Wednesday, 18 November 2009

On Writing #1: The Writer vs The Editor

Whenever I’ve read a work of fiction, I’ve naturally assumed, perhaps naively so, that the content was entirely decided upon by the author. I never considered the work of the editor nor the extent of their influence. That was until I read The Final Cut, Sarah Churchwell’s revealing article in the Guardian’s 24/10/09 Review supplement.

In the article Churchwell illustrates the influence editors have had over literary giants such as Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. For me, the article was a shocking revelation; editors not only advise but also rewrite, sometimes making huge decisions on the author’s behalf? Inevitably I was led to the question: how much is the author the author?

During the 70’s, Raymond Carver was a respected writer, having written the well-received Will You Be Quiet, Please? (1976), but far from famous. Then he wrote the collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1980), which received massive critical recognition. The collection was noted for its laconic and ‘minimalist’ style, a style that was labelled ‘Carveresque’. This distinct writing style was not so much created by Carver but by his editor, Gordon Lish. It could therefore be said that Lish had, in effect, ‘made Carver’s reputation’.

When Lish was handed the manuscript for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love he proceeded to edit, after he finished he had altered Carver’s original book’s title (Beginners), the characters’ names, the chapter titles and even the nature of the stories. Churchill writes:

‘… Lish not only made the stories much shorter: he also made them more elliptical, more open-ended, darker, more violent and callous, more working class and less overtly intellectual… changing their tone and overall attitude to women.’

I never realised editors had the power to take such liberties. I assumed the brave or ruthless editorial actions Lish took would scorn the author’s credibility and breach the extent to which editors can contribute to an author's work. I was clearly wrong, or maybe the Carver and Lish relationship was unusual. To me it seems that their collaborative relationship was so intermingled that the editor should be credited as much as the author, otherwise is that not a doing a disservice to the editor and fooling the reader?

After reading Churchwell’s article I went to my own shelf of books and rifled through a dozen or so, searching for the names of credited editors. I could not find one. So who knows who made the final decision of the final piece? Has the content been toned down? Who is responsible for the quality of the writing? How much have the author's original intentions been swayed by those of their editor?

Ironically the closest I came to finding an editor was in Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts (1993), a collection of 9 stories from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that inspired Robert Altman's film of the same name. The copyright goes to Tess Gallagher, Carver’s wife who has recently restored Carver’s original, un-Lished, version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, restoring even its title, Beginners (which now is 229 pages long, over 80 pages longer than before).

Afterthought........ Comparatively, in other works of art, for example painting, I wonder what it would have been like if there was an editorial artist who finished some of Dali's surreal landscapes, adding tones where they had consider it missing.

The editors of films are credited and well acknowledged. However, the real editors who notoriously use their power to cut are the producers and studio executives. But which one is superior: the director’s cut or the studio cut? The author’s vision or the populist package? Would you rather see Sergio Leone’s 229 minute cut of Once Upon A Time In America (1984) or the studio version which runs at 144 mintes?

1 comment:

  1. A brilliant and thought-provoking post, Andy. Perhaps the book industry could follow what they do in film and produce the `Editor's Version' and the `Author's Original'. Can you imagine what an insight that would be? ;-)