Editor, where art thou? (this week’s Business Post column, 28/10/07)

There is a new trend sweeping across the publishing spectrum. It is for fiction that is raw, dangerous and, in all probability, not very good. I’m talking about the publication of unedited fiction. In recent years, publishers have begun getting tremendously excited – going on the foot-stomping, fist-pumping press releases at least – about the idea of republishing classic books by the likes of Tolstoy, Kerouac and Carver (left) in an unedited form, presenting their books to the public without tweaks or cuts, but exactly the way the writers wrote them, warts ‘n’ all, as though these warts will somehow – far from making the book unappealing – give readers the real deal, the brilliance without the interruptions, the magic without the depressingly grounding touch.

The trend appears to have been kicked off in 2006 by the publishing
company Viking. Gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their
publication of Jack Kerouac’s seminal On The Road, Viking made a proud
announcement: in September 2007, to celebrate the birthday of the
novel’s arrival into the world, they would publish Kerouac’s
manuscript – which was written on a 120-foot-long, single-spaced typed
scroll – in its original, unedited form. More recently, while battles
are currently being fought over the best translation of Tolstoy’s War
and Peace, in the United States, Tess Gallagher, the widow of the
wonderful writer Raymond Carver, has been in the news for demanding
that his publishers publish the unedited version of What We Talk About
When We Talk About Love, Carver‘s beautiful 1981 breakout collection
of short stories. “I just think it’s so important for Ray’s book,
which has been a kind of secret, to appear,” Gallagher told the New
York Times, adding that she was sick of being asked if Carver‘s first
editor Gordon Lish wrote the stories. Editor, where art thou? Being
put out to pasture, appears to be the answer.

It’s a worrying trend because – sexy and interesting as it might look
on the press release – it’s not to the ultimate benefit of the average
reader. While the publication of such texts are clearly an invaluable
resource for scholars, and are to be welcomed in that regard, when the
raw editions of the books are hyped up, pumped out in large quantities
and touted as replacements or ‘classic editions’, then they risk
introducing readers to the least strong version available of the book,
without having the casual reader realise that this is the case. As
anyone who has sighed over an overlong ‘director’s cut’ or one of the
many dodgy albums made by Prince when he decided to be a squiggle will
know, while there are exceptions, artists mostly benefit from
editorial direction. Sure, the artist is the spark. But an editor or
producer can frequently be the one to guide the flame.

Too often that truth goes unacknowledged. There’s a joke that writers
– usually the most bitter and disappointed of writers, it should be
said – like to tell about editors. The joke goes something like this:
a writer and editor are lost in the desert. They’re exhausted and
about to lie down and die when, out of nowhere, the writer spots an
oasis, a pool of water shimmering in the sunlight. He runs over to the
water. “It’s real,” he shouts back to the editor. The writer is about
to scoop water into his mouth when the editor tells him to wait. The
editor bounds over to the pool of water. “I can improve it!” he says.
He unzips his trousers and urinates into the water. “Ah, that’s
better,” he grins happily. “Now it’s perfect.”

I suspect, were Carver alive today, he would have enjoyed that joke.
But like many other writers, he wouldn’t really have believed in its
subtext. Although Carver complained about the original editing of his
short stories, for later editions, when he was given the option to
change them, in most cases, he kept the edited versions. Carver knew
what worked best. He knew the value of an editor.

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