The qualities that make a first rate editor are clearly disclosed in these three books. Max Perkins, Bill Sloane, and Saxe Commins were all known to me, personally and professionally; for that acquaintance I am grateful.
The recently published biography of Perkins did ample justice to his life and work, but, really, nothing can supplant these selections from his correspondence. Originally published in 1950, they are now reissued with a new introduction by Marcia Davenport, who calls herself "about the last of those who were so fortunate to have Max Perkins for our editor from our beginnings until his death."
All writers and editors should read this book, and it should be compulsory reading in every publishing house, especially for the new breed of marketing director, publicist, packager, deal-maker - those publishing types who don't quite understand the author-editor relationship and that the manuscript is important above all else. Valuable in several wasy, Editor to Author offers models for those letter writers not yet familiar with the power of simple declarative sentences. It also indicates the importance of teaching by indirection. Moreover, Perkins was a master of creative criticism.
Bill Sloane, in his heyday, seemed to me to be a golden boy. Everything he touched, at the house of Henry Holt and later, briefly, under his own imprint, turned to gold. (I did business with him - I was then reprint editor at World - and bought rights to some of his authors, such as Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin.) As he reveals here, he was a sensitive and practical editor.
Sloane says a number of sensible things. However, I disagree with him on one point - the usefulness of creative writing classes and writers' conferences. He is terribly gung-ho about them; I am not. I side with Maxwell Perkins who said (in one of the letters reprinted in Editor to Author ): "Learn about writing from reading...."
Saxe Commins was a loveable man, a true father-figure. He slaved on the manuscripts he was involved with and took extraordinary personal pains with his writers, developing in theprocess the closet possible relationships with them. Thus, we are given here som e remarkable anecdotes and insights relating to such Commins authors as William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill, Theodore Dreiser, James Michener, Stephen Spender, and William Carlos Williams. Throughout his many fruitful years at both Liveright and then Random House, he was totally dedicated. No single editor to my knowledge was so beloved and trusted by his authors. (One reason why I loved this particular editor is because he shared my aversion to cocktail parties.)
One of Commins' fascinating anecdotes deals with Eugene O'Neill and his wife, Carlotta Monterey. In his will, O'Neill had carefully requested that his play, Long Day's Journey Into Night not be published or produced until 25 years after his death.The agreement was put into a legal document and signed by both Random House and O'Neill. But when the playwright died, his widow promptly disobeyed his stricture and ordered the play published and produced at once.
The Random House people felt they could only undertake publication "with clean hands" if there was a disclaimer on the book, saying that Mrs. O'Neill had authorized the play's premature appearance. Carlotta exploded at this, and her lawyers soon demonstrated that she, being the sole beneficiary, had the legal right to trample on her late husband's wishes. Random House finally gave up rights to the play, which was then published by Yale. Of his part in the drama set in motion by the tempestuous Mrs. O'Neill, Commins comments that, although he never saw Long Day's Journey, he was "in a strange sense, an unlisted member of the cast acting an anonymous role."
That is, in fact, not a bad description of the editorial role. Each of these three volumes deals with that role and its several facets; I recommend them unreservedly to anyone who takes the profession and craft of editing and writing seriously. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption