Strict Editing 03/29/21

I was listening to the Bret Easton Ellis podcast today, and towards the end of his (extremely lengthy) interview with Walter Kirn, they discussed the work of Gordon Lish.

Lish, as most people in the lit world know him, was basically responsible for Raymond Carver’s hyper minimalist approach. He’d go in and rewrite passages, cut almost everything out, and at the end of it you’d have these bare bones short stories. Same thing with Amy Hempel and many others.

Kirn was someone who Lish had worked with. The way he describes the process is as such: Lish would give the author $3,000 and start tinkering with their work. For a while, this system of book production yielded benefits, but as with anything, eventually it petered out.

I’ve always been struck by how inappropriate I feel Lish’s cuts and reworkings of people’s books are. That’s not the job of an editor at all. We’re supposed to bring out the best book inside the manuscript we’ve been given, not turn the book into our own thing.

I once worked with an author who paid me about the same amount of money mentioned above to work on his novel. He got an agent after that, but the agent pressured him into getting the book worked on again by an in-demand editor, a guy who’d worked on the Harry Potter series. This author paid $25k (not a typo) to get notes back. He then shared them with me. Every single line had been cut into, changed. I suppose if someone is getting paid that much money, you expect some serious work done, but both the price and the end result struck me as the opposite of what a book should look like.

Why on earth would you chop out every perceived flaw? You’re one person. There’s a balance to be struck here, and I try to do that in my own work. Am I in love with every line of every book that I work on? Well, no. I’m not in love with every line of every book I’ve written. There’s a give and take, though, a kind of loosening up required, a recognition that sometimes a sentence is just a sentence, not poetry. It serves a function. It’s…fine, I guess.

A good strategy, for someone who really wants to get the most out of the editing process, might be to hire more than one editor, each of them with a philosophy broadly similar to my own. Then, you take the things that work, and discard the rest.

Submitting your work to one genius who’s going to turn it into his own monster just seems to miss the whole point of books as self-expression. They’re not tables or chairs. There are no objectively straight lines. There are simply broad strokes you can follow, and obvious clunkers that need fixing, and maybe some developmental recommendations in this direction or the other.

It’s art, man.

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