Tuesday, July 21, 2009

High Expectations

I have mixed feelings about the poet William Stafford, who wrote several charming, accessible books of poems before he died in 1993. Sometimes his poems were spot-on; othertimes, they were too cute. But he also wrote some excellent books on writing, including You Must Revise Your Life and Writing the Australian Crawl. And in one of these books, or maybe a different one, he says something to the effect that a writer's job is not to be his or her own editor. The editor is the editor. And the writer is the writer. So the writer should just churn out whatever and let the editor sort it all.

In other words, a writer has no responsibility to monitor the quality of her work.

I think this is very, very good advice, particularly for young writers, who have enough angst and doubt already and have no place sniffing out the whims of Manhattan.

However... I wonder about old, established writers. I just read a galley of the new Philip Roth novel, which is coming out in the fall. And of course it's very good. For most of it, I was really happy just being in Philip Roth's mind. But by the end, I thought, Hm. This doesn't do anything he hasn't already done. Also, it's short. It made me kind of wish he'd saved up and done a long one. Of course, the guy's 76, and while he's still at the top of his game, he probably feels the press of mortality. Maybe he's writing these little novels just to get them out.

Then again, my expectations are probably too high. You shouldn't expect a writer to get better and bigger with every book. And some writers' least exciting stuff is still worth reading. I just read the first quarter or third of the new Alice Munro novella in Harper's... she's my favorite writer, but I'm not too interested in finishing it. But I will, because it's her, and I know it will be worth it.

Editors, especially these days, are probably motivated to publish *anything* by a known quantity -- a best-selling or prize-winning writer. Do you think a writer has an obligation to keep standards up, if editors aren't going to do it? (And to be clear: I was vaguely dissatisfied with the latest Munro and Roth, but who knows, maybe it's just me.) I can't help but think that William Stafford, for one, would have been a better poet if he didn't submit everything he wrote.


jon said...

Becoming your own editor is a necessity now, if you care about how your work appears. It seems to be a dying art. The problem is that editing and creating are different activites. Young writers end up doing nothing, or censoring themselves, if they try to edit as they go along. Editing is the super ego; creation is the id. I've tried to learn how to read my own writing as a reader would, and edit in that frame of mind. Attending to grammar, syntax, the right word choice, accurate reference, etc. forces you to be clear, and understand the choices you've made. It also forces you to consider your audience. Editing to anticipate what an editor or agent will want though is a bad idea. I think the reality of writing today is that you have to be your own agent, your own editor and your own publisher.

christianbauman said...

Hi Rhian. Interesting thoughts. One side of this is summed up in Jon's final sentence above: the days of Maxwell Taylor are over, the Gary Fisketjons are going the way of the dodo, and very few of us have the luxury of an editor with the time to do what was once expected of the job, right? At book-length noevl material, I've been edited three times by three different people, two of them very gifted editors. Yet the lack of continuity in and of itself effects the process. And I was well aware of the work load on these folks...they did an admirable job with me, yet I know my books were but 1 of a gazillion on their desk at the moment.

The continuity that few gets from editors anymore as we all switch from house to house, I get from my agent, and it is my great fortune to have an agent who is also a thoughtful and talented editor. She is my first read, and my most trusted voice.

All that aside, though, I don't buy into your poet's argument. True, especially when younger, it may be important to just get the stuff down on paper, especially if you're having trouble getting it down. Removing a barrier of self-editing can help with just getting it out. But my opinion is that if you're just abdicating all editing to an editor, you're abdicating a critical part of the writing. Great works are created as much in (or more in, frankly) the carving as in the building. Master carpenters aren't the guys who deliver the wood and drop it on the work site in a pile...they're the guys who transform that pile into something amazing.

Logistically, I agree: it's sometimes important to turn off the self-editor in your head as you're typing. But I spend more time in the editing and re-writing than I do in the writing, and anyone close to me who has read my work at both sides of that rail line know that they are completely different beasts.

I guess another part of it might be a slightly ridiculous masculine point of pride: I have a hard time taking anyone seriously as a writer who doesn't take the time to make their own shit look good. You know? I do recognize that I'm speaking as a former copy editor, and I would rather never be published again than submit a sloppy (literally or figuratively) manuscript. So, yes, I know I'm being a little silly here. But in my mind I guess I equate this with the soldier who hands his or her weapon off to another to be cleaned, or an actor who doesn't know how to apply his or her own stage makeup if neccessary. Know what I mean? To me, this is also part of what's cool about being a writer...or cool about being anything. Those basic-level nuts and bolts skills.

As for Roth...I imagine he's not getting much of someone sitting him down and saying, "Look, phil, about this last manuscript. We need to do a little work." I doubt that conversation is happening. It's a shame, though, that editors aren't delivering, or writers don't have the cojones to hear it. J Franzen's The Corrections might have actually tipped over into the land of brilliance rather than teetering on almost had he been given a good talking to, and then responded to it.

jrlennon said...

Franzen might be a bad example here--The Corrections was at one time a far longer and very different book, and was apparently hugely worked over. I like it, but still prefer Strong Motion.

I think it's true that you have to be two different people, the writer and then the editor. Having a good editor helps (and I do have one), but one can no longer count on publishing houses to provide this service.

I agree with Rhian that Stafford was sometimes maddeningly cute, and he really ought to have thought this through a little better. When he was good, though, he was good--we had one of his poems read at our wedding, you might recall, dear.

rmellis said...

Did we? Not the dead deer one, I hope.

It's true that editors don't edit much anymore, anyway -- someone's got to do it!

sjwoo said...

It must've been nice, back then, when editors actually had time to work with writers closely. Or so I think -- but who knows, maybe not. Now that writers are pretty much on their own, perhaps they can stick closer to their vision and not have to worry about the opinions of their editors.

Of course, if that vision happens to suck, then well, you're in trouble.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, exactly! And of course even writers with impeccable standards can be wrong about the worth of their own work.

BTW, Sung, thanks for putting me on your web site! I'm still planning on collecting that lunch in Easton...

sjwoo said...

JRL, when you come to town, you'll have an Ocean burger waiting for you! Pieces for the Left Hand rocked, pure and simple. Even though I read it a couple of weeks ago, it's still right here on my desk, and I keep reading random chapters.

Gary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lily said...

I think part of the work of being a good writer is being a good re-writer. Landing an agent or editor who can help you re-work your story is a matter of luck -- so it seems unwise to rely on it happening. That said, my agent is a really good editor, even if he is the slowest reader in the world, and I feel lucky my book's getting yet another going over.

PS: What Stafford poem did you have read at your wedding?

jrlennon said...

The poem was "Once In The 40's":

The other poem, read by my brother, was Wallace Stevens' "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour"---"this, then, is the intensest rendezvous..."

FWIW, my former agent of ten years never made suggestions about my manuscripts, by my new agent of two years does. I think I prefer it this way.

jonah said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Stafford. but then, I also think of editing and revising in a different sense.

When I write a poem, I always (try to) write without thinking. Then i'll go back and try to make the poem more accurate to the original idea. I'll tighten sentences. Change words. Rewrite stanzas. Rewrite the poem, even.

But I don't try to "finish" the poem. I think of editing as the finished product. The writing is just the construction of a chair. Getting all the joints tight and making sure it holds weight and stands on its own. That takes some revision. But to finish the project, you have to round the edges, sand it smooth and apply the clear coat. That's editing.

Anonymous said...

I *think*--am not sure--that what Stafford meant was that it was the editors job to decide what to publish and what not to publish.

Every poet writes crappy poems. Bad editors publish them. A good editor wouldn't have made Stafford a better poet...a good editor would have slenderized Stafford's life's work.

My favorite Stafford quote: "Successful people are in a rut."