Those of us who have written professionally have all faced editors. There are those who despise those who have that power over them, and those of us who welcome their help. I was lucky: I always had supportive editors, whose work always only made my prose better.
But I also feel sympathy for them, as a whole, for having to put up with my tendencies. I wrote for a newspaper, where the ideal prose is that which disappears, is clear as spring water, and is aimed at a readership that wants to get the information it needs in as short and pithy a means as possible. Short sentences; short paragraphs; direct communication.
Unfortunately, that was not what I usually did. I wasn’t a trained journalist and I never quite caught the knack. I loved the words as much as the matter they conveyed. Subordinate clauses, parenthetical asides, amplifying sidenotes — these were what I loved, and what I plopped down, like a dead fish, on the desk of my poor editors. I’m sure I used more em-dashes and semicolons than the entire rest of the writing staff combined. My sympathetic editors let me get away with it — usually.
My ideal writers, those whose works I loved to read — and the operative word is “love” — are those who expatiate, amplify, pile up metaphors and imagery, i.e., whose prose was tasty and rich. Authors who one reads less for the plot or subject and more for the glory of the words themselves. Melville, Thoreau, Gibbon, Laurence Sterne. Words to gobble up and savor over the palate.
I wrote about this in a previous blog, where I described the kind of writing I enjoyed:
“My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.”
One sentence; 114 words; 14 commas; a semicolon; a parenthesis; a hyphen; and the supporting gravy of digression. Sentences such as that must have provided my editors with reason enough to keep a sixpack of Pepto-Bismol in their desk drawers.
The fact is, writers tend to be those who hone their text down to the essentials, like Hemingway, or those who pile it on with a rich depth of detail, like Faulkner. They are perhaps the exempla of the two tendencies.
In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a letter to his sometime friend, Thomas Wolfe, urging Wolfe to prune his prose down to essentials, cut back on some of that overwhelming exuberance, and advocating for Flaubert’s laconic supremacy over the wordier Emile Zola. Wolfe wrote back, in a bit of understandable pique: “Flaubert me no Flauberts, Bovary me no Bovarys. Zola me no Zolas. And exuberance me no exuberances.”
Wolfe argued: “I have mentioned Don Quixote and Pickwick and The Brothers Karamazov and Tristram Shandy to you in contrast to The Silver Spoon or The White Monkey as examples of books that have become ‘immortal’ and that boil and pour. Just remember that although in your opinion Madame Bovary may be a great book, Tristram Shandy is indubitably a great book, and that it is great for quite different reasons. It is great because it boils and pours — for the unselected quality of its selection. You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners — greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in — remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.”
Yeah — Take that! (The Silver Spoon and The White Monkey are two of the three books in the John Galsworthy trilogy, aka The Forsyth Saga, along with Swan Song.)
Wolfe knew who he was and what he wanted to do, and yes, his editor, Maxwell Perkins (also Hemingway’s editor at Scribners) did manage to trim some 90,000 words out of Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward Angel, which first came to his desk at 330,000 words. And Wolfe did complain constantly about Perkins’ blue pencil, eventually leaving Scribners because of it. And yes, Perkins’ work immeasurably helped Wolfe become a great writer.
In his letter to Fitzgerald, Wolfe painted a wonderful caricature of how the public pictured Wolfe as an author:
“The little fellows who don’t know may picture a man as a great ‘exuberant’ six-foot-six clodhopper straight out of nature who bites off half a plug of apple tobacco, tilts the corn liquor jug and lets half of it gurgle down his throat, wipes off his mouth with the back of one hairy paw, jumps three feet in the air and clacks his heels together four times before he hits the floor again and yells ‘Whoopee, boys I’m a rootin, tootin, shootin son of a gun from Buncombe County — out of my way now, here I come!’ — and then wads up three-hundred thousand words or so, hurls it back at a blank page, puts covers on it and says ‘Here’s my book!’ Now Scott, the boys who write book reviews in New York may think it’s done that way; but the man who wrote Tender Is the Night knows better. You know you never did it that way, you know I never did, you know no one else who ever wrote a line worth reading ever did. So don’t give me any of your guff, young fellow.”
As an experiment, I thought I might take a famous bit of “putter-inner” prose and give it the Flaubert treatment. Herman Melville writes a prose as fertile as anyone ever planted on a page, with excursions, explosions, eructations and effusions all over the place. It is, of course, what makes Melville Melville, and why anyone reads all that stuff about harpoons and try pots. The exuberance of the words piled onto the page is what makes the book such fun to read.
And so, I imagined the opening paragraph of the first chapter, “Loomings,” and took my pencil to it.
As it was written:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
I love that paragraph. Full to overflowing; images piled on images. A great introduction to our narrator, whose personality becomes the substance of the book. But, I thought, what if a gimlet-eyed editor from a harried city newsroom saw that coming across his desk, what would he do to it. Take out all the hoopde-doo. Just the facts, ma’am.
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago having little in my purse, I thought I would sail and see part of the world. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. There is nothing surprising in this. Almost all men cherish the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
See how much more efficient it becomes. Gets straight to the point.
But really, if he wasn’t on deadline, he might well send it back for rewrite. I which case, we could turn it into right perfect journalese:
“My name is Ishmael. A few years ago, when I was broke, I decided to go to sea. Whenever I’m down, I do that. I believe that most of us feel the same about the sea.”
And really, do we need that last sentence? Out it goes. Editorializing.
I believe that most of us feel the same about the sea.
It always reminds me of Woody Allen describing how his mother used to “run the chicken through the deflavorizing machine.” The value is weighted heavily upon the words, rather than the mere story. The flavor.
I look back now on my 25 years as a critic with The Arizona Republic in Phoenix and feel tremendous gratitude to the many editors who put up with me, let me write what I wanted to, and mostly let me write it the way I was constitutionally built for, and often let me use a vocabulary beyond what was found in McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader. I wouldn’t have had a career without them.