by Barry Harbaugh)
Where do book editors fit in the culture of American fiction? After reading “MFA vs NYC,” the provocative essay collection edited by Chad Harbach and published by the literary magazine n+1, one might be forgiven for thinking that we don’t fit anywhere at all. “MFA vs NYC,” according to the back cover, “brings together established writers, MFA professors and students, and New York editors, publicists, and agents” so that they might explore, if not really square, the “two cultures of American fiction.” Oddly, the voice of the New York City book editor is absent from these proceedings.
As an overview of the pressures that bear on an emerging writer today, “MFA vs NYC” is delectable reading. It also proves that there are some very good essayists who have devoted themselves to the publishing careers of others—whether as teachers in graduate programs (George Saunders, Alexander Chee) or as literary agents in New York (Melissa Flashman, Jim Rutman). I don’t think Harbach intended to send a message about book editors by excluding the voice of the professionals who help to bring many novels and short-story collections to bookstores. I know that he asked at least one of our number—not me—for a contribution. Still, the fact that “MFA vs NYC” doesn’t contain the voice of a book editor seems significant, an indication of where book editors stand in the “culture of American fiction.” I attribute this omission, accidental or not, to the longstanding rumor that editors don’t actually edit.
I was first exposed to such piffle when I was in college and working as an editorial assistant at Zoetrope: All-Story, Francis Ford Coppola’s short-story magazine. I once asked a Zoetrope editor why he didn’t move to New York and edit books. This was during a walk home from the office that made me feel grownup and like a pseudo-peer, even though I was just the kid logging submissions into a computer database. I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of his response was: book editors are business people. Since I moved to New York, where the smaller publishing houses of yore have combined—and are combining still—into global behemoths, I have heard some version of this over and over. The real work, the saying goes, is performed at literary agencies, the “R. & D. wing of the publishing world,” as Flashman, the well-respected agent, puts it in her lapidary piece.
That’s not entirely true. The editorial staffs of New York houses are not the faceless lemmings that a certain retail giant with a vested stake in self-publishing would have us be. And though it would appear to outsiders that the health of our careers depends solely on measurements of quantity (of the books that we acquire and the units sold), we’re not numbers-obsessed automatons. Editors edit. A lot. As a group, we’re hesitant to speak up for ourselves, lest our decorousness be tainted by saying something too self-aggrandizing. But I’ll take the risk: I probably mark up fifty to a hundred pages a week, most of it on the weekend. I ask questions and cut sentences and write chapter titles and all that stuff. The other editors at my company, and editors I know socially from other companies, are just as rigorous.
“MFA vs NYC” suggests a growing rift between fiction writers and the so-called Big Five publishing houses, which is not helped by the persistent rumors of our laziness and obsolescence. None of the essays in the book’s New York City portion challenge, or even engage, the ingested rumor that the editing of book-length fiction is not performed by editors at publishing houses but, instead, by agents heroically spilling ink for their fifteen per cent.
The idea that the literary agencies of New York City do the kinds of manuscript-shaping and talent-finding that editors used to perform isn’t new. In a June, 1991, issue of The New Republic, Jacob Weisberg wrote a controversial piece suggesting that two top editors in New York City had “far too much on [their] plate to spend time editing any one work.” The editors-don’t-edit rumor has also been sustained by writers, the victims of that “short shrift.” “I think the bias that book editors don’t really edit these days is alive and well among writers, perhaps especially those beyond N.Y.C.,” Claire Vaye Watkins, the author of the short-story collection “Battleborn,” told me. “Many in my circle seem to agree that, if anything, agents do more editing than editors.”
True, sometimes a submission arrives from an agent in publishable or nearly publishable shape. No less real is the existence of writers who “refuse” editing. Fair enough—it’s their name that appears on the book’s cover. But the idea that editors don’t have time to spend on manuscripts, or simply don’t bother, insults the job entirely. In a business as reliant on hope and potential as book publishing is—a business, in other words, reliant on the development of talent—the accumulation of exceptional anecdotes of perfect manuscripts does not tell the whole story. “Cloud Atlas” is a piece of genius. That doesn’t mean that editors don’t edit.
“Neither do cops serve and protect,” Michael Signorelli, a senior editor at Holt, said. “Nor do politicians prioritize the public. Nor do doctors remember to remove gauzes before suturing. Nor do mechanics bill honestly. Nor do housekeepers clean behind the picture frames. No one thinks anyone does their job. It’s the prevailing and instinctual accusation of anyone who feels, within a particular context, powerless.”
To say this another way, the myth of the non-editing book editor provides a comforting frame of mind for the M.F.A. writer with an unpublished manuscript, which I would assume to be the majority of readers of “MFA vs NYC.” Perhaps this would explain my personal chagrin on behalf of a cohort glaringly absent in this otherwise charming collection: those who feel that they hold the power (editors) coming up against those who—despite their talent, resolve, and debt—feel that they don’t (writers).
It’s difficult to juggle submissions and books in production while one attempts to edit a book on one’s desk. But that is a matter separate from how well one edits or whether one edits at all. To enter the editorial vault of the publishing world is to join a population of overworked, underpaid, good-humored, vastly well-read craftspeople often spending huge amounts of time on other people’s writing. We do it for the pleasure of working with words and ideas and writers. We’re all on the same page.
Barry Harbaugh is an editor at Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Read Andrew Martin’s related post about “MFA vs NYC.”
Illustration by Jordan Awan.