Homage to a Great Editor

The relationship between a writer and his or her editor is a marriage that takes commitment, creativity, trust, care and honesty. One of the most profound and volatile relationships between writer and editor was between the Maxwell Perkins and the mercurial author, Thomas Wolfe. After working as a reporter for The New York Times, Maxwell Perkins joined the publishing house of Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1910. Perkins wished to publish younger writers. Unlike most editors, he actively sought out promising new artists; he made his first big find in 1919 when he signed F. Scott Fitzgerald. Its publication as This Side of Paradise (1920) marked the arrival of a new literary generation that would always be associated with Perkins. Fitzgerald’s profligacy and alcoholism strained his relationship with Perkins. Nonetheless, Perkins remained Fitzgerald’s friend to the end of Fitzgerald’s short life, in addition to his editorial relationship with the author, particularly evidenced in The Great Gatsby (1925), which benefited substantially from Perkins’ criticism.

It was through Fitzgerald that Perkins met Ernest Hemingway, publishing his first major novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926. Perkins fought for it over objections to Hemingway’s profanity raised by traditionalists in the firm. The commercial success of Hemingway’s next novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929), which topped the best-seller list, silenced colleagues’ questions about Perkins’ editorial judgment.

The greatest professional challenge Perkins faced was posed by Thomas Wolfe‘s lack of artistic self-discipline. Wolfe wrote voluminously and was greatly attached to each sentence he wrote. After a tremendous struggle, Perkins induced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929). His next, Of Time and the River (1935), was the result of a two-year battle during which Wolfe kept writing more and more pages in the face of an ultimately victorious effort by Perkins to hold the line on size. At first grateful to Perkins for discovering and mentoring him, Wolfe later came to resent the popular perception that he owed his success to his editor. Wolfe left Scribner’s after numerous fights with Perkins. Despite this, Perkins served as Wolfe’s literary executor after his early death in 1938 and was considered by Wolfe to be his closest friend.

In the movie, Genius, which shines light on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, there is a small exchange between this bonded twosome that sheds light on a universal theme for writers. As in the life of all great writers, beginning writers or hopeful writers, we circulate a thought over and over again:  What if I am trivial?  What if, as the world burns down around us each day, while I labor at my typewriter, in my journals or on scraps of paper, what if what I do is inconsequential?

The story is never inconsequential. It has been that way for all storytellers from the moment we sat around fires, huddled in the dark, listening to the wolves outside the firelight, and one man begins to tell a story, simply so we are not so afraid of the dark.  What if one story is someone’s needed light?  What if your story is in fact just exactly what the world needs now?

An Editor is the most intimate relationship we can have as a writer.  The level of trust, sensitivity and ruthless honesty in this relationship has made or broken many a writer.  And a bad editor can pull the plug on passion, disrespect the author’s keen talent in the service of grammar or spelling, or hold you up and make your work even better, helping you hone your story, and ultimately yourself.

A good editor is a marriage partner and knows how you think, how you are moved, where your strengths and weaknesses are and makes you better, stronger and more publishable, even when you lose faith in yourself.




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