Who edits the editor?

The bright young things of publishing want to be involved in every line of every new book


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Secret Author has always regarded the Bookseller as a symbol of pretty much everything that is wrong with contemporary publishing. Nevertheless, he took a keen interest in a story that appeared there at the beginning of last month.

Here it was revealed that Ana Fletcher, a former employee at Jonathan Cape who had worked with such luminaries of the modern novel as Martin Amis, Howard Jacobson and Ian McEwan, was founding an agency called Unfolding Edits.

Its aim, Ms Fletcher explained, was to “demystify the art of editing”. There was quite a lot more of this in a mission statement included on the agency’s website. Trained up to proofread and copy-edit, its proprietor had then discovered that the job of being an editor required far more than these rudimentary skills.

In fact, it involved “thinking about the idea of the book or project, grappling with a book’s shape and structure and helping authors to find their voice on the page”.

If, as Ana Fletcher suggests, the modern editor is not so much an annotator as a kind of co-conceptualist, then this was very far from the case when the first editors slouched towards the book world’s Bethlehem to be born.

A century ago the job title scarcely existed. Authors were expected to know their business, and as Alec Waugh — who had worked at Chapman & Hall in the 1920s — once remarked, if you had asked Arnold Bennett who his editor was, he would not have known what you meant.

Editorial advice came courtesy of interested friends: it was John Forster, for example, who persuaded Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations into something a tad more upbeat.

This tradition persisted well into the post-war era: Philip Larkin was a much greater influence on Lucky Jim (1954) than Kingsley Amis’ eventual publisher, Victor Gollancz.

As for publishing firms themselves, much of the evidence suggests that a spirit of laissez faire — unless, that is, parts of the manuscript were judged morally objectionable — prevailed until as recently as 40 years ago.

Nicholas Clee, in a recent article in the Literary Review, recalled a conversation with the late Margaret Forster, who revealed that “editing” by her celebrated old-school publisher in the 1960s consisted of “half an hour’s chat, aperitifs and an agreeable lunch”. Taken on by Chatto & Windus’ legendary Carmen Callil in the early 1980s, she was shocked to find herself compelled to go through the text line by line.

So how does the world of editing look in 2024? It is not true, as is frequently said, that authors aren’t edited any more, for paranoiac anxiety attends anything that might be capable of giving offence, particularly in the area of race or gender.

In his time the Secret Author has been exposed to every vagary of the modern editorial process: handed notebooks-worth of comment; let off with a phone call; counselled to tear up dozens of pages of the darling work or devote weeks of his life to rewrites; and sometimes edited almost to death.

As for the motivation behind these sheaves of meticulous comment, this fell into several categories. There are editors who want to make a better book out of the chaotic mess in front of them, and there are editors who want to impose their own personality on it.

To these can be added a very common phenomenon in a world of slimmed-down lists and a reluctance to commission — the editor who hasn’t as much to do as they would like and compensates by going to town on the work in hand.

All this can be very frustrating, but the chances are that every so often it will be redeemed by a bona fide disinterested hotshot worth every penny of their meagre salary and ripe to be rewarded with a heartfelt salutation in the book’s acknowledgements.

Meanwhile, how should an author deal with the voice on the phone murmuring that the manuscript “needs work”, that there are “one or two points that need to be raised” or that character X “doesn’t really work for me”?

An old-school writer would probably suggest that you follow Charles Ryder’s cousin Jasper’s advice on how to treat Oxford dons: “as if they were the vicar at home”. The Secret Author’s trick is this: confronted with what seems an excessive number of queries, perhaps extending to outright pedantry, first re-read the manuscript and ensure that you haven’t actually produced something under-par.

If, on the other hand, the editor is simply making heavy weather, write them an effusive email, complimenting them on their expertise, assure them that their comments are exceptionally helpful and that you intend to follow them to the letter, wait a fortnight, make a fifth of the alterations they suggested and then send the text back with a note insisting that it has been “completely revised”.

The editor will doubtless twig what you are up to, but honour will have been saved on both sides — and that, in publishing, is everything.

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