Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why you should compromise your artistic integrity

There's a great story in that Carver biography about Gordon Lish trying to edit Vladimir Nabokov for Esquire in the same way he edited Carver. "Who is this fellow Gordon Lish and what is he doing?" the great man said, according to editor-in-chief Frederick Hills. "We simply return it to him and say, 'This is not possible.'" Nabokov's primary editor, of course, was Nabokov. But most of us can use a real editor, even if it isn't one as aggressive and, ultimately, monomaniacal as Lish.

Whenever an editor (or anyone else, for that matter) asks me to change something, I get my hackles up, just a little. "Who the hell are you to tell me how to make my art?!!?" But the fact is, there are two audiences for your work: the one that contains only you, and the one that contains everyone else on earth. And it's the latter audience an editor is working for.

Dare I say it's the more important audience, as well? The editor, if he's any good, is doing you a favor. He is showing you things about your own work that you're incapable of seeing on your own. He is pointing out your blind spots. A good editor treats the story as something other than a masturbatory enterprise; she is trying to figure out how to make the world accept and enjoy your vision.

There are an infinity of ways to make a story work--and your way might not be among the best, even if you wrote it. Because really, if you're any good, you don't know what the hell you're doing, anyway. Your writing should be a process of discovery, not transcription. When an editor says to you, "We'll publish, but only if you'll do X," consider doing X, and not feeling bad about it. There are times when no is the only possible answer, and I've had times like those. But a lot of the time, the editor knows better--she has seen what you were trying to do and is attempting to help you do it. (I would argue that this was, in the early days, what Lish was doing for Carver.)

Think of it this way: there is no definitive version of anything. Your story is different in the mind of everyone who reads it, because literature is a participatory art, not a dictatorial one. So let up on the reins a little. Your integrity is a strength, but it can turn on a dime into a weakness.

14 comments:

rmellis said...

Bullshit, man! Nobody touches my precious words!

Except for money!

Sasha said...

How much should you worry about the editor's personal biases, though?

I'm not at a point where I have a real editor--I just have literate, kind friends who are willing to read my work and talk to me about it. They've helped me transform my stories, but sometimes I feel as though their advice isn't representative of the "latter audience," but just of their own personal taste/interests.

For instance, one of those friends is an actor who loves Spanish/South American literature. He has a taste for "archetypal" characters, unsolved mysteries, and a bittersweet tone; he also has a high tolerance for magical realism. Another of my friends is very into conventional fantasy, but shies away from explicit physicality, and she is a stickler for authentic, researched detail. Both of these friends are fantastic readers, but when the first says he "loves the characters" or the second says she doesn't understand why a couple has sex or why a character can't just plain be a vampire, alarms go off in my head.

Does he love the characters because they're love-able, or because he likes archetypal characters/ones he'd understand how to play? Does the sex scene feel disconnected, or is it just not to my friend's taste?

I guess the writer/editor relationship just takes a while to understand, but I struggle in deciding when to second-guess myself and when to second-guess my reader(s).

rmellis said...

Yeah, it's a tricky business having friends read your work.... you have to take their biases into account. Eventually, you want to find readers whose tastes exactly match yours.

Correct me if I'm wrong, JR, but I don't think you'd recommend giving in to an editor unless: 1) it makes perfect sense to you and you would have done it anyway, if you'd thought of it, or 2) you don't see the big deal in doing it, (say, changing Barb's name to Bunny) but it can't hurt, or 3) it's pretty weird and pretty drastic, but yeah, there's something off with your story and what the heck, this might just work.

Number 3 comes up surprisingly often.

jrlennon said...

Well, there's a #4 as well, which is, there is NO WAY I'm going to do this...but the editor's mention of it shows me that there was indeed a problem, and now I will come up with an alternate, more acceptable, solution.

Sasha is right, it's hard before you start publishing--whom do you trust? We had the advantage of going to grad school, where we were able to find not only each other, but a few other reliable critics who understood what we were trying to do. In the absence of that, you have to depend upon going away from the story for a little while until you effectively become somebody else--somebody who has a bit of perspective.

jon said...

Another rule of thumb is, if you give it to 5 people and they all disagree about what is wrong, it's probably OK, but if they start to agree on what's wrong, even if you're screaming in your head you ought to take a look at it. The problem as always is ego. But, of course, imagine what Lish would have done to Nabokov if he'd had a chance? it's important to get a good match. Editors and agents see more writing from the inside, and know the market. With my last book there was no consensus, but I pieced together two negative reads with some barely perceptible hints from readers who loved it, to do what is an agonizing edit, but i think the pain, rage and blood are worth it, it will probably be a better book for it. sadly, the best lines often have to go, in service of the story. it's my 4th novel, and it feels like my first, except everything is happening faster.

Russell said...

I normally edit academic texts (i.e., scholarly nonfiction), so I make a living enforcing not just grammar and syntax but logic and accuracy. But my tastes run to literary fiction (with a special place reserved for interwar stuff: Fitzgerald, Woolf, Henry Miller [yes, a minor talent, but his managerial position at the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company was tantamount to a clerkship at Ellis Island], Hemingway ["Big Two-Hearted River" and his books through 1929, then skipping to 1954 {the Cuban fish story} and 1961 {hint: Easter never happens on the same day on consecutive years}], et al.). But J. R. Lennon's observations on editing (with Rhian's amplifications) seem true and right. An author should never agree to change something on faith alone. The reasons for any change, departure, omission, or reconfiguration must be made clear—or at least prove to portent no harm. Consensus is good, too, as another poster has pointed out. But style: style is the way an author thinks. I would never change something simply because it's not the way that I would say it. Carver, until the late 1970s, was probably too discombobulated to do the kind of work that was required to finish his stories. Nabokov—a Russian who could teach the nuances of Joyce's English (at Cornell, right?)—had no trouble finishing his own work. My theory: only when Carver stopped drinking did he panic at having given over this job to someone else, as if he'd awoken from a nightmare of incarceration. I haven't yet read the biography, but I've wondered about this before. Tess Gallagher was invested in the born-again Carver (having known his reputation, she probably wanted to heal him, à la Bukowski's saint of a final wife). But outside this hagiographic mindset she could perhaps stand to admit that any text—short of a haiku—is at least partly arbitrary. If Carver had his foothold in human consciousness in the form edited by Lish then maybe it was (and is) too late to go back, ever. If text were not arbitrary—especially longer-form text with no built-in mnemonic device (compare the Odyssey to Ulysses)—then we'd all know it by heart and pounce on those who got it wrong. (We'd also despise Dostoevsky in translation for being so damn English.) It's not that way: "There is no definitive version of anything." Henry James's New York editions—no better and no worse than the originals (the differences known only to scholars)—are proof of that. (Sorry to mention James again: he's a celibate and a bore [but not a boor], and I prefer Carver and his ilk.)

jrlennon said...

Russell, I've got no beef against James. As for Carver, I think you're right--drinking and paranoia made him unable to made great stories based on his vision; Lish completed him. But once he was sober he could do this, and he (quite forcefully, it turns out) denied Lish his usual access. According to the biography, Carver was certainly writing in the early seventies, but those stories didn't make an impact until Lish got his hands on them.

Perhaps a good editor just provides what we can't provide on our own. For me, it's a measure of patience and a willingness to reconsider what I hoped was finished.

Jay Livingston said...

Here's what I get from these last two posts: The writer may be a moral cretin in his non-writing life. But as a writer, he's also an editor and recognizes good editing. Either by himself or with an editor, he gets rid of everything that could undermine the fiction (bad writing and morally cretinous stuff). So when you read a Carver or Cheever story you are getting something very different from the person himself.

The curious thing is that we expect that the fiction we read on the page gives us an accurate likeness of the writer-as-person. Yet we know that the story is worked and reworked, edited and polished.

It's like the dissolute preacher. Why should we be surprised if the person who gives such a stirring performance from the pulpit on Sunday turns out to be a dismal sinner in his nonworking life?

Matt said...

There are too many reasons why we should listen to someone else's opinion - that is, if our ultimate goal is to distribute something intended for quasi-mass consumption.

The person doesn't need to be an editor-editor, they could be a writer pretending to be an editor, or someone you know (and trust) who has read more than five books in their life pretending to be an editor.

I think it comes down to the quality of the advice, particularly if they (the one with the editor cap) are able to approach your work openly and provide feedback which is not from the perspective of how they would like it if they had written it, but how they would like it if they had bought the book and had read it.

Sidenote: I don't visit for a few weeks, and I miss posts about Carver *and* Feynman. Jeez.

jrlennon said...

Sure, it does come down to the quality of the advice...but it's hard to tell when it's any good, even after you've got a lot of experience. This is why I mostly just listen to Rhian these days...at least for first and second drafts.

Matt said...

I agree. I suppose I would add to what I said before: there are too many reasons why we should listen to someone else's opinion...yet heeding that opinion is another matter. I knowingly enter "self-absorbed bastard writer" territory by stating that the best feedback I get is the feedback which confirms suspicions I already hold (but, owing to various reasons - being 'chicken shit' perhaps one - I could not follow through with).

Sasha said...

Matt, I completely agree that the most helpful suggestions are usually the ones that seem obvious as soon as someone *else* gives them.

I get those mostly when I unwittingly give a super-juicy story element to a side-character. I'm one of those "cast of MILLIONS!" Bollywood-style writers unless/until I catch myself--and it makes my stories a little mushy. My readers are great at keeping me focused--but it's always a bit of a come down when the SUPER AWESOME THING happened to the wrong character and maybe had no wow factor at all because of it.

Anyway, a suggestion like that can be humiliating--but on the other hand, you probably have a fantastic solution all ready for your editor/reader seconds after they mention the now-obvious problem...so the disappointment in oneself pays off in the opportunity to show off to others? ;)

Anonymous said...

I don’t usually reply to posts but I will in this case. I’ve been experiencing this very same problem with a new WordPress installation of mine. I’ve spent weeks calibrating and getting it ready when all of a sudden… I cannot delete any content. It’s a workaround that, although isn’t perfect, does the trick so thanks! I really hope this problem gets solved properly asap.

Houston said...

I just couldnt leave your website before saying that I really enjoyed the quality information you offer to your visitors... artistic