I used to work for an order more clandestine than the Knights Templar, more invisible than the Invisible Woman, more prone to secrecy than Jason Bourne. We did our work in secret, erasing our identities before and after every job, writing confidential reports and often never meeting the human they concerned. I’m sure there are other professions that still operate with the secrecy and guardedness of a medieval guild. But I’m beginning to think the secrecy that surrounds my old profession is doing the sort of damage that’s done to anyone forced into secrecy. I’m thinking paranoia, depression. That profession is book editing.
Book editors regularly open themselves to an other, go deeply into that other’s innermost being (their text), and work to transform that text (and be themselves transformed) without touching it. And then they must let go of it all and be forever silent. I think all this secret intimacy is doing editors’ heads in. Writers are renowned for their paranoia, their swings between omnipotence and impotence, their depression and insecurity. But in my experience, editors suffer just as much if not more from these debilitating states – mostly without the upswing of omnipotence. Why? Possibly because they’re treated mostly like shit. Poorly paid and never acknowledged, always blamed when things go wrong.
When James asked me to comment I told him I’d said everything I had to say about editing. Turns out I hadn’t.
Last week I got an email from an editing student taking a masters in publishing. The student wanted me to comment on the writer-editor relationship. Could s/he quote me on a particular example of my editorial contribution to a novel? I went into a spin. My nature is open and I believe sharing our experiences of anything – editing, writing, music, depression, oppression, laughter – is a good thing. But because I worked in an industry in which the prevailing mode is secrecy – called ‘confidentiality’ – I didn’t feel I could talk about this editorial experience except in fairly useless abstract terms.
I want to be open, but I’m forbidden openness. I want to share, be generous, but I’m forbidden sharing and generosity. And so I speak hypothetically, ducking and weaving so I never give a hint of any real author or manuscript. Why? What am I protecting? Who am I protecting? Theoretically, we all know that books are edited. So why can’t we talk about it?
In his blog James Bradley said something particularly pertinent about editing which I think goes some way to answering my questions. He said:
I think what’s really interesting though is what our anxiety about editorial standards tells us about our attitudes to writing, and more particularly how difficult we find it break free of Romantic notions of the artist as solitary genius when we’re talking about authors and authorship. Because in the end that’s what this whole conversation is really about: our unease with accepting that literary fiction and non-fiction are not, in many ways, all that different to more collaborative forms such as television or film … while we have no problem with the idea that script editors and directors work in a relatively utilitarian manner with scriptwriters we’re made very uneasy by overly intrusive editing of books. But in the end, what’s the difference between David Chase rewriting an episode of The Sopranos from the ground up and Gordon Lish rewriting Carver?
When novelists stopped acknowledging my editorial contribution, I began to wonder why the hell I was doing it. Because it certainly wasn’t just for the money. I could edit and have edited 100 page annual reports for EIGHT times the amount I’ve been paid to edit most 400 page novels. I edited novels for love and passion first, money second.
I was once allowed to speak (relatively) publicly and truthfully about editing a novel. It was at the APA’s Residential Editorial Program at Varuna in 2006, a five-day editing workshop where three experienced editors mentor a group of twelve mid-career editors.
During the week I was invited to speak with Christos Tsiolkas about the editing of Dead Europe. At last I could talk about real editing, about the excitement, the danger, the thrill of entering another world and having to challenge an author to their limits. Apparently we conveyed our passion for the editorial process too well.
One listener felt the golden picture we painted of the author-editor relationship should have been balanced with a session on the constraints of editing in trade publishing. Why? Because many editors lack the confidence to realise that it is as much ‘the system’ that prevents them from doing their best work as it is any personal, individual shortcoming.
At that moment I knew why I was going mad as an editor.
In my experience, this atmosphere of reserve, fear and constraint prevails in Australian book editing. Yes, the system sucks. But I think the best way to change it is to create confident editors. To show editors what’s possible – to show editors what they can do, not what they can’t.
Ironically(?), certainly unexpectedly, I have been invited to be one of the mentor editors at REP 2010. I accepted because I care enormously about editing and editors. I accepted because writers need good, confident, strong, valued editors. I accepted because I think editors are the unsung heroines of the Australian publishing industry.
So for the record, the best experience I’ve ever had as a writer being (professionally) edited? Sophie Cunningham editing an essay I wrote for Meanjin called ‘The Secret Life of Stories’. If that essay had any life at all it was due to Sophie. And Clara Finlay at Allen & Unwin proofreading my second book.
Whenever I’m asked to speak about editing, I always show this. It cuts the tension.