At a recent talk to a group of academic editors in Delhi, I asked what people thought that editors – as a species – were, or should be, like:
‘Book-lover.’ Seems obvious – but comforting that someone should have come up with this first. ‘Someone very good with language.’ Yes, another tick. ‘Able to think outside the box.’ Hmmm. Less sure about this one, which suggested that the proposer had spent a little too much time inside a box marked Management Training 101.
‘Frustrated writer.’ Nervous laughter.
Gary Kamiya, executive editor of the online magazine Salon, comes up with the following list: ‘Editors are craftsmen, ghosts, psychiatrists, bullies, sparring partners, experts, enablers, ignoramuses, translators, writers, goalies, friends, foremen, wimps, ditch diggers, mind readers, coaches, bomb throwers, muses and spittoons – sometimes all while working on the same piece.’
In 23 years of working as an editor, I have been all of these – and more besides (‘dustbin’ and ‘mechanic’ spring to mind). But I would like to add one more to the list: editors are diamond-cutters. This might sound rather high-falutin’, but once I started thinking about it, I realised that this is a metaphor with many facets (geddit?).
Lapidarists – those who cut gems – and editors have an eye for detail and use sharp instruments to work on their material. But there is more to it than that. So, let us embark upon a journey, in the bracing company of that old bugbear, the mixed metaphor, and milk that diamond for all it’s worth.
1. Sparkling prose
Handed a raw lump of text, editors shave down, hone, cut and chisel away in the belief that what the material loses in size, it will gain in value. The gem-cutter’s art is all about shaving away the excess such that the light will shine through. And if – as in medieval Christian iconography – meaning is light, so too the editor cuts and polishes the language until the light of understanding passes, brilliantly, from author to reader, unrefracted by flaws, undimmed by extraneous matter. All this in the search for clarity (double-entendre intended), and to optimise, in lapidarist’s parlance, the piece’s ‘fire and brilliance’.
In a newspaper interview, Lenny Goodings, the founder of the British press Virago, speaks of the primary importance of ‘finding out what the writer thought they wanted to do.’ A careful choice of words, you’ll note: not ‘what they want to do’ but ‘what they thought they wanted to do.’ There is many a slip between intention and execution, and an editor’s job is to make the transition smooth – whether that means correcting a typo, reordering a sentence, resequencing an argument or restructuring an entire book.
2. It takes one to know one
I particularly like the fact that the only thing that is hard enough to cut a diamond is a diamond. Likewise, the editor and the writer are both chips off the same block (as the giggles following the ‘frustrated writer’ comment above suggests). An editor might, or might not, do a lot of writing, but a writer does an awful lot of editing. Writing and editing, like love and marriage, go together like horse and carriage: they are the yin and yang of language, the art and craft, the heart and mind, the food and cuisine.
Working together on a piece of writing is well-nigh impossible unless the editor and author share some kind of affinity. This is a relationship often fraught with the frustrations, tenderness and duplicity of marriage. It demands a kind of intimacy and trust – and respect – or it can end in a very messy divorce. Gary Kamiya recalls that, after working on a piece with a crusty, hard-bitten columnist at least twice his age, she announced, ‘That was great – better than sex!’ And, I confess, that after dotting the last ‘i’ and crossing the last ‘t’ of a particularly tricky piece, there is a similar urge to stretch, purr and reach for a post-coital cigarette.
Sometimes the editor’s role is so crucial in the final shaping of the text that it seems wrong to ascribe authorship to a single entity. In 1998, when it came to light how extensively Raymond Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, had cut and reworked Carver’s classic collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, it created quite a storm in literary teacups around the world. Carver’s relationship with Lish was close and longstanding. In a letter to his editor, he wrote, ‘You, my friend, are my idea of an ideal reader, always have been, always, that is, forever, will be.’
3. The kindest cut
Like diamond-cutters, good editors know when to stop. The problem is that it is kind of irresistible to want to cut or correct something – a perfect piece of text is an affront, almost, an indication that the editor is not needed. A spine-chilling thought, and one that subconsciously prods the unwary editor to change that comma into a semi-colon even though it was fine, really fine, just as it was.
You need a steady and experienced hand at this job: one slip and you end up with a worthless lump of rock. The novelist Jeanette Winterson cites a lovely incident to illustrate her frustration that editors, these days, have become ‘linear and timid’:
‘When T S Eliot was asked what he meant by ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree,’ he said: ‘I meant, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.”’ I have no idea what that means, but I am glad it didn’t get edited into ‘Mrs, there’s three wild animals under that shrub.’
There are those who, brought up in the New Yorker/Granta/MFA school of editing, cheerfully hack away, leaving the stage strewn with bloodied corpses of adverbial phrases and descriptive digressions, only to find the central character naked and shivering at the end of the play, mere skin and bone. One might add to Mark Twain’s oft-quoted piece of advice to writers to ‘kill your darlings’, lest they are savagely chopped into little tiny pieces by someone else.
The reason that the whole Carver-Lish controversy gained the prominence that it did is that the diktat ‘less is more’ – of which Carver’s short stories are seen as the apotheosis – has become fundamental to the way many writers feel they should write (and many editors feel that they should edit). But although it is a useful rule of thumb, a good editor knows that there are those times when less is, in fact, less.
Understanding and working empathetically with the text is similar to a diamond-cutter’s understanding of the crystalline structure of his gem. Although there are certain standard shapes – oval, asscher, princess, radiant – the process of getting to the final, polished jewel is unique. There is no point in shaping a diamond into a pearl. Try to edit a potboiler into an Orange-prize winner and you will end up with a lemon.
4. Panning for gold
A large part of what editors do is, like prospectors, pan for gold. It is dirty, thankless work and ruins your fingernails, but you are driven on by the dream that somewhere, in amongst the silt and rubble of the slush pile, there lurks the gleam of genius.
The process of painstaking sifting also applies to the writer’s craft. As a writer writes, so does he (or she) edit – assessing, discarding, re-assessing words and phrases for the perfect combination. What critic Toby Litt finds so distressing about the tendency of creative-writing schools to shoehorn their fledgling writers into the less-is-more-least-is-most-Raymond-Carver school of writing is that, ‘it took Carver 16 years to go from his first published story to his first published collection of stories. Before he wrote the Less, he wrote a good deal of the More.’
5. Editors anonymous
Perhaps Raymond Carver would not have been Raymond Carver without his ruthless editor. But who has ever heard of Gordon Lish? Okay, quite a few literary types and lots of people who read the New Yorker, but you know what I mean. It is the editor’s duty, destiny, dharma to become and remain invisible. Diana Athill only achieved some measure of fame when she turned her pen to writing, and Faber published her wonderful memoir of a life in editing, entitled – brilliantly – Stet (Latin for ‘let it stand’, the copy-editor’s mark meaning ‘leave as it is’.) In other words, an editor’s glory – just like the diamond-cutter’s – is all reflected.
You need not travel to Surat, where 80 percent of the world’s diamonds are cut, to realise that editors are also, generally, underpaid skilled workers, the value of whose time and labour is drastically disproportionate to the material on which they work. Yes, we are the unsung heroes, doggedly fact-checking, chasing up that missing bibliographical reference, wondering aloud if one should italicise ‘sari’ if you’re italicising ‘mattar-paneer’, and worrying about creeping Americanisations while others are out getting what is, I believe, called ‘a Life.’
Who cares? This is a question that dogs every editor. Who – in this day and age of SMSing and chatting, blogging and tweets – really, honestly, gives two hoots that you have hyphenated ‘stainless-steel’ because it is being used adjectivally? The unexpected runaway success of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation suggests that there are more than enough ‘sticklers and pedants’ out there. These are the people whose reaction to a misplaced apostrophe is akin to the stages of bereavement: ‘First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally … anger gives way to the righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.’
At the age of 93, Diana Athill’s take on the matter is a tad more philosophical: ‘For me, if what is being said comes clearly across, that’s what matters. It is a bit pedantic to fuss too much about the editing of detail.’ Blasphemy! some would cry. Others would shrug, nod and turn the page.
6. Pigs’ ears
There are those authors who think that each of their words is a gem, and that their editor’s only role is to periodically remind the author of how incredibly gracious he (it is usually a ‘he’) is to have chosen her (it is usually a ‘she’) before whom to cast his pearls. But, occasionally, as every editor knows, you cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear and not every text is a diamond in the rough. Some are, and will resolutely remain, lumps of carbon, and the only thing to be done with them is to bury them deep, deep under the earth and leave them to mature for several millennia. Or, alternatively, recommend that the author gets in touch with one of your colleagues in another publishing house, oh, and here is her e-mail ID …
7. Setting the setting
This is where we have to extend the metaphor a bit sideways. The job of editing does not stop with shaping and fashioning the text until it achieves a jewel-like brightness and luminosity. We also have to think about how to frame it. While agents trade and editors acquire their raw materials in Frankfurt, Bologna or London, it is only once they are back at their desks that the editor becomes like a jeweller, and has to take decisions about how best to display their writers’ work to the buying public. Decisions to do with the cover, the typeface, the format, the title, the ‘feel’ of the book are all crucial to its eventual success or failure. Mismatch a jewel and its setting, and the brightest gem will gather dust in the jeweller’s display case. Display a diamond to its best effect, and it can win hearts and coronets.
Even a stonking good metaphor like this one can be overdone, however, so before I feel the unkind cut of the editor’s razor-sharp pen, I shall leave you with this final thought. An editor’s best friend is her dictionary and her second-best friend is Wikipedia. Look up ‘lapidary’ and alongside the main definition – ‘a person whose business is to cut, polish, set or deal in gemstones’ is a secondary meaning: ‘pertaining to, about, of inscriptions’. Wikipedia elaborates: ‘a “lapidary” writing style is crisp, accurate, formal and condensed.’
Now, where’s my chisel?
Himal Magazine, May 2011