Do editors still edit? A response in part based on Mark McGurl's The Program Era

Betsy Lerner tries to answer this reader query: “Is it true that editors no longer edit, and if so, why?” Her basic answer: “I think most do, and some quite brilliantly.” But it’s hard to say beyond anecdote: I’ve read various answers that range from hers to simply stating “No.” One letter to the editor in The New Yorker has a perceptive comment on the issue—the author is responding to an essay about Mark McGurl’s The Program Era:

The days of editors like Maxwell Perkins shepherding talented young writers through their early years are long over. With publishing houses now expected to turn profits of around fifteen per cent, as opposed to the three to four per cent of Perkins’s day, what editor can afford to give a latter-day F. Scott Fitzgerald the devotion, time, and professional advice needed to hone his talents? Creative-writing programs have stepped in to fill this void by teaching young writers, in effect, to be their own editors––an essential skill in the current publishing climate.

In the absence of hard figures, it’s difficult to tell whether this is true, and if it is, how true it is. McGurl does write about the “… wide distribution… of elevated literary ambitions, and the cultivation in these newly vocal, vainglorious masses of the habits of self-conscious attention to craft through which [their writerly ambitions] might plausible be realized…” I doubt this makes editors superfluous, but it might mean that, in the face of layoffs, increased workloads, and so forth, editors might be more likely to rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the skills that universities and other writing programs cultivate. Granted, this is based on speculation from someone peering in through the glass rather than someone with direct experience inside of publishing, but it at least seems plausible.

Furthermore, it might be easier for writers to learn some of what editors once might have provided because of the wide availability of pretty good books on the craft parts of writing. This doesn’t mean reading such books will automatically make one a good author, or that any book can substitute for good secondary readers (or editors), but they still might occupy a small part of the function professional editors once held.

(Incidentally: The Program Era is a wonderful book I keep meaning to write a post about. One reason I don’t is because there’s so much to talk about that I get overwhelmed. At some point, however, I’m just going to write that post, completeness be damned.)

One response

  1. Everyone always mentions Perkins in this context, but wasn’t he exceptional even in his day? I’ve read about his work with Marjorie Rawlings and Thomas Wolfe, but I’m not clear on the extent to which other 20th-century fiction editors nurtured their authors and transformed their work from shambling to brilliant.

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