The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and The Novelist

Thomas McCormack rose to be editorial director of St. Martin's Press in New York in the 1980s and 1990s, whereupon he trained_nurses wrote this classic book on editing. McCormack speaks of three stages in the editing of a novel: reading, analyzing, and prompting revision if needed. To do these well requires a well-tuned sensibility. Today's post delves into the first chapter of that classic, analyzing the first of the three stages: reading the manuscript.

Sensibility and the Appropriate Reader

The good editor reads, and he responds aptly, where 'aptly' means: as the ideal appropriate reader would. This responding depends on sensibility, the apparatus within that reacts to what's immediately given—a good (or bad) sentence, a vivid, exciting (or blurred, flat) scene. The good editor's sensibility is such that he's gripped, bored, delighted, confused, incredulous, or satisfied in the same place as the appropriate reader would be.

No such thing as an "ideal appropriate reader"? Consider the concept of "the Agatha Christie fan": If someone gives you the latest Pynchon novel and seriously says, "Just the thing for the Agatha Christie fan". Christie and Pynchon may share some fans, but it's a sure thing their two readerships aren't totally identical. It's the publisher's awareness of the damage an inapt sensibility can do that tells him, when he's received the manuscript of an orthodox manor-house mystery, not to assign it to an editor who can't enjoy Christie. That editor doesn't have the right sensibility. He won't respond aptly.

The writer woos, and counts on having an ideal intended audience—readers with a sensibility that cherishes and appreciates the special strokes the writer has to offer. If he's lucky, the first of those readers will an editor, a soul-mate who can guide him to make his performance even more winning.

Writer should stay in his sweet spot

An author must realize that he doesn't have to—and indeed cannot—capture the hearts of every possible reader out there. Name the most widely read authors you can think of—from Shakespeare to Robert Waller (The Bridges of Madison County), Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling—and the immense majority of book buyers actively decline to read them.

The lesson: write what you're comfortable with. If you would like to be read decades from now, realize that's less likely to happen the more you bend yourself to imitation. Think of the novelists of previous generations whom you like most. Notice how much his own person each of them was. Abandoning what you want to do in favor of chasing the "market" turns out to be a losing game. The Harry Potter books exploded into a market no one knew existed—700-page novels for young readers. If you're an unknown new novelist looking for a publisher, who's your market as a writer? The editor. Sniffing anxiously for the scent of something fresh.

The editor must respond as an Appropriate Reader

There's no way other than by reference to reader response to justify editorial comment. The editor's job is to help the writer produce a book that will have maximal appeal to the writer's ideal intended audience. The sermon from James Joyce's Portrait, or the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky's Karamazov would, like diamonds in the roast beef, be inappropriate for Tom Sawyer—based on the predictable impact on the appreciative reader. Even when confronted with something altogether new, the right editor can respond to it aptly—to react as its possible audience would.

To help grasp the implications of sensibility in an editor, ask: How does it go wrong, and what's the result. A 'wrong' sensibility in an editor shows itself either in misplaced disapproval, rejecting books he shouldn't, or misplaced admiration.

The publisher can require that you, the editor, have sufficient vision to prompt him to pass the Faulkner on to another editor and say, "It's not for me, but I suspect there may be something here." Every couple of years it's revealed that some justly celebrated book was rejected in manuscript by a dozen publishers. Most publishers have the good sense to be pained if they learn that their house was one of the decliners.

At the other end of the axis is the editor who'll accept anything above a certain low threshold of literacy, and so issues scores of titles aimed at a readership—people who would buy these books and enjoy them—that's close to nil.

The damage an editor with bad sensibility may do is even more poignant if a good or potentially good book is signed up by him. He can miss or disdain the worthy stuff in the book and prize the worst. The inaptly critical editor will eventually kill with mad surgery: Let's relocate the heart, replace the brain, cut these legs off just here. His polar opposite will beam hearty approval and sing 'Happy Birthday' as the script turns blue and expires for want of the merest first aid.

The editor who is indiscriminately disapproving does harm in a different way. He won't kill the author, but he won't supply needed help during the writer's labor, and many books will be stillborn because he hasn't spotted remediable faults. An editor catching eighty percent of the flaws isn't enough if the most important ones are among the remaining twenty and the book is dying because of them. Editors have a right to feel unfairly treated if they're blamed for a bad book when in fact they had reacted against the final twenty and asked the author to change them and the author wouldn't. But no amount of other hard work acquits them if the truth is they never recognized the fatal twenty as flaws at all.

If a book feels flat and vaguely stupefying because not one of the major characters comes to a fate that follows from anything the character himself did, and the editor says, "But that's like life!"; if every ideal reader, every bookseller, and even you and I attack the ending as ludicrous, and the editor says, "I loved the ending; I think it had to be that way"—then our conclusion has to be that he shouldn't be a fiction editor. As a private person he'd be entitled to any responses whatever. But as an editor it's essential that he have responses that reflect those of the appropriate audience.

This apt reaction should occur on every level of the book. The editor-as-reader should feel pleasure or satisfaction where broad macro-elements like plot and resolution are got right, but he should also delight in the writer's good performance all the way down to the choice of individual words. In certain novels the diction approaches the beauty of poetry (the typhoon scene from The Naked and The Dead was anthologized by Seldon Rodman in his One Hundred Modern Poems), and if the editor can't react on this micro-level, he'll never be good enough.

To get the most fine-tuned response to a manuscript, the editor should give himself over completely to the book and the process of reading it. Gottleib referred to this as surrendering to the book. To open his awareness to its joys, and to be wounded by its flaws. To get in tune with it most completely, he would read the whole book through uninterrupted.

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