A Saturday morning ritual for me is reading the Guardian Review, a publication that generally fits with my outlook and produces good reviews (though the editors are occasionally guilty of having right-wingers review left-wing work, or a homeopathic practitioner review a history of conventional medicine). One of this morning’s interesting articles is ‘Black day for the blue pencil’ by Blake Morrison.
Mr Morrison is concerned with a modern tendency (though his article is full of historical examples of the same) to downplay the role of the editor. Several books, he argues, have been improved by judicious use of the editor’s blue pencil: the Great Gatsby, and Sons and Lovers, for instance.
I don’t have any bird’s eye view of the publishing industry, but it is not difficult to think of contemporary examples where an editor would have been more usefully employed. The latest Harry Potter, for example, is an enjoyable read (I’m half-way through), but I can’t help but feel that closer editing would have improved it. Of course, if you’re the biggest selling author in the known universe, you might find it difficult keeping a sense of perspective on the changes your editor suggests. Another example — and a great book, in my opinion — is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck. It’s undoubtedly an excellent book, and a monumental piece of literature, but certain amount of tidying would have sharpened the jazzier passages (as, I think, Steinbeck himself admitted in his ‘Working Days’ journal).
I tend to agree with Mr Morrison that there is less editing these days; his economic argument is compelling. In modern publishing, and the rush to produce the book, the editing is bound to be squeezed. The less time an editor takes over a book, the quicker he or she can move onto the next potential bestseller. The question, of course, is whether this pressure is greater nowadays. I think it is.
Meanwhile, I’ve returned to the manuscript of my latest novel, Proper Job, after a break of approximately one month. I am armed with my editor’s report, and there is no doubt in my case, I would suggest, that Rachel’s work represents an excellent opportunity to improve my book so that I can secure the interest of a publisher.