In Praise Of Editors, Or In This Case, Editor

When editors and sponsors demanded changes to his copy, the legendary absurdist comedian and radio star Fred Allen used to reply: “Where were you bastards when the pages were blank?”

This joke is about the common misconception about what really happens between writers and editors, which is a kind of alchemical collaboration, provided that the collaborators in question are in sympathy and closely attending to the matter at hand. Granted, that doesn’t happen every time, on either side, but at its best there is no hostility, and no jockeying for an advantage in this symbiosis: no ego, no performance, just an intent shared focus on making something good together for the reader’s benefit. A finished piece of writing made in this way will transmit a certain quality often called “polish,” but which might more accurately be described as “camaraderie.”

Harold Ross, the great editor of the New Yorker, wrote on this topic to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in 1945:

The only great argument I have against writers, generally speaking, is that many of them deny the function of an editor, and I claim editors are important. For one thing, an editor is a good trial horse; the writer can use him to see if a story and its various elements register as he or she thinks they register. An author is very likely to suffer a loss of viewpoint (due to nearness to the subject) before he gets through with a story and finish up with something more or less out of focus.

This was in a letter to a writer, obviously, and I don’t know the context in which it was written. Maybe Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had a swelled head (she wrote a number of short stories for the New Yorker in the early 40s, beginning only not long after she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), and Ross was trying to get her to play ball. But many, many writers, beginner and seasoned pro alike, are in a total panic about suffering the very “loss of viewpoint” Ross describes. There is nothing that can soothe such terrors like the calm and reasonable words of an editor, a professional reader, the wise and honest friend who has the wherewithal and the desire to perfect your work, and apprehend any fugitive viewpoint. The writer who doesn’t understand that a good editor’s interests are entirely aligned with his own is a big idiot, and I leave him, with all the pity in the world, to all his entirely unnecessary sufferings.

Writers, if they are lucky, will work for publications or publishing houses with values sympathetic to their own. But with the help of a good editor, a writer can fit his aims in with those of the publisher and its readership in order to advance the interests of all. In this way, altogether new kinds of ability and awareness come to a writer, just through the offices of a fine editor. No writer can make such advances alone.

The idea of the Creative Person dropping his wisdom down like manna upon the heads of a grateful public is, I venture to say, really dumb. At least, I’ve never met or heard of a writer of any skill at all who wasn’t far more interested in the genius of the reader than in his own. And yet the idea of the literary genius, the lone visionary unencumbered by any imperatives outside those of his own revelations, is still peddled hither and yon. But not by me! I consider it the height of lunacy. No writing can be any good at all unless people are participating in it together, reading it, and enjoying it, and with any luck quarreling with it and being interested in it and talking about it and making new things out of it.

Anyway, the paradox here is that an editor, however essential his efforts may have been to the quality of a finished piece, is liable to be invisible to all but the most dedicated readers of a given magazine, newspaper or website. And yet writers, if they are on the ball, come to view the position of editor with something like awe. The best of them are invariably fine writers in their own right. But a great editor is in charge of not just one person’s voice, but of a whole chorus of voices, which he unites and cajoles and conducts, in order to create a far larger and more powerful choir of meaning.

All those here assembled who have been fortunate enough to work with Carrie Frye over the last 25 months will, I believe, share my feeling that she is of the very highest and best order of editors, that she is a veritable Galadriel among editors; scintillating with insight, humor and brilliance; wise, patient, and good. Carrie is leaving her post here to focus on making more words herself, so the only thing that tempers my great (my very great) sadness at losing her as an editor is the utter delight of knowing that the result will be more of her own writing.

À bientôt, dear CAAF.

The staff and pals and coworkers and compatriots and vendors and all the various fellow travelers of The Awl join Maria in much garment-rending at the departure of Carrie Frye: magical editor, incredible juggler, bear enthusiast and enemy of ergonomy. Don’t forget… to write.