I was out running errands last month, listening to NPR, which had an interview with Tony La Russa, the storied Major League Baseball manager (Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, and St. Louis Cardinals). La Russa has guided teams to three World Series titles, six league championships, and twelve division titles in thirty-three seasons, and he’s just been inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The interviewer asked about his management style, and La Russa said it was all relationship-driven: “[You have to be] very hands-on, [earn] respect and trust, and [show] players you care for ’em.”
It sounds a lot like editing.
I’d read a little about the legendary editors—Maxwell Perkins the obvious choice—but until I started doing this work myself, I had no idea, really, how tender the relationship would become. Perkins, for example, was noted not only for his editorial skill but for courtesy, kindness … and the fact that he became friends—close—with his authors.
To be frank, I don’t now know how it can be otherwise. It’s an intimacy, this work, one in which an author must lay bare his artistic effort, knowing his partner the editor will function first and most importantly as a critic. Relationship is what makes it work.
Look at this exchange between Perkins (who famously acquired F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Erskine Caldwell, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Alan Paton, and others) and Fitzgerald, just twenty-eight years old when he sends the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to his editor. “The novel is a wonder,” Perkins tells him. After his second read, Perkins calls the book “extraordinary,” then offers some constructive criticism in a friendly tone. Fitzgerald is thrilled:
Your wire & your letters made me feel like a million dollars … Your criticisms were excellent & most helpful. … Anyhow thanks & thanks & thanks for your letters. I’d rather have you and Bunny like it than anyone I know. And I’d rather have you like it than Bunny.*
Undoubtedly there was more back-and-forth before the manuscript went to press, but this exchange reveals a hands-on relationship that clearly has respect and trust and affection on both sides.
Ninety years later, Michael Pietsch (now CEO at Hachette, Pietsch’s career in New York publishing started at Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1979 and in 1991 moved to Little, Brown, where he rose to publisher a decade later) is arguably one of the most sought-after editors today—for the same reasons as Perkins: his strong advocacy for authors as individuals and the relationships he forges with them. Even as a publisher Pietsch was editing works such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but he’s worked with James Patterson, David Foster Wallace, Alice Sebold, Walter Mosley, Martin Amis, Chad Harbach, John Feinstein, Anita Shreve, Rick Moody, and many, many others.
In a 2011 interview about David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Pietsch said,
Editing with a writer is a joyous collaboration—not even a collaboration, but a conversation, a colloquy, a back-and-forth. The editor makes suggestions and proposes and points things out and acts as a sort of super-reader for the author—and the author chooses what if any of that advice he or she wants to take. That interplay with David was one of the most joyous I’ve had in my life as an editor.
I know that joy of which he speaks. I’ve found long-term editorial relationships are particularly rewarding, because author and editor know each other’s hearts, develop a shorthand way of communicating. In a Book Business interview, Pietsch noted,
I’ve worked on more books with James Patterson than with any other writer and have learned enormously from the experience the importance of frequent and honest communication. It has been made plain to me over the years that for most writers, publication is mostly long and confusing stretches of silence. Constant communication about both the broad arc of publishing goals and the immediate specifics is the best counter to the alienation that can grow in those silences.
“It’s an intimate process, and an extraordinary trust to be allowed to see a writer’s work before it goes out into the world,” Pietsch has said.
That’s exactly how I feel about it.
Whether I am hired by a publisher or an author, the expectation is that I am going to improve the manuscript—“coaching” the author with suggestions, catching issues with plot or characterization, perhaps teaching the author something about the writing craft he or she had never before considered.
When we start, I’m a friendly stranger. But I have always made friends easily (I had to: I was an air force brat), and this helps. Still, I’m careful and professional with my communication because it’s all written—and it’s so easy to be misunderstood when there’s no tone of voice, no facial expression, no body language, no twinkle in the eye. In person, these signals add a layer of communication missing from email. (Or from a fourteen-page Word doc of editorial notes.)
And let’s face it, I do bring the heat. :)
But twinkle alone won’t make an author feel better when he or she is braced for criticism that no doubt feels like a ninety mph fastball. (I’ve written about this process here and here, and there’s a good list of more commentary here.) It takes careful, gentle, friendly back-and-forth. It takes vulnerability and openness. It takes a few good belly laughs.
When we’re done, I hope we’re friends. That’s what I mean when I call you “my” author. Yes, there are “long and confusing stretches of silence” in the publishing business, but this editor tries to stay in touch, even though her most immediate concern in the manuscript in front of her. Facebook certainly helps in this regard, but that’s not what I mean. As I write this, I’m excitedly planning dinner with an author friend who will be in town for a meeting with her agent. I’ve just had an author friend houseguest; she travels quite a bit and always spends a night here on her to or from journey. I have lunch or dinner—sometimes breakfast!—with my authors who live nearby, and if you’re going to be in the area, I definitely want to hear from you.
Does Tony La Russa stay in touch with his former players? I’m betting he does, because relationship doesn’t stop when the work ends. I don’t let go of my friends easily.
* Bunny, here, is Edmund Wilson Jr.
Thanks to Ramona Richards—with whom I have a wonderful friendship—for this topic.
Tweet: Until I started editing, I had no idea, really, how tender the relationship would become.
Tweet: In baseball, it’s all about the relationship. Sounds a lot like editing.
Tweet: Twinkle alone won’t make an author feel better when he or she is braced for criticism.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”