Strange things happen all the time in the business of book publishing, but few have been much stranger than the deal that was struck the other day between the newly re-christened firm of HarperCollins and an author named John Sayles. In return for an advance somewhere in six figures, Sayles agreed to give HarperCollins the privilege of publishing his new novel, "Los Gusanos," but he attached a rider to the contract: The book must be published "as is," untouched by any editor's hand save that of the copy editor.
"I can't think of any editing that is needed," Terry Karton of HarperCollins told the New York Times last week. "I took notes while reading the manuscript and it didn't even occur to me that any editing needs to be done," she added, in the process raising the question: If no editing was needed, why was she taking notes? Be that as it may, Karton agreed to be the non-editing editor of Sayles's manuscript, which HarperCollins plans to publish late next spring.
Precisely why HarperCollins accepted a concession to the relatively obscure Sayles that no more noted author is known to have been granted is a mystery, though the simple explanation may well be that he was merely the first to dream up the idea. In all likelihood no one at HarperCollins is losing sleep over ceding its editorial powers, for truth to tell few publishers are much interested in exercising those powers these days; they think of editors as experts in acquisition rather than correction and revision, and HarperCollins -- Harper & Row certainly sounded better, didn't it? -- probably is secretly delighted to have contractual license for the abrogation of editorial responsibility.
But the other question remains: Why was Sayles so eager to get the editorial monkey off his back? Perhaps his experience in television and movies, where most of such reputation as he enjoys has been made, persuaded him that creativity in groups is rarely very creative. More likely, though, he found himself for whatever reason in a position to demand that he be spared an editorial presence, which among writers too often seems to be regarded more as a nuisance than a blessing, and he seized the opportunity.
This attitude toward editors and editing is one I have never been able to understand. For nearly three decades I have been a professional newspaper and magazine journalist and an occasional author of books, and with the rarest of exceptions I have received nothing except improvement, perhaps even profit, at the hands of the men and women who have edited my work. Editing can be a demanding and time-consuming process, at times downright wearying, yet in my experience it almost invariably results in writing that is better than the original.
Writers need editors: This seems to me as axiomatic as anything can be in a business where nothing is engraved in stone. Or, perhaps more accurately, writers need good editors. There are almost as many bad editors as there are bad writers, which is to say plenty, and the writer who finds himself at the mercy of one is sure to come away bruised and bitter. In years past, when my copy was at the mercy of editors in the practice of group journalism at one of the weekly magazines, I sometimes winced in pain at the gratuitous insults my sentences suffered along the path from my typewriter to the printing press; no doubt anyone else who has worked in similar circumstances would have similar tales to tell.
Yet even when the editing process is overly rigorous or downright unpleasant or even merely capricious, usually there is something to be gained from it. Very early in my career I worked for a weekly newspaper supplement in which the brevity of articles bordered on emaciation and an institutional prose style was rigorously enforced. To say that I hated my years there is an understatement; yet at a malleable age I was forced to learn lessons that in more permissive quarters I would have resisted, and in every instance they have proved invaluable.
Perhaps it's best for writers to think of editors not as malign creatures wielding blue pencils but as professional readers -- or, even better, as readers' representatives in the publishing process. We write, after all, to please and inform readers, so it stands to reason that if we fail to do so, we fail in our jobs. What the editor's function boils down to is to determine if we get across to readers and, if not, to help us figure out how to do so.
In the editing of books this can follow any number of courses. No doubt the most famous in American letters is the one Maxwell Perkins pursued in editing the massive manuscripts of Thomas Wolfe. This editing venture amounted to the distillation of books out of vast oceans of wildly disorganized, undigested prose; though debate on the question still goes on among Wolfe's critics and partisans, it seems no hyperbole to say that without Perkins there would have been no Wolfe.
The Perkins-Wolfe relationship clearly was an exaggeration of the ordinary, but in essence it was ordinary indeed. If there is a single task that most characterizes the conscientious editor's responsibility, that task is cutting. With the possible exception of Emily Dickinson, it can be said of just about all of us who write that we write too much. John Sayles's manuscript is reported to be 680 pages in length; the betting here is that the book would be significantly improved by the scissoring of at least 68 of those pages, since a useful rule of thumb is that any manuscript has a minimum fat content of 10 percent.
Certainly that was the case with the two books I have thus far inflicted upon the world. Looking back at the first, I regret most of all that its editor was not more insistent that it be cut; I now realize that were the book 10 or 15 percent leaner, it would be 20 or 30 percent better. It was precisely for this reason that, upon completion of my second book, I had it read not merely by its editor but also by several outside readers; one editor often isn't enough, that first book had taught me, so I went out in search of others.
As it happens this resulted in numerous improvements, not least among them substantial cuts in sections of the book where I'd fallen too much in love with the sound of my own words or those of others I was quoting. The precise merits and faults of the book as it finally emerged are not for me to judge, but of this I have no doubt: It is a far better piece of work, thanks to the labors of these editors, than it was at the outset.
This is an author speaking, and a grateful one. But as a professional reviewer of other people's books, I can say with even greater confidence that the book has yet to come along that couldn't profit from an editor's changes and trims. Over and over again I am asked by readers, "Doesn't anybody edit any more?" They ask because the books they read too often are overlong, disorganized, sloppily written -- precisely the problems that editors exist to correct. And the answer to their question is, no, there isn't all that much editing being done these days, and too much of what's done is hasty and inattentive.
So in a way the stipulation in John Sayles's contract merely affirms the status quo; he's made it okay for publishers not to do what they aren't doing anyway. But someday in the future perhaps he'll take a look at "Los Gusanos," and on that someday, he'll be sorry.