The Magazine

Truth of the Matter

The writing and editing of ‘fact.’

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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The way they work together is at the center of Good Prose. Kidder comes to Todd with an idea for a new book, which they discuss, and, if the idea appears workable, they hone and refine it. Through reading, interviews, and legwork, Kidder assembles the material required to write the book. In a great swoosh of energy, he plunges into the writing, putting down everything that occurs to him in the first of what may turn out to be 9 or 10 drafts. Todd makes points small and large, in the margin and in conversation, on the various drafts. The manuscript begins to take shape.

“No writer known to me revises so energetically and even enthusiastically as Kidder,” writes Todd. As a writer, Kidder is expansive, abundant; as an editor, Todd is meticulous and spare. And so, between the two of them, like the English nursery rhyme’s Mr. and Mrs. Sprat, they lick not the plate but the manuscript clean. 

When the book on which they have been working is finally in type, author and editor go off to some distant place—Maine is mentioned; so, too, St. Martin—to read page proofs to each other and make final corrections. One of their habits when doing so, they report, is to imagine bad reviews for the book—the notion here being that such reviews once imagined will not occur in reality. Have they, I wonder, already imagined this review? 

After all these years, each man is aware of the other’s weaknesses and strengths. Kidder is used to Todd’s taciturnity and respects his demands for the utmost clarity; Todd is used to Kidder’s propensity to seek out goodness in the subjects he writes about, and sometimes to overdo his emphasis on virtue. Kidder can no longer quite decipher Todd’s marginal comments, owing to his deteriorating handwriting, but so long have they been working together he knows by instinct the intentions behind them. Over more than 40 years, they report, neither has spoken in anger to the other. About how many marriages can that statement be made?

What makes the Kidder-Todd relationship noteworthy is not merely its duration but the fact that editors have long since ceased to lavish such attention on their authors. Within large publishing houses nowadays, the job of editor is often broken down into that of procurement editor and that of manuscript editor: The job of the first is to sign up the author; that of the second is to make his or her book presentable for publication. The more successful a contemporary editor in publishing is, the less likely is he to spend lots of time working on his authors’ manuscripts.

Maxwell Perkins, at Charles Scribner’s Sons, is easily the most famous of American publishing editors. Perkins is to publishing as Clarence Darrow is to law: the representative, the exemplary figure. He acquired his fame as an editor through the fame of his authors, who included, among others, Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, John P. Marquand, and Erskine Caldwell. Some needed more attention than others. Fitzgerald required emotional support, Wolfe extensive surgery on his overblown novels. (Wolfe wrote so elaborate a dedication to Perkins for one of his later novels that the dedication, like the manuscript itself, had to be cut roughly in half.)

Not even Maxwell Perkins supplied his authors with the attention that Todd provides Kidder. Any writer reading Good Prose will naturally ask if he would like to have such attention paid to his own compositions. The answer will have a good deal to do with the writer’s confidence in his own skill: his sense of proportion, feeling for structure, and mastery of prose style. The more confident he is of these, the less is he likely to yearn for such heavy editing. 

Over and above literary skill, ego often enters the equation, in some cases emphatically. In my mid-20s, I had an article accepted by Harper’s, a prospect immensely pleasing to me. The glow of pleasure wore off, however, once I received a copy of my article, which had been edited to the point of its having nearly been rewritten by an editor there. My choices were four: (1) withdraw the article (and lose the fee and dollop of fame its publication promised); (2) accept the heavy editing (who, after all, would know, except the editor and me?); (3) work out a compromise; or (4) demand the manuscript be returned to its original form. 

Those who feel that compromise should have been the clear and simple solution know little of the vanity of writers. I demanded that everything be returned to the way I had written the article, and—doubtless setting a bad precedent for the rest of my career—I got my way. The fact was, the thought of words I had not written appearing under my name, in however grand a place, made me nearly physically ill.