The Invisible Editor

I was sent a link to a quite interesting article from the Meanjin website, written by (book) editor, Mandy Brett. It’s called Stet By Me, and I’ll wait while you go read.

Being sent the link just now is eerily appropriate, given that the Editing Masterclass has been rescheduled for this weekend (one space left, if anyone’s interested, but you’ll need to contact me by the day after tomorrow!) I hadn’t really considered what would be involved in the job of a (good) editor. Like many people, I’ve been bewailing the apparent demise of such a creature, without making the distinction between the macro and the micro versions of the task. (Micro being attention to specifics like punctuation and spelling – really more copy-editing, I guess – and macro the sort of whole-book, detailed, re-visioning that Mandy is describing.) I don’t know if The Summer King was a special case, but there was very little editing at all between the manuscript I submitted to the Kathleen Grattan and the version that was published. Of course it had been through the Glamorgan MPhil sessions, as well as all the tinkering getting it ready for the viva, and then to send out to publishers. You’d hope it wouldn’t need anything much by the time it came through all that! Except every new set of eyes sees something slightly differently, and no book is ever perfect. (Is it?)

Somthing that struck me in Mandy’s article was this notion of effacement; that the job of the editor is to make themselves utterly invisible. That the good editor gets at least as deeply involved in the workings of the book as the author, and yet has to somehow manage to keep all traces of themselves out of the finished product. (One of my lecturers at university used to say that I’d never make a forger because he could pick my voice out in a stack of three hundred essays. Which I suspect means that a career in literary editing is probably not something I should consider.) It’s a hell of a balancing act. You’d need to be part martinet, part trauma-surgeon, part pimp and part agony aunt. Shades of Sir Humphrey Appleby, and the role of the civil servant (I’ve been rereading Yes, Prime Minister). Although you’d have to hope that a good editor would be trying to remove Humphreyish characteristics from the text wherever possible …

One of the books that I’m just not meant to own is a really great book on editing: The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. It has a lovely case study of the process that The Great Gatsby went through. Again, it makes fascinating reading, and does suggest that an author’s second muse is a really good editor. Harder to do with a collection of poetry, I suppose, although still possible. I’ve become very aware in the last few years of the importance of being able to stand back and see the shape of the collection as a unified whole, rather than just an assemblage of pieces. Establishing some sort of arc that runs through the whole thing. I know not everybody feels this way, but it’s something that I’ve come to really appreciate, and the best collections do seem to have an internal logic of this sort. (If I recall correctly, both views – and then some! – are argued in another book I would recommend: Ordering the Storm, edited by Susan Grimm.)

I’ll finish this even-more-than-usually-waffley post by taking to heart one of Mandy’s comments about the thankless nature of the editor’s role, and therefore naming and thanking my editors at OUP – Richard Reeve and Wendy Harrex. Thanks guys! And lets have three cheers for the left-handed molecules of muse-dom: the Editors!


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