No more wandering lonely as a cloud: The literary editors whose latest manuscript is their own

The relationship between editor and writer is somewhere between all-out war and full-on orgy, but retaining elements of both. Maybe it’s not so surprising that editors have decided to simplify life and go down the DIY route, says Andy Martin

Andy Martin
Friday 19 January 2018 23:21
Own worst critic: ‘There is a danger of editors over-editing themselves when they get around to doing their own writing,’ says Jeanne McCulloch
Own worst critic: ‘There is a danger of editors over-editing themselves when they get around to doing their own writing,’ says Jeanne McCulloch

For as long as I can remember, publishers have been churning out self-help manuals. Now they have taken a leaf out of one of their own books and decided to help themselves. They are cutting out the middle man. Which hurts, because the middle man is me (and others like me). It feels as if Jeeves just dumped Bertie Wooster. Or possibly as if the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Silently, unbeknownst to the general public, a revolution is going on: the editors are becoming writers and publishing books of their own. They have moved around to the other side of the desk.

Karen Rinaldi, who heads up an imprint in the Harper Collins New York office called “Harper Wave”, edited a book of mine many moons ago, when she was president of Bloomsbury USA. I totally respect her editing skills mainly because she made almost no changes. But I have seen her ripping into and massively rewriting other books and freely wielding the red pen along the way. Little did I know that she was secretly working away on a novel of her own, which for a long while she thought was no good. Then it got taken out of the drawer and turned into a film by Rebecca Miller, Maggie’s Plan, starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Juliette Moore. And now it exists as a novel about life in New York, topically enough called The End of Men, poised somewhere between Friends, Seinfeld and Sex and the City. Only a shade more literary. And she is even now working away on a non-fiction book, It’s Great To Suck at Something: Seven Waves and What They Taught Me About Humility, Patience, and Taking it on the Head .

The thing she sucks at is surfing rather than writing as such. Or editing. Rinaldi said that being an editor is a bit like being somebody’s analyst or “shrink”. She recently worked out that one of her writers was being abused by her husband and had been for 20 years but had omitted to mention it – as if she was over-editing her own life. “The story was never told because there were children to protect, defamation claims to be avoided, a potentially dangerous man to mollify, even if only by omission.” But maybe Rinaldi had herself had enough of “suspending ego”. All along I had been thinking that it was editors that were abusing me (by shredding and slashing what I had written), but I see now that the truth is that all along it was the other way around. I was repressing them. Now they are coming out of the closet.

‘I felt grateful for every line cut, rewrite and query,’ says Rinaldi

Rinaldi has only praise for her own editor. “She challenged my point of view. She re-cast sentences, making them cleaner, lovelier, more directed.” But of course, still being an editor, she would say that, wouldn’t she? “I felt grateful for every line cut, re-write and query.” Which I think is sending out a clear message to other writers who might ultimately come her way: don’t be such prima donnas! And take your medicine, it’s good for you! Or, as she puts it in her more benevolent way, “editing [is] an act of generosity and love. Until I saw editorial work from the other side of the desk, I didn’t fully grasp how edifying it is for a writer to have someone else paying attention and who gives a shit.”

For many years, Jeanne McCulloch used to work on The Paris Review (oddly enough based in Manhattan) alongside the founder, George Plimpton. Then she went off to found and edit the groovy Tin House. Then she had an epiphany. She realised she had forgotten to write anything herself. This year her memoir, All Happy Families – something like “The Great Ms Gatsby” – is finally appearing. She is brought up in a wealthy Long Island mansion but her big wedding party is overshadowed by the sudden death of her father.

It’s a short book that took a long long while to write (approx 10 years). Maybe because her editorial tendency held her let-it-all-hang-out instinct in check. “There is a danger of editors over-editing themselves when they get around to doing their own writing. In my case, I won’t let a first draft just naturally percolate into a next draft and a next, I try to control it too early. The editor’s pencil comes out way before it is needed or welcome.” It was like self-abuse. Self-repression. She had to relearn the primal terror of “confronting the blank page” rather than the car-crash manuscript dumped on her desk by some self-regarding author.

McCulloch’s upbringing proved a good grounding for her role as editor 

To the uninitiated, the editor-turned-writer is likely to seem like insider trading. A deal done behind closed doors. A tautology. But the reality is that there is a massive act of self-reinvention going on. It’s almost like a rebirth. McCulloch says, “I was raised in a family that, between dysfunction (my father’s alcoholism) and social protocol (mother), didn’t allow a child much opportunity to have a voice or an opinion. So I relaxed into the job of editor as it felt very familiar – dealing with making other people’s messes look good, holding their hands, reassuring them, and in the meantime I forgot about my own voice.” I went to see the Carole King musical Beautiful with her. There was a definite tear in her eye at the point where King ditches her lyricist/husband, Gerry Goffin, and goes off to LA on her own to write and sing her first solo album, Tapestry. McCulloch likewise decided she didn’t need a lyricist any more.

The relationship between editor and writer is somewhere between all-out war and full-on orgy, but retaining elements of both. Maybe it’s not so surprising that editors have decided to simplify life and go down the DIY route. At a café south of the river in London I met Phoebe Morgan, aged 27, author of debut psychological thriller, The Doll House, and commissioning editor at Harper Collins. “I want to do both,” she says. She also wants to take the mystique out of writing. Once it was all about wandering lonely as a cloud and starving in a loft in Paris and then getting your soul down on paper. Now writing has been industrialised, commodified. Being a writer, Morgan says, “is scary – you worry that no one is going to read your book. Being on the inside, I know how it works. It gives you a safety net. I like to know all the facts. I know that if a book has only sold 200 copies and they say, “It’s doing really well,” I know they’re lying.”

Writers shouldn’t ‘worry too much about bitching on Amazon,’ cautions Morgan

Morgan is disarmingly modest about her own achievement: “I’m not under any illusions. Mine is not the greatest masterpiece in the world. The main thing is that readers enjoy it.” She is co-chair of The Young Publishers Society but entirely devoid of snobbery. “A lot of writers don’t like to use the word commercial – and then they complain when it doesn’t sell.” She has also decided to take her own advice when it comes to getting bad reviews: “I’m always telling my authors not to worry too much about bitching on Amazon.” Hers weren’t too bad anyway, and she has now finished her second book, The Buttercup Field which, if her first is anything to go by, is probably not quite as idyllic as it sounds.

There is a long tradition of writers becoming editors: Albert Camus worked for Gallimard; TS Eliot worked for Faber and Faber; and it was André Gide who first rejected the absurdly overwritten first novel by a no-hoper wannabe called Marcel Proust. So it was inevitable that editors would become writers too. This is the age of transitioning. PR people become editors, bloggers become bestsellers. Nobody knows what they are any more. But, still, it may be the first time that the crime fiction buyer at Waterstones has published his own thriller. I imagine that, when it comes to picking the book of the week or month or year, it must be rather tempting for Joseph Knox to say, “Well, there is this rather fine work of Manchester noir, Sirens, by a promising young debut novelist, guy by the name of… Knox.”

Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me, and teaches at the University of Cambridge.

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