Saturday, August 1, 2009

If Not For the Editing

Back when I studied creative writing at York University, one of my profs, Richard Teleky, told us that he felt Nino Ricci was a good writer, but not necessarily a great writer*. The reason why he felt this was that Ricci's debut novel, "Lives of the Saints" was by far and away better then the next two books in the trilogy, mostly because the first book was the beneficiary of a great deal of sublime editing. Ricci had written the novel while earning an MFA at Concordia, and as happens to any MFA student, their major work in a program is never only a singular effort - each student is surrounded by a number of like-minded, intelligent and perceptive writers and editors who all pitch in with helpful suggestions and critiques.

The point of my old professor's illustration was to drive home the point that it was not a great writer who made a work great, but a great editor, and that without the second part of the equation, even the most talented writer would quickly slip into mediocrity. A case in point being J.K. Rowling (bear with me, here), whose first three Harry Potter novels, all heavily edited, polished and slimmed down volumes, were far better then the latter four. When it came time for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," Rowling's sales and recognition were already a world-wide phenomenon, and she was able to resist much of the editorial control she had put up with in the beginning. When it came time for the seventh book, you have to wonder if the editors were even allowed in the same room as the manuscript.

As far as Rowling was concerned, that didn't really matter much. She was a popular writer, the bucks were rolling in, and literary merit, "good writing" and "bad writing" all became moot points. If her name was on the front, people bought it, just as the buy Tom Clancy, James Patterson, Stephen King, Danielle Stelle, et al.

But, if you are the sort of writer whose popularity is derived from the literary merit of your work, as opposed to a character, genre, or place, that sort of slide into mediocrity often quickly translates into a one-way ticket back into obscurity. This is why literary writers often take so very long to complete a novel, and why the editing process is often so drawn out. Great literary writers almost always have a great, and usually a specific editor to work with. In Canada, that meant someone like Ellen Seligman, who, as the National Post declared, [I]"has edited more Giller Prize winners than anyone."[/I]

As Patrick Lane put it "Hands-on doesn't even begin to describe what Ellen does. Ellen inhabited my manuscript. That's the only way I can describe it. She entered into the novel in a way that just stunned me. I was not prepared for the way she climbed inside the novel." As Lane described it, he worked with Ellen for three hours every day when editing his first novel, and at times up to nine hours at a stretch.

When you look at a list of who Seligman has edited, it's a veritable who's who of CanLit - Margaret Atwood, Rohinton Mistry, David Bergen, Leonard Cohen, Elizabeth Hay, Jane Urquhart, Michael Ondaatje, and Anne Michaels.

All of which begs the question - if each of these writers is considered to be a "great writer," yet the common element between them all is the same, doesn't that beg the question as to who, truly, brings that touch of greatness to their works? Is it the editor? According to Seligman "[e]ditors, certainly in Canada, we don't change things. Our job is to make recommendations." So, in other words, no. It's not the editor, it is the author. Case closed, end of discussion, next subject please.

Still, you would have to wonder whether such a statement was true, or editorial boilerplate, a way of obfuscating the process the way a magician does their tricks. Ask any editor, and they would probably say the same thing. Admitting to being a co-author of a work, for editors, would be a breach of ethics on par with a psychologist passing around a highlight reel of their sessions with clients. So the question as to how complicit an editor is in the creation of a work is one that will go unanswered. If the author is successful, they're not going to blab, and even if the author bombed and decided to blab, who would listen? Who would care? Sour grapes from a failed writer are about the last item on anyone's to-do list.

One way for the truth to surface, however, is if the story is told from beyond the grave. This, as it turns out, recently happened in regards to Raymond Carver. As the Times of London has shown, Raymond Carver reputation as a master stylist is about as deserved as Bernie Madoff's reputation as a master investor. As time has told, it was all, in the end, a lie.

Which brings me back to my old prof, Richard Teleky, and the sermon he told his class of half asleep poseurs, most of whom, like myself, allowed words like "craft," "editor," and "editing" to splash off of them and dissipate into the air, deflected by the impenetrable shields named "the muse," "my art," and "talent." Maybe trying the be the best writer the world has seen is not the best use of my time. Perhaps I should start looking for a good editor instead.


[I]*Keep in mind that Ricci has won TWO Governor General's Awards and a Trillium Award. Which means that any aspersions should not be taken at face value.[/I]

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