In a 1967 Paris Review interview, Vladimir Nabokov revealed his disdain for any hint of editorial interference. ‘By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader,’ he sniffed. ‘Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor — which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions”, which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”’
Witty intransigence on this scale is all too rare nowadays. I have, however, known resistant authors who, on being handed an advance copy of their book, suddenly become seized with the desire to make changes to the text. At the other extreme are those requiring constant reassurance and a high level of emotional support. With fiction and memoir in particular, editors engage not only with other people’s words, but also with their lives. Such relationships are complex, alarmingly interactive, and hidden from public scrutiny by an underworld-style code of silence.
As undercover agents, editors find it difficult, if not impossible, to explain what we do, even to friends and family. When questioned at parties, I have sometimes invented a less slippery vocation — once going so far as to masquerade as a panel beater in order to avoid explaining how a wordsmith might straighten out a book-length manuscript for publication.
Melbourne editor Mandy Brett, who has written about book editing’s ‘cult of secrecy’, also describes it as a ‘crazy’ occupation and an intense ‘affair-of-the-mind’ with a writer. In Edward St Aubyn’s satirical novel Lost for Words, his fictional editor derives pleasure from something as simple as ‘two sentences turned into one, one sentence broken into two’, or ‘the substitution of a slightly resistant adjective to engender a moment’s reflection’. Such editorial intervention gives ‘the appearance of ease to the greatest difficulty’, and brings ‘clarity to tangled and obscure ideas’.
In the fabled high-rise publishing houses of Manhattan, the best views are enjoyed by editors exalted enough to be company vice-presidents. To them, no advance is ever too large and no manuscript too unwieldy. Their prize acquisitions are gently massaged and then passed down the line to copyeditors, who check grammar, spelling, and punctuation, while imposing a consistent template of ‘house style’.
By contrast, suburban freelancers working on-screen are among the invisible heroes of Australian publishing, though they didn’t exist when I was an editorial apprentice in the early 1970s. I was taught to use a 2B pencil for suggested changes to the text, and a red pen for marking up house style. The pencil edit was an incentive for authors to revise. It also allowed them to judge whether an editor was in tune with their work.
Having grown up on a postwar diet of British books and American comics, I worked as a cadet reporter and then as a fledgling book editor in Brisbane. Yet this transition from journalism to publishing was quite a culture shock. On a daily newspaper, the results of editorial effort were in print within a few hours, whereas books could take months — even years — to produce. It was also a surprise to find that book publishers and editors showed so much respect for writers: referred to as ‘authors’ rather than ‘reporters’ or ‘journos’.
Book editors, I was to learn, were more like project managers than the paragraph carpenters I’d seen at work around a newspaper subs’ table. At the University of Queensland Press, I was given my own office, even as a trainee editor. And it didn’t take long for me to realise that editors not only work collaboratively with authors, but also must negotiate on their behalf with deadline-obsessed production, marketing, and sales managers. At every stage on a book’s journey, the editor is its shepherd, transforming raw manuscript keystrokes into an object of readerly desire.
As a young fiction editor I developed a special interest in short-story collections, launching the careers of several writers, including Peter Carey, Murray Bail, and Olga Masters. Among my other authors were novelists David Malouf, Barbara Hanrahan, Roger McDonald, and Rodney Hall. Over the decades, I also edited a wide range of nonfiction, including memoirs and biographies, and was fortunate enough to work on those publishing projects that most interested me. My career as a book-builder has been a lifelong adventure, and one that happily coincided with the reinvigoration of Australian literature in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
One of the finest exponents of the editing craft was Maxwell Perkins, who worked with authors as demanding as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. ‘A publisher is blamed if a book fails and ignored if it proves a success,’ Perkins was fond of quoting to his editorial acolytes at the august New York publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons. ‘The job of an editor,’ he assured them, ‘is the dullest, hardest, most exciting, exasperating, and rewarding of perhaps any job in the world.’