Friday, August 17, 2007

A Letter to the Editor

Dear Eric:
Do you think I have what it takes to be a good editor? I love books and the reading life and I was wondering whether book publishing is for me. Your advice would be most appreciated.
Dear Silhouette:
Publishing is not what it is made out to be. There are more heartaches than joy in publishing. Most of the time you are in the throes of anger at the imbecility of writers who think they have all the answers to the ills that plague mankind since time immemorial.

It takes more than a love of books and the reading life to be a good editor; not only must you write well, you also need to have a high level of tolerance for writing that is unpolished and not substantial enough for commercial appeal. Editors must not only edit; nurturing good writers, helping them find the best in themselves, is equally important. Also, everything you do is constantly opened to criticism at all levels and from all directions; you must be able to learn to handle criticism of such nature. Everyone, yes, everyone, is a critic.

There is always a demand for good editors. There is undeniably a real lack of editing skills not only in Malaysia but elsewhere, too. Developing good editors takes time, effort and commitment. Editors must edit more, but we must consider the realities of the workplace where editors are badly remunerated, are often subject to punishing schedules and constantly grappling and coming to terms with publishing decisions that most of the time don’t make much sense. (Also, modern publishing requires books to be churned out at alarming rates, focusing on quantity rather than quality.) However, good publishers are indeed a rarity, especially those who appreciate the value of good editing and writing skills. What we need are more publishers who are able to grapple with the conflict between perfectionism and commercialism and at the same time try to find ways to improve public taste.

Editing a book is not exactly an affair you would like to get involved with. There are more bad ideas than good ones. There are more bad books to edit than good ones. That’s the reality of the business. Some people believe that editing is the most important component of the publishing process; most, however, believe that editing is the least important.

The whole process of publishing a book is a joy to behold. However, I only enjoy it if it is a good manuscript I am working on. When you are editing a great book it feels like you are in heaven. When you are editing a bad book it is like burning in the pits of hell, with fire and brimstone your eternal companions. What I dislike most is the fact that good manuscripts are hard to find. There aren’t many good ones to choose from. And the editing process can be as monotonous as a hamster wheel. I also detest the fact that I can’t say what’s on my mind most of the time. You just grin and bear it!

The work of an editor is well exemplified by Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947), the literary editor of Charles Scribner’s Sons in New York who edited the works of such luminaries as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Alan Paton, James Jones, Edmund Wilson and Ring Lardner, some of the finest writers of the 20th century. Perkins recognised good writing the moment he saw one and nurtured writers as few editors did. He believed editing to be a calling no less important than writing. And for that, he is recognised as the greatest American editor of fiction, and has inspired many leading editors in America today. Read about Perkins’s life, the writers he discovered, nurtured and championed through the years before he passed on in 1947 and the hurly-burly of the New York publishing scene in A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, an entertaining National Book Award-winning biography first published by Dutton in 1978. The legacy of the patron saint of book editors lives on in the books he moulded and the legion of editors he inspired: Nan A. Talese, Gary Fisketjon, etc.

If you think you are able to live with these realities, then you could be the right person for a career in publishing. Otherwise, it is best you stick to what you are doing now.


Blogger Vikram Johri said...

This is as good a commentary on publishing as I have ever read. I hope fire and brimstone aren't your companions too often, Eric!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007 7:28:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Thanks for your kind words, Vikram! Glad to know that you enjoyed the commentary. Editing can be an endless and thankless task, but once you are in it, you are somehow in it for good.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007 8:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your honest advice. They make lots of sense. Silhouette

Thursday, August 16, 2007 2:04:00 AM  

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