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 is being presented in a four-part series on this blog. The following excerpts present Part IV.
I happen to be a kind of word whore. I will read anything from Racine to a nurse romance, if it’s a good nurse romance. Many people just aren’t like that. Some of my closest friends cannot read anything that isn’t substantial—they don’t see the point. I don’t, however, like a certain kind of very rich, ornate, literary writing. I feel as if I’m being choked, as if gravel is being poured down my throat. Books like Under the Volcano, for instance, are not for me.
I probably wouldn’t send a postmodernist writer to Bob. Bob likes books with a strong sense of narrative. I think he would have admired Donald Barthelme or William Gass, but they wouldn’t be natural writers for him to work with.
Some marriages are not made in heaven. I inherited Gail Godwin from another editor who had published Godwin’s early work at Harper’s. Now, Gail was extremely sensitive, and she viewed herself as a highly successful commercial writer, whereas I viewed her as a rather literary writer with a limited readership. She couldn’t live that way, and eventually, although we worked together very cordially on several books, she moved to Viking. She had shown them a book she was working on, and they saw it the way she saw it—as a major commercial novel—and they paid her a lot of money, and indeed it became a big best-seller and made her famous and successful. I didn’t read her that way, and I still feel that her earlier work, which was less commercial, is more interesting. But she wanted to develop in a different direction, and I’m sure she doesn’t feel that she compromised in any way to do that. In other words, I was the wrong editor-publisher for her and she was wise to leave me.
One writer I worked with—I don’t remember who it was—got absolutely nothing out of the one meeting we had. Some time afterwards he wrote an article for a magazine and, referring to this encounter (without using my name), he wrote something like: He told me to let it breathe. What does that mean? A completely useless, stupid remark. Now I knew exactly what I meant, and another writer would have known exactly what I meant, but the comment was useless to him. It wasn’t a bad thing for me to say, nor was he being stupid or resistant—it was just that my ways of communicating were never going to work with him. It was not a proper marriage, and luckily we got a quick divorce.
I don’t remember any serious disagreements, but this does not mean Bob has liked everything I have written. He doesn’t like The Sentimental Agents, for instance, which I do like.
I did think The Sentimental Agents was rather schematic. It was an idea rather than fiction. It’s part of Doris’s space fiction series, and like all space fiction, or science fiction, it is underlain by a highly moralistic, utopian impulse. When that kind of thing works it’s because the idea becomes clothed in specifics that are interesting, exciting, moving, whatever, and in most of the books in that series I think that did happen, but in this particular book I felt the ideas were bare.
Once when Maclean’s magazine was running a profile on me they rang Bob and ran one of my quotes by him. Asked about my film work, I had told Maclean’s I used other muscles. Yes, said Bob, his sphincter.
Bob once used an adjective about one of my books—Beloved—that I’d never, ever, ever heard him use before, about my book or anybody else’s. He said great. It’s funny, because everybody says great about anything. What’s the weather like? It’s great. How do you feel? Great. But I know that when Bob said it, in that context, he meant that. He didn’t mean something else. He might say wonderful, when something was wonderfully done, but he never said great.
In all the hours of working on The Power Broker Bob never said one nice thing to me—never a single complimentary word, either about the book as a whole or about a single portion of the book. That was also true of my second book, The Path to Power. But then he got soft. When we finished the last page of the last book we worked on, Means of Ascent, he held up the manuscript for a moment and said, slowly, as if he didn’t want to say it, Not bad. Those are the only two complimentary words he has ever said to me, to this day.
Bob has been advising me and editing my work for thirty or more years. It is hard to remember details now. I have just been reading my diary for 1978, where it records that I spent some days making alterations he suggested. I remember cutting quite a bit out of The Sirian Experiments. I cut a bit out of The Four-Gated City at his suggestion, which perhaps was a mistake. Bob has made mistakes. But, nearly always, he is right. I don’t think Bob would be surprised to hear that I would describe him as an authoritarian personality. Why should he? I’ve told him so. We are good enough friends for us both to put up with this kind of mutual criticism.
Well, I describe her as authoritarian. So there you are. But this is actually more complicated than that, because my neurotic vision of myself is of a fly on the wall. I see myself as an observer, as someone who could not possibly affect any other human being, not even my children. Now, I’m an acute observer and an analyzed person, so I know perfectly well from the evidence of my eyes and ears that I have a strong personality and have no problem running large organizations, and I know that I’ve had a considerable effect on many people. I know I have a great deal of personal authority. But there’s a disparity between what I know and what I feel. I’ve never quite understood why people do what I say. But then, I’ve never taken myself very seriously.
There is a certainty, an ease, an assuredness that comes from Bob, and when you’re a writer and you’re constantly living in a world of panic and uncertainty, to have that in an editor is a valuable thing indeed.
Bob and I used to joke about our egos being so huge that they didn’t exist—which is a way of saying that neither he nor I felt we were in competition with anybody. That’s not a very nice thing to say about myself or him; but at the same time, it’s important to remember that a large ego can be generous and enabling, because of its lack of envy. There was a way in which our confidence was wide-spirited.
People always say Bob has such an enormous ego, but I say that Bob takes this enormous ego and lends it to the writer, thereby reinforcing the writer’s ego. Bob is very generous with his ego.
When you’re dealing with nonprofessional writers, you have to give them a tremendous amount of encouragement simply to convince them that they can write at all. Lauren Bacall is a perfect example. I knew she could write her own book, and I knew that she would never be satisfied if she had a ghostwriter, but she didn’t know how to do it, so finally we set up a system. She would come into the office every day and write in longhand on yellow pads, and every night little elves would type up what she had written during the day. She kept saying, Is it all right? and I would say, Yes, yes, it’s fine. You write it, I’ll edit it. And it was fine. Of course, it needed standard editorial work, but it was her book, it came right out of her. Betty Bacall is a bright Jewish girl from New York—she wasn’t going to write a bad book.
I did Liv Ullmann’s book too. She had already written it in Norwegian and had it translated, and she wanted someone to edit it in English. The first time I met her it was winter, and she came into the office wearing a big fur coat. I took her coat, we had a long talk, and after about forty-five minutes I said, Come on, I’ll walk you around the office and introduce you to some of the people you’ll be working with. She said all right, and she stood up and started putting on her coat. I said, Why are you putting on your coat, it’s boiling in these offices, and she said, I’m putting on my coat because I’m so fat I don’t want anyone to see me. Now, I’m married to an actress, and this triggered something in me, and I completely forgot that I had just met her forty-five minutes ago. I said, Wait a minute. Number one, it’s very hot in here. Number two, you do not look fat, you look great. And number three, you’re not putting on your coat. This is just what I would have said to my wife, Maria. And she said, Oh, fine, and took off her coat. Because she’s an actress—she needed the director to tell her she looked great and she needed reassurance. Yet she had written a very fine book on her own.
Whenever I have a problem, Bob always says to me, Well, Maria . . . and then goes on to tell me how he had exactly this sort of problem with Maria, and here is the way Maria handled it. He is so skilled at this that I’ve never been able to tell whether Maria has always had exactly my problems or whether she has become a kind of pedagogical—or even mythological—device. It depends, of course, on what kind of human being he is, but an editor is often a father figure, a mother figure, a kind of ministerial figure . . . a teacher is really what I mean—someone who stands in authority over you and has something to tell you. I’ve had certain stumbling-block problems in my life, as others have, and every few years I would go and see Bob on some editorial occasion, and I would tell him where I was stumped and how I was stumbling. He would talk to me about whatever it was and generally give me enough perspective in an hour or an hour and a half that I left his office feeling restored and able to put my hands back on the ropes. I never thought that at The New Yorker he would have time to do Cynthia-therapy, but he did.
Bob and I think of each other as close friends, but ten years might go by before we talk to each other or drop each other a note. In between my novels—and my novels come at long intervals—we’ve barely communicated.
We have, basically, no social relationship whatsoever. When the Book-of-the-Month Club bought the first volume of the Lyndon Johnson trilogy they had a lunch for me. Al Silverman, who was then the president, started the conversation saying, Well, you two must see so much of each other . . . There was an embarassing silence—at that point Bob and I hadn’t seen each other socially for years.
There is absolutely no question that I see Bob paternally. Absolutely no question. There is a lot of jealousy involved in your relationship with your editor. You don’t want to walk into the office and see another writer chatting with Bob—you’d want to kill them. So you learn to schedule your appointments so you can see Daddy all by yourself. I remember at one point I wanted a larger advance and Bob didn’t want to give it to me. He asked Lynn Nesbit, my agent, Why does Michael want such a big advance? And she said, Well, Bob, I think he wants to buy a house. Bob said, Well what does he need such a big house for, and she said, Bob, he’s married now and has a child. There was a way in which, as with a parent, I was always this young kid to him, and it never really changed. So maybe there was some countertransference too.
Young writers taken on by publishing houses these days seem to be treated with a great deal more sanity than used to be the case. American publishing went through a phase: just as American acting was haunted by the Brando example, so American publishing was haunted by the Fitzgerald example. For decades it was regarded as almost mandatory that a writer be drunk half the day, that he have an appallingly untidy sex life, be manic-depressive, need a doctor . . .. I have the impression that publishers don’t do all that wet-nursing in the way that they used to. You’re much more on your own, and that may not be a bad thing. I don’t think writers need all that sympathy. They need to be told when their books are bad. The excessively sycophantic phase of American publishing has been forced off the stream because it’s simply not cost-effective anymore.
There have been two pressures that have eroded excellence in publishing. One is its increasing commercialization, the other is politics. We now have a generation of people whose literary education has consisted not of being soaked in excellence, but of judging novels and stories by their theme or by the color or political stance of their authors. Now it is common to meet editors who will talk about a second-rate book as if it were the best. My guess is that they probably started off with high standards—that is, if they weren’t political—but the commercial pressures slowly brought them low.
It is necessary to remember that the great middle-European tradition of publishing and editing, which was largely that of Jewish intellectuals, moved almost in toto to the United States and didn’t stop much in England. The excellence of the editorial process at Knopf, with or without Bob, is still streets ahead of anything at a British counterpart. The British style, with the exception of a few houses, is pretty much to print what they’ve bought, these days, misspellings and all. I’m not trying to make some spiteful point, it’s just a fact of life. I think American publishing is pretty resilient, despite its anxieties, and it does produce very clever people. The trouble is that the tempo of it all—the speed with which books go on and off the market and shoot to the top of the best-seller list, only to be unheard of three months later—produces a much faster and more careless approach to the product itself. That is true. But that has its advantages too, I expect.
These days most people at the heads of magazines and publishing houses don’t do the nitpicky stuff that Bob does. They don’t have time. Perhaps they hope the little stuff will get done by someone else, or perhaps they secretly believe that even if it isn’t done they can get away with it. There has been a great change in the notion of what editing means. Increasingly, editing means going to lunch. It means editing with a credit card, not with a pencil.
There’s so much concern for the bottom line these days. Of course, it’s not that twenty-five years ago everyone was publishing such wonderful literary things and didn’t care about finances; but now that the publishing houses have become larger, and books sell many more copies than they used to, writers want bigger advances, the pressures are greater. I think that’s one of the reasons that, when Bob left Knopf, he was glad to be out.
You have to give a little thought, in human terms, to what Bob’s doing at the moment. It’s an extraordinary situation, where the guy was captain of the ship all those years, and now goes back as a humble member of the crew, working as a line editor, without any executive powers at all. Bob had three ambitions in his life. They involved the New York City Ballet, Knopf, and The New Yorker. And he achieved them all. There’s a Jewish prayer that says, May we never realize our dreams; but Bob did realize his dreams, and it ended with The New Yorker. And at sixty-one he decided that what he really liked doing was what he had done at the beginning of his publishing life, which was editing.
I was an editor myself for a long while, and I have great difficulty explaining what was so gratifying about it. I suppose editing is almost maternal at times: you see yourself as being able to deliver something nurturing and corrective, and the benefit and the pleasure is in seeing the nurturing and the corrective show without your fingerprints. If it has your fingerprints on it, it’s no good. It’s like knowing you’ve been successful with your children when they don’t need you.
What is it that impels this act of editing? I know that in my case it’s not merely about words. Whatever I look at, whatever I encounter, I want it to be good—whether it’s what you’re wearing, or how the restaurant has laid the table, or what’s going on on stage, or what the president said last night, or how two people are talking to each other at a bus stop. I don’t want to interfere with it or control it, exactly—I want it to work, I want it to be happy, I want it to come out right. If I hadn’t gone into publishing, I might have been a psychoanalyst; I might have been, I think, a rabbi, if I’d been at all religious. My impulse to make things good, and to make good things better, is almost ungovernable. I suppose it’s lucky I found a wholesome outlet for it.
This is going to sound ungrateful, but I’ve had more recognition than anybody should have for doing a job that isn’t running the United Nations, and I used to ask myself, Why have I done so well? I really didn’t understand it. I used to feel I was a fraud because I had had so much success and done so little to deserve it. And then I realized, you don’t have to be a genius to be an editor. You don’t have to have a great inspirational talent to be a publisher. You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill. Those shouldn’t be rare qualities, and they don’t deserve a lot of credit, because you’re either born with them or you’re not. It’s luck. And that’s why you can be as good an editor your first day on the job as on your last; you’re not developing some unique and profound gift.
But publishing has changed in many ways, and one of them is that these days many editors don’t edit. There are editors now who basically make deals; they have assistant editors or associate editors who do the actual editing for them. When I was growing up in the business, editors, even if they were heads of publishing houses, tended to edit what they brought in, or they had someone who worked with them who could help them. Now it’s much more splintered, and the business of publishing has become far more complicated and fierce and febrile.
On the other hand, one has to remember that the time I look back on as the golden age was seen by people like Alfred Knopf as the age of the slobs, as opposed to prewar publishing, which was the true golden age. At a certain point you have to face the fact that you’ve turned into an old fart—that you can’t tell whether the zeitgeist has actually changed for the worse or whether you’ve simply fallen behind and aren’t in touch anymore.
This concludes our series of four posts about Robert Gottleib's way of editing.