Carol Houck Smith; Book Editor Worked With Award Winners

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

Carol Houck Smith, 85, who edited generations of the nation's most distinguished poets and authors, died Nov. 28 or 29 at her home in New York. The medical examiner has not yet determined the cause of death, her nephew and her legal executor said.

Ms. Smith spent her entire 60-year publishing career at W.W. Norton & Co., starting as a secretary and working her way up to vice president. A legendary editor, she was known for seeking out new talent and had an impressive record for finding it. Those she edited included Stanley Kunitz, Rita Dove, Ron Carlson, Andrea Barrett, Gerald Stern, Maxine Kumin, Rick Bass and Pam Houston. Books she edited collected a Pulitzer Prize and three National Book Awards in the past dozen years alone.

"I had a running joke with Carol that I'd only read one of her books if it had been nominated for a major prize, and of course that meant I read virtually all of her books," Norton President W. Drake McFeely told colleagues.

Ms. Smith signed Kunitz to a three-book contract in 1993, never mind that the poet was 87 years old. All three works were published, and one, "Passing Through: The Later Poems," won a National Book Award.

"She was a wonderful little dynamo," said Dove, whose upcoming work of poetry, "Sonata Mulattica" was being edited by Ms. Smith when she died. "She was so sensitive to how a writer works and giving her space. For about three years, I didn't tell anybody what my book was about. I didn't tell Carol either. . . . I felt bad about being so 'artistic,' but that's what I had to do. I knew I could trust Carol to see it for what it was. And she was terrific with it."

Barrett, whose National Book Award-winning "Ship Fever and Other Stories" (1996) was edited by Ms. Smith, said in a statement: "It wasn't her way to scribble all over a page, to change sentences wholesale, to substitute her vision for a writer's. Instead, she did the simplest (and hardest) task: she asked questions. Questions that presumed the characters created on the page were actual persons, the actions real and consequential, the meanings a matter of life and death."

Described by the Salt Lake Tribune as the "antithesis of the caustic New Yorker," Ms. Smith was often a panelist at writers' conferences, where she took the adulation from young authors and poets with a grain of salt and a sense of humor.

"They look at you partly like you're Mother Teresa and partly like you're some rock star," she told the New York Times in 1994. "I guess it's because you're from New York and you represent the whole publishing business, which to them is this giant, looming thing, like in a Thurber cartoon."

Carol Houck was born in 1923 in Buffalo and graduated from Vassar College in 1944. After working at Standard Brands in New York City, she joined Norton in 1948 as a secretary to an editor of trade books.

Her determined progress out of the secretarial pool represented a breakthrough for women as editors in what was then a male-dominated profession. She became an editor in the mid-1960s and was appointed a vice president in March 1980. She was named an editor-at-large upon her official retirement from Norton in July 1996, but she continued reporting to the office every day, with her retirement heralding one of the most distinguished and fruitful periods of her career.

She edited three poets laureate of the United States -- Dove, Kunitz and Kumin. She edited three National Book Award-winning books, by Kunitz, Barrett and Stern (1998's "This Time: New and Selected Poems"), as well as multiple finalists. She edited the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Different Hours" by Stephen Dunn (2000) and three other Pulitzer finalists.

A group of poets organized a tribute to her in February 2008 at the Associated Writing Programs conference in New York City.

Her husband of six years, Hunter Smith, died in 1975. She had no immediate family survivors.

The best advice to beginning writers, she said in a 2004 online chat, is "to be a reader. To become a voracious reader. And to learn to read with your ears as well as your eyes. To read your own work aloud. And even to type out a passage from a writer you love, to really get the rhythm."

The job of an editor, she continued, "is to discover what the intention of the writer is, and then to try and stand in for the general reader and assess whether the writer has fulfilled that intention. I think it's a chemical relationship between author and editor, in the same way that you're attracted to friends when you meet them, and so the editor has really joined the book."

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