The hidden hands that make literary masterpieces
Harper Lee is not the only writer to benefit from the forensic eye of an editor
Published 24/07/2015 | 02:30
Whether or not you believe that Harper Lee's newly published novel, Go Set a Watchman, adds to our understanding of To Kill a Mockingbird, or feel betrayed that the hero Atticus Finch has been revealed as a Ku Klux Klan member - or even both - it is important to remember that the book is neither a sequel nor a prequel but a first draft of the novel that later won a Pulitzer Prize and sold 40 million copies.
Lee submitted her manuscript to a New York publisher in 1957, where it came into the hands of the editor Tay Hohoff, a chain-smoking veteran who had joined the firm of JB Lippincott 25 years earlier. Hohoff said she "found many things wrong" with Lee's book, but recognised that "there was also life".
She worked closely with Lee, suggesting she draw the action away from the Fifties back to the Thirties and retell the story of Scout's childhood from the young girl's point of view. Hohoff, who died in the mid-Seventies, did not co-author To Kill a Mockingbird, but she did make it possible for Lee to write the best novel she could. Hohoff is far from unique. Contrary to the myth that authors work best in splendid isolation, the truth is that editors or close advisers have often quietly shaped great books.
James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson would not be half so entertaining had it not been for the assistance of Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone. The novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton advised Charles Dickens to change the ending of Great Expectations from one where Pip and Estella definitely don't get together to one in which, in that wonderfully ambiguous final line, Pip sees "no shadow of another parting from her".
The 20th century brought the rise of the professional, interventionist editor. In 1924, Maxwell Perkins received a manuscript from F Scott Fitzgerald.
The author suggested that the title he had chosen - The Great Gatsby - might need some work. How about 'Trimalchio in West Egg'? Luckily, Perkins and Fitzgerald agreed to keep the original. As their correspondence shows, though, Perkins made pertinent suggestions, including rounding out Gatsby's character as well as better telegraphing his dodgy business affairs. Perhaps Fitzgerald would have seen the wood for the trees anyway - but Perkins helped him along the way.
Some authors resented the increasing power of these gatekeepers. Herbert Read asked TS Eliot whether editors weren't just failed writers. Eliot replied: "Perhaps, but so are most writers."
It was a cute response from a man whose most famous poem, The Waste Land, had been edited by Ezra Pound, and who edited other poets and novelists as part of his job at Faber & Faber.
In 1953, Eliot's young colleague at Faber, Charles Monteith, plucked a novel from the slush pile titled Strangers from Within. It began with a nuclear war and the hurried evacuation of some schoolchildren who eventually crash on an island. Monteith thought the book should leap straight to the island scenes and he asked William Golding, then an unpublished schoolteacher, to take another look. The result was Lord of the Flies.
It can often help if a writer and her editor have different sensibilities.
Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison says that in Robert Gottlieb she found not the "ideal reader" but the "ideal editor". Precisely because of his distance from her material about African-American lives, he could tell her when he thought she was preaching rather than dramatising. Morrison, an accomplished editor herself, did not need a red pen through her sentences. In a Paris Review interview from 1994, Gottlieb said: "A writer of her powers and discrimination doesn't need a lot of help with her prose." Rather, his job was to let her imagination unfold. "Bob said to me, you can loosen, open up," said Morrison.
An editor must be as much a psychologist as a prose technician - rather as a sports coach gets his athlete in the right frame of mind for a race.
Some editor-writer relationships are more fraught. When Raymond Carver published his short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981, he was praised for his minimalist prose. What reviewers didn't realise was that although the raw material was Carver's, his editor Gordon Lish was extremely influential in creating that distinctive style.
Lish edited the manuscript so aggressively that it halved in length; remarkably, he rewrote 10 of the 13 endings.
Carver pleaded with Lish to have his own words back: "My very sanity is on the line here," he wrote to him. "If the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story.'' Eventually he accepted what he called this "surgical amputation". Readers can now compare the first draft with Lish's version: 20 years after Carver's death in 1988, his wife helped into print Beginnings, the original uncut stories.
It's doubtful, though, that the unedited book will become as popular as the one produced by that combustible collaboration.
Some authors you wish had been taken in hand more firmly. David Foster Wallace was brilliant in so many ways but he seemed to suffer from hypergraphia - an addiction to writing. His 1,079-page novel Infinite Jest was even longer in its original form and he only submitted to cuts with great reluctance. But I reckon it could still go down another 200 pages. (I for one wouldn't miss the wheelchair-bound Quebecois terrorists.)
When Wallace was writing for magazines he had to be reined in for reasons of space. His hilarious essay about going on a cruise, 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again', is even funnier in the shorter, punchier version published by Harper's Magazine as 'Shipping Out'.
We have yet to see whether Go Set a Watchman will damage Harper Lee's reputation. But what it has revealed is how a wise, parental figure taught an immature talent to come to full-fledged maturity. Perhaps in looking for a model for the noble Atticus Finch of Mockingbird, we should look no further than Tay Hohoff.
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