Where did all the book editors go?

Literature is no longer painstakingly worked over by publishing staff - and it shows.
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How galling it must be for Martin Amis. Not only does his new novel, Night Train, get a bad review from John Updike - one of the few literary commentators that the America-loving Amis would go out of his way to impress - but also Updike's response is not even a matter of taste. It's a challenge to a fellow-writer's competence. "The trouble ... with Night Train," he wrote in the Sunday Times, "[is] the unmentionable way the plot proceeds. My trouble is with the solution of the mystery and the point of the book...."

Well really. Every reviewer in town could point out that Night Train merely uses the form of the American hard-boiled police procedural to explore a metaphysical mystery without a solution, namely: "How shall we go on living, once we understand the true nature of our fragile and isolated selves amid the vast emptiness of the universe?"

Night Train is not a thriller. It is not Amis trying his hand at a whodunit, with a finale in the library conducted by a lofty private detective with a funny accent. So it's at best mischievous and at worst a bloody cheek for such a sophisticated reader as Updike to treat the modern master of English prose as a kind of inept Edmund Crispin, and talk about "the solution of the mystery" and "the point of the book". Not to mention a concluding sideswipe about Amis's sad deficiency in the way of "sympathetic minor characters"...

Reading other reviews of Night Train, you're aware of a similar tendency - a prosaic ticking-off of supposed deficiencies. "Like the three big novels - Money, London Fields, The Information - Night Train comes apart towards the end. It dissolves," wrote Geoff Dyer in the Independent, in pull-yourself-together tones. "The only sting in the tail is that there is no sting in the tail," reported Theodore Dalrymple regretfully in the Sunday Telegraph. "The surprise ... is the complete lack of surprise." Ploughing a similar paradoxical furrow, Natasha Walter in the Guardian observed: "The point of this detective story is that there is no point." Amazingly, no one mentioned the author's "message". Astonishingly, no one wrote: "The moral of this story is...."

What has happened? Everyone has decided to become Amis's editor. Since there's no chance of teaching him anything about the writing of fiction per se, they're seizing the chance that he has misunderstood the rules of the thriller genre, and are putting him straight about them.

Unfortunately the job itself isn't available. Amis has not, to the best of my knowledge, had an editor - in the sense of a line-by-line monitor of style and sense - in years. It's a commonplace in the publishing world that, when Amis hands in a manuscript to his agent or publisher, they don't change as much as a punctuation mark. (Doing so would, interestingly, have ruined the novel Money, which contains no semi-colons until the very last sentence). And it would take a brave-ish publishing executive to lock horns with the author of Time's Arrow about how to structure a narrative.

The impulse to edit another human being's words is as strong as ever in the Nineties. What's changed is that the job hardly exists any more. It's become the function of the newspaper and magazine critic to raise queries, corroborate facts, correct grammar and suggest ways of improvement that may be incorporated into the second edition. A famous recent instance was the publication of Colm Toibin's third novel, The Story of the Night, partly set in Buenos Aires. The publishers, Picador, did a brisk edit, printed several proof copies and sent them out to reviewers - who included the Times's Argentine-born reviewer Norman Thomas di Giovanni. Di Giovanni rang Picador and said they ought to know there were more than 100 errors of fact in the novel. Picador thanked him for his free consultancy work and made the changes.

Where, though, have all the editors gone? Once there was a backroom, where a transatlantic lady in sensible spectacles could be found poring, line by line, over undeserving sheets of romantic novel or military history, like a monk with an illuminated manuscript. I knew one of the breed when I worked at a Covent Garden publishers. One day I wrote a press release about our author Hans Koning, spelling it thus. Just before the press release went to the mail, there was a yell from upstairs and the incensed editrix appeared, thrusting a note into my hands. It read: "Mr Koning, being Dutch, would be incensed by the umlaut. Take it out at once." That's the authentic voice of the captive editor, meticulous to an insane degree, passionate about the tiniest solecism.

They are, of course, missed every time one reads a book and stumbles over the word "enormity" used to mean "largeness", or "infer" used to mean "imply". But also missed are the great barnstorming editors, who could treat the manuscripts of the great as merely raw material for their Michelangeloan chippings and shapings. Maxwell Perkins, the greatest American editor, knocked the work of Hemingway and, more drastically, Thomas Wolfe, into shape, taking huge liberties with the basic structure of their work. One thinks of Ezra Pound, getting to work on a poem several hundred lines long by T S Eliot, entitled He Do the Police in Different Voices, cutting it by two-thirds and coming out with The Waste Land. The only modern avatars of such bold collaborations are commercial superstars such as Richard Cohen, the publisher whom Jeffrey Archer and Edwina Currie get to edit their novels, inch by inch; and Anna Haycraft, fiction editor and head of Duckworth, who kick-started Beryl Bainbridge's career by suggesting she start her first novel, Harriet Said..., with the last chapter rather the first.

There have been unfortunate instances when the author-editor relationship has worked less well. But the impulse to edit - to confront, to query, to improve the work of another - is a civilised impulse, too important to be abandoned or to be substituted by the point-scoring of the reviewing fraternity. Bring back the publisher's copy-editor. Without him, writers will never have their imaginations confronted in a positive, rather than a combative way. And with him, you might just get Martin Amis, one day, to write a thriller which ends in a hail of bullets rather than a fog of transcendence.