Poacher Turned Gamekeeper: The Dark Art of Editing by Tom Vowler 1st November 2018 – Posted in: Blog



Perhaps ‘turned’ is a little hyperbolic: I still write fiction, but am in that unwelcome hinterland authors euphemistically term ‘between books’, and so much of my literary day is currently spent tangoing with other people’s prose.

Betsy Lerner regarded the editor of fiction as ‘like a good dance partner, who neither leads nor follows’. Certainly that dance can unravel, not least in well-documented examples such as Carver and Lish. At best most authors find ambivalence amid the process. Henry James termed editing as ‘the butcher’s trade’, D.H. Lawrence as like ‘trying to clip my own nose into shape with scissors’.

It’s de rigour to bemoan the demise of editing and I’m always unsettled when journals accept my work and publish it without revision: the ego-centric part of me is obviously thrilled, but I’ve yet to see a piece of writing that hasn’t been, often dramatically, improved by an editor’s hand. Jeanette Winterson argues that editors ‘have become linear and timid…that many younger editors simply don’t have the cultural resources to recognise a reference or playfulness therein.’ An endangered species, if we are to believe Blake Morrison, with ‘few having time these days for an interventionist, collaborative approach to a book’s early drafts.’

Novelist Kirsty Gunn, however, is concerned that the business of publishing is becoming too collaborative:

‘To my mind, there’s a wicked expectation that literary work can be created by some sort of committee. I’ve always been horrified by the notion of sending in a draft that isn’t finished. I think there’s a real difference between sitting down and creating a piece of work and then having a conversation with someone you respect, and sending in a piece of work and thinking, we’ll work on this together.’

As co-editor of Unthology I, together with Ashley, must pan for gold from a submission pile of several hundred, seeking perhaps ten or so dazzling jewels for each issue of the journal. Of course editors have their aesthetic blind spots as well as their literary drug of choice, so a partner is invaluable here. You hope your colleague is swimming in the same channels, if not always in the same lane.

With such ‘power’ comes a certain obligation, the editor in some small way charged with taste-making, of bringing some authors into a more prominent light, keeping others from it. For me this is done on a guttural, instinctive level, the micro analysis and appraisal occurring beneath my conscious mind, at least initially. For the most part I even resist scrutiny of my selection process, for fear of undermining it.

I’m often asked how much of a story / book I read before deciding, and the honest answer is for as long as the piece engages, thrills, delights and impresses me. Sometimes this is several pages, often only a paragraph. Agni editor, Sven Berkerts, in this fascinating essay explains here why he rejected a story after this opening sentence:

‘John Maloney hunched his shoulders against the bitter wind coming off the lake.’

He read no more. On the face of it this would seem excessively harsh, but Berkerts goes on to make a compelling case. It’s a salutary lesson for writers, to ensure they place before an editor sentences that are living and breathing, that possess voltage, kick and bite, that are not merely expository, or worse: flabby.

Berkerts regards the editor as ‘cutting away the less essential in order to expose the more essential,’ of searching ‘for signal in a sea of noise.’ Which of course begs the question as to what exactly is essential. My own allegiance remains faithful to the sentence – once an author has me at that level, I can forgive other ‘failings’, though ideally there would be none. When language utilises the best words in their most efficacious and efficient and beautiful order, I am yours. At least until the next sentence.

I do try, periodically, to challenge the evaluating filter I employ when reading submissions, to ensure I am publishing great fiction and not merely fiction I regard as great, a crucial distinction, and perhaps the commissioning editor’s most challenging task.

T.S. Eliot, when asked if editors were no more than failed writers, replied: ‘Perhaps – but so are most writers.’

Diana Athill reminds us, though, that editors should not expect gratitude from their authors. Working on a book she wished to publish, she found the content unreadable but, financially strapped in the early days of the business, pushed on nonetheless, re-writing every page, every line herself, returning each chapter to the author for approval.

‘It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel,’ Athill writes, ‘revealing the attractive present which it contained. Soon after publication the book was reviewed in the TLS: an excellent book, said the reviewer, scholarly and full of fascinating detail, and beautifully written.’

The author sent Athill a clipping of the review, remarking, ‘This confirms what I have thought all along, that none of that fuss about it was necessary.’


Unthology 11 will be published in July 2019. Tom Vowler is running introductory and short story workshops for the Unthank School in January.








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