headaches about how to make my story work or how to end it or something like that, I will never communicate them until I resolve the thing somehow. So my first use of Bob, if you will, is for his spontaneous response to something he knows nothing about. Then I’m dealing with the Bob Gottlieb who might have picked the novel up in a bookshop.


Some writers need you to read their book as they’re writing it. I worked with one writer who wanted to call me up every day and read me what she had written. I discouraged her.


Some authors really want their books to be loved and want themselves to be loved, but I don’t want that. I don’t want my hand held, I don’t want to be stroked, I don’t want to be patronized, I don’t want any of those things. And I never got any of that from Bob. As a result, our editing sessions are vital, they are hard, and they are tremendous fun.


The most important thing I ever heard Bob say was at Knopf one time when we were standing in the hallway outside his office and some other editor came along and, in that jocular way editors have, he said, So, when is this book going to be delivered? Bob said, Don’t ever ask him that. I’ve never forgotten it. All through our relationship we’ve had a tacit understanding that the words delivery date are never to be mentioned.


From time to time ours was an irritable relationship. Sometimes in later years I would send Bob drafts that were not cleaned up enough, and he would be a little short about the fact that he was being shown something that was not ready. He would never address it directly. He would never say, Why are you sending me this, you haven’t worked on it enough. There would just be this feeling.

Bob is very skillful at motivation. He really knows how to make you work. He would call me up and say, Dear boy! I have read your manuscript, and here is what you have to do. And he was not above saying, I don’t know if you can do it this way, I don’t know if you’re up to it—which of course would drive me into a fury of effort. It was very effective. And it was only years later that I thought, You know, I think he probably said that on purpose.


I certainly didn’t say anything like that to Michael on purpose. I do what I think I have to do and respond to people as I respond to them. I intensely dislike manipulating people, just as I resent being manipulated.

As an editor I have to be tactful, of course (which I wasn’t very good at when I was young). But goodwill has to be natural. You can’t fake it. It just doesn’t work that way.


Negotiations were always tight with Bob. He was celebrated for not believing in huge advances, and it didn’t matter that three other houses were offering literally twice what he was offering. He felt that for half the money, you got the best. Most publishers, when you arrive in New York with your (as you hope) best-selling manuscript, send flowers to your suite, arrange for a limo, maybe, at the airport, and then let you go and put on the nosebag at some great restaurant. The whole idea is to make you feel great. With Bob you did best to arrive in jeans and sneakers, and then you lay on your tummy side-by-side with him on the floor of his office and sandwiches were brought up.

After I finished one book, I think it was A Perfect Spy, my agent called me and said, Okay, we’ve got x-zillion yen and whatnot, and I said, And lunch. My agent said, What? I said, And lunch. When I get to New York I want to be taken, by Bob, to a decent restaurant for once and not eat one of those lousy tuna sandwiches lying on my tummy in his room. Bob called me that evening and said, I think we have a deal; and is that true about lunch? And I said, Yup, Bob, that’s the break point in the deal. Very well, he said. Not a lot of laughter. So I arrived in New York, and there was Bob, a rare sight in a suit, and we went to a restaurant he had found out about. He ate extremely frugally, and drank nothing, and watched me with venomous eyes as I made my way through the menu.


Yes, boys must have their fun! The thing is, when I was a kid in publishing in the fifties, the way business was done, the way you met people, was at lunches. So when I had been at Simon & Schuster a year they said, You should have an expense account. I said, That’s very nice, but I don’t know anybody to take out to lunch. So they said, Well, we’d better give you an agent. The agent they gave me was a young man named Georges Borchardt. They gave me Georges because I read French, and at the time Georges was handling only French books. So Georges and I had many, many lunches on my expense account, and we’re close friends to this day. But after a while, of course, I met more people until I got to the point where having lunch with them all the time seemed to be yielding diminishing returns—you’re out for two hours, two and a half hours, you overeat, you’ve wasted all that time, it’s disgusting. So when I went to Knopf I said, This is it, I won’t do lunch anymore. The best thing that ever came from my spartan eating habits was that I first met my great pal Nora Ephron when the Times Book Review commissioned her to do some fatuous piece on how and where editors lunched.


Bob and I would have big fights over colons and semicolons. Semicolons are not quite as forceful as colons. And dashes are very important to me—I establish my rhythm with them. We could spend a long time fighting over an adjective. We had such fights that sometimes he would bring in another editor as a buffer. When Bob is editing something he’s very careful that the rhythm stays the same, which is very hard to do. I had huge fights with William Shawn when he excerpted The Power Broker for The New Yorker. One time my editor there, William Whitworth, who’s now at The Atlantic, put Shawn on the line, and Shawn said, But we’ve hardly changed it at all, we haven’t changed any of the words. I said, But you ran three paragraphs together—paragraphs matter to me, they’re part of my rhythm. You’re combining sentences, making periods into semicolons, semicolons into commas—that is changing my writing. Those fights were not nice fights; they were bitter, angry fights. Now there’s never anything like that with Bob.

I’ve always believed that for a nonfiction work to endure, its prose has to be at just as high a level as that of a good novel, and Bob believes that too. When we’re working together, what matters—and it is all that matters—is what is on the page.


There’s always a tension between a writer’s idiosyncratic way of presenting himself and the house style, but magazines need house style. If you don’t have some kind of consistent way of doing things, it looks as if you’ve lost your mind.


This is in fact the great difference between being a book editor and being a magazine editor, as I discovered in my years at The New Yorker. In book publishing, the editor and the author have the same goal: to make the book as good as it can be and to sell as many copies as possible. In a magazine, it’s a different matter. Of course a magazine editor wants the writing to be as good as possible, but he wants it to be as good as possible for the magazine, while the writer wants to preserve his piece’s integrity. At a magazine, the writer can always withdraw his piece, but basically the editor is in charge. In book publishing, editors are the servants of the writers, and if we don’t serve writers well, they leave us.

Another difference is that a book publishing house is much less bound up with the personality of its editor in chief. A good house is a collection of highly individual editors with very individual tastes, all of whom contribute different things to the list. A magazine, on the other hand, is in a sense an emanation of its chief editor—of his impulses and views and, to use a disgusting word, vision. The editors I worked with at The New Yorker were not essentially procuring editors—they were working editors. Only The Editor had the authority to buy a piece.

Magazines have to be run that way, because a magazine has to be itself. A magazine’s subscribers and advertisers and owner have a right to get every week or month whatever it is they’ve been led to expect they’re going to get. If someone becomes an Economist advertiser because he likes The Economist, and then one day opens an issue and sees his ad in a magazine that looks more like Playboy, he’s not going to be happy. And vice versa. A publishing house has much more leeway, because its constituency isn’t fixed. Nobody out there is buying a hundred fifty Knopf books a year. Someone might buy In the Kitchen with Rosie or Cormac McCarthy or Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life or The Audubon Guide to Wildflowers of the East or How We Die, but he won’t buy all of them. This also means that as a book publisher you are far less conscious of people looking over your shoulder—if your house comes out with a profit, no one’s going to complain that this year’s list looks different from last year’s. Then again, I have never worked in an unsuccessful publishing house. I suppose that if your books are crummy and you’re losing money every year, you’ll feel the Loch Ness monster on your tail.


People have accused New Yorker style of being comma-ridden, but Bob had no trouble with it. In fact Bob sometimes wanted commas where even Miss Gould, our great copy editor, didn’t see the need for them, which was quite astonishing to some of us. Bob is concerned above all with making the meaning and intention of a sentence crystal clear. He can become quite ingenious, almost paranoid, thinking of ways that a reader might possibly misconstrue something.

He is a Tartar, too, about participial clauses. He will often take a relative clause—a that clause or a which clause—and make it into a participial phrase or a gerund phrase. And he has a great nose for cant and pretension and highfalutin crap of any sort. He goes at it like a terrier. It’s as if he can smell it.


I have idiosyncrasies in punctuation, like everybody else. Because one of the formative writers of my life was Henry James, it’s all too easy for me to pepper a text with dashes. Many people don’t like dashes. With Le Carré, I’m always putting commas in, and he’s always taking them out, but we know that about each other. He’ll say, Look, if you absolutely need this one, have it. And I’ll say, Well, I would have liked it, but I guess I can live without it. We accommodate each other. When I was a young firebrand it never occurred to me that I might be wrong, or that I wasn’t going to have my way, or that it wasn’t my job to impose my views. I could get into twenty-minute shouting matches over semicolons, because every semicolon was a matter of life or death. As you grow older you realize that there are bad lines in King Lear and it has survived.


There was a certain type of writing we used to laugh about a lot. We called it “cry of the loon” writing—that kind of overblown nature prose. Bob has a deadly instinct for when that stuff has gone ripe. He has a fine ear for English as it’s spoken, and a lot of his work as an editor is taking stilted, artificial language and pushing it in the direction of the vernacular. How words sound on a page (if that’s not an oxymoron) is what Bob listens for.


There are certain locutions I become obsessed with. I hate the overuse of the word continued—he continued to eat his soup, instead of he went on eating his soup. That is something I must have changed ten thousand times in five years at The New Yorker. Impoverished vocabulary disturbs me. I used to joke with my colleagues about V.E.—verb enrichment. I hate it when a writer uses the word walk thirty times in two pages, for example. At The New Yorker changing things like that was difficult because the editors there had been trained that an editor does not improve writing, he makes it correct. I was a book editor, though, and my job has always been to help writers make books better.

I often argue with Bob Caro about his use of certain words—loom, for example, because it’s such an inflated verb. One of Bob’s great talents is creating a scene, and that’s wonderful, but when you’re a biographer or a historian, whose basic concern is accuracy, you must be very wary of overloading the language to make dramatic points. Caro likes to dramatize, and he tends to see people as larger than life. As I’ve often said to him, he’s even done that to me; he’s romanticized me as The Editor, as the one he can trust.


Bob is a very fastidious man. Battle scenes, for example. I wrote The Honourable Schoolboy just after returning from Cambodia and Vietnam, where I had been hanging around with a journalist, so it had battlefield sequences and things. Bob tends to go very quiet when he reads that stuff and turns over the pages rather quickly. It’s not a world he’s ever had to venture into, thank God, and I think he just doesn’t care for it very much. I would not see him as the best person to edit The Naked and the Dead, for example. Or James Jones. Still, Bob is amazingly catholic as an editor; that is to say, I know that if I’d written a golf book, Bob would have been very good about my golf book. He would not have tried to turn it into a prose poem about something different. I expect with his romantic novelists he doesn’t fight with them about split infinitives; he doesn’t worry too much about dangling clauses. He can live with bad books if they’re good bad books.


Anyone 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 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.

Part IV of this article will appear two days from now. This final part discusses how Bob Gottleib relates to his authors on a personal level.

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