Fiddling with fiction can be so very, very tricky, structural editing in particular. Henry James referred to editing as ‘the butchers’ trade’: we dissect, we cut, we rearrange the parts. Ten years as an editor and I still worry that my criticism, although necessary, might be altering the soul of a piece. And structural editing is an inherently personal act. Who the hell am I to say that the story arc is forced, or that the antagonist’s motivation seems tenuous? Yes, I’m an editor. But what if my taste as a reader interferes sometimes? Am I subconsciously imparting my favoured narratives, characters, devices, aesthetics or voices on the books I edit?
There’s no Nielsen for editors, there’s no way to definitively measure if your edit has improved a book or not. The tools you’ll need to be an editor can be learnt. The philosophy behind the edit, that’s a different story.
I’ve always been acutely aware that fiction is fundamentally subjective – both in its construction, and in its consumption. And I often wonder if my editing decisions are affected not just by my reading taste, but also by my personal life. Do my political views compel me to emphasise particular elements, de-emphasise others? Moodiness, excessive bourbon consumption, lack of sleep, social anxiety, binge watching Broad City, an argument with my partner, a bad day at work, the books I’ve read, the parties I’ve been to? A flat tyre?
If you think about it, anything could affect an editorial decision. Freud interprets art as a result of an artist’s inner neurosis. If editing is an art too, which I think it is, then the editor is surely affected by their complicated psychological makeup. What happens when an artist edits an artist?
I know without a doubt that if I re-edited that novel I was working on in 2006 I will, to some extent, have edited it differently. In that book the protagonist abandons his life and travels the world for 7 years – his psychologist had suggested exposure therapy to treat his crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I was 20 then, fresh out of uni and working at an independent publishing house in Adelaide, still living with my parents, preoccupied with an imminent sinus surgery, worried about whether my nose would look the same after they had broken it. Other pressing concerns were weekend-long pub crawls, hiding cigarettes from my mother, kissing as many good-looking people as possible, trying to walk in heels. (Technically we’re all in a perpetual state of refinement, but I can say without any qualms that I was not the best version of myself at 20). I knew so little about life, about myself. I hadn’t even bought my own toilet paper yet. I hadn’t travelled. I hung out with the same group of friends from high school at the same old bars and we had the same old conversations. I can’t help but think that I’d be able to offer that manuscript more now, at 30. I’ve lived. I’ve loved, I’ve lost, I’ve failed, recovered, done it all again. I’ve read more, edited more, honed my craft. I’ve struggled with depression, with anxiety. I’ve become more myself, but also more human. Surely my edits would be more nuanced in 2017 than they were in 2006.
I suppose it might be tempting to stifle your self whilst editing, but as far as I’m concerned that’s the worst thing you can do. You’d rather have me edit your work than some kind of strange (thankfully non-existent) editing machine. And there’s a reason. The editing process is a collaboration, a conversation, a debate. But I’m talking about grittier stuff. You have to have the chops to tell your author that a chapter needs to be cut, that a character isn’t working, that the ending needs to be restructured, because you know, unequivocally, that this change will result in a story that is sharper, richer, more nuanced. It’s your reflective capacity, memories, experiences and intuition that make you a stronger editor; they’re why you understand the work and its distinct components. The best editors do what machines cannot: they get involved with the way a writer thinks. When you edit fiction, you’re not just looking into what’s on the page, but trying to understand how it got there.
Best fiction editors make their structural edits with the surety and precision of a surgeon. They edit those notoriously ‘hard to edit’ big-name authors, and do so decisively. Text’s Michael Heyward edited a character out of Anna Funder’s Stasiland. Jonathan Galassi removed large excursions into anthropology from Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
Horror stories also exist, and these are the stories that make me wonder how an editor’s self can be a problem rather than a tool in their editing practice. In the age of Carveresque minimalism, a well-known editor read The Secret History in its final form and told Donna Tartt it would never be published. Apparently this editor felt that Tartt’s formal writing style and subject matter was ‘unfashionable’, and was of the opinion that ‘no woman has ever written a successful novel from a male point of view’. A resoundingly bad decision based on, it would seem, the editor’s sexist views, his personal dislike for a particular prose style and his belief that the subject of the book was too obscure and academic to appeal to general audiences. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.
The editor Maxwell Perkins, in a letter to Hemingway, wrote ‘I am engaged in a kind of life and death struggle with Mr. Thomas Wolfe.’ And while it is not always as dramatic as all that, editing fiction almost always results in some kind of clash of subjective viewpoints and personal tastes. Perhaps over the plot point or a descriptive passage, a sentence, an adjective. In the end, though, I like reminding myself that editing is not about making the book my own but helping the author to realise the best possible version of the work they have envisioned.
So, when editing fiction, how do you separate your taste, politics, mood, and other subjective variables from interfering with the writer’s intentions? I don’t think you ever really can. But you can be aware. And that’s something that all good editors are, inherently. If you’re attuned to a bias, you have power over it. You can temper it.
Sabita Naheswaran has worked in both narrative and illustrated book publishing for 10 years. She has worked as a copywriter and editor, and in book publicity and marketing. Naheswaran has a Masters in Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing from the University of Melbourne, and is the Publisher and Managing Editor of Antic, an online literary magazine of essays, interviews, criticism, commentary and comics (www.anticmagazine.com.au). She is currently working as a freelance writer, editor and publishing consultant.