The Role of Editors in Modern Publishing

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This past weekend, there was an interesting article in The Guardian that discusses the role, if there even is one, of editors in modern publishing. The article mourns the passing of the truly hands-on, truly involved editor. The article says “tha sharp-dressed corporate beasts run the show, reluctant to make decisions of their own, and ill-equipped to challenge those who rule a star-led system, so that everyone from JK Rowling to David Eggers suffers from the lack of scissors that might have been to their benefit.”

Of particular interest to me is the detailed explanation of Maxwell Perkins and the positive impacts he had on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. After explaining her criticisms, the author does admit that writers will complain about editors doing too much to their work and also complain about editors not doing enough. So in that sense, the volume of writer frustrations isn’t really a good quantifier of the issue.

One funny and insightful comment from the article is that “It seems no coincidence to me that there should have been a massive growth in creative writing programmes in Britain in recent years. That the reason so many aspirant writers are signing up for MAs and PhDs is to get the kind of editorial help they no longer hope to get from publishing houses. If Perkins were alive today, would he be editing texts for Scribner? Or teaching fiction to creative writing students at Columbia University?”

Read the full Guardian text here.

But in spite of all the well-argued criticisms, I’m not sure I totally agree with the belief that editors aren’t doing their job. Sure, there’s a lot of crap being published today and you wonder how an editor could keep a straight face while reading it. But that’s what the public wants. No one who buys the upcoming Michael Jackson jury books is expecting Maxwell Perkins’ hand involved. But the serious books, the literary books… I would suggest they are edited as heavily as possible in this day and age.

Time period is definitely something that has to be addressed in this conversation. The era of Maxwell Perkins is gone. And that’s not the fault of editors but just a reality of the times. The editors that I’ve spoken to for would all love to have the time and luxuries that Perkins had but it’s just not possible. However, that’s not to say they’ve abandoned their jobs. They’re doing as much as possible in the face of ever changing corporate directives and steadly reducing resources.

So my personal take on The Guardian article is that it raises some interesting points, but I’m not ready to tell the editorial departments to turn off the lights and lock the doors just yet. They’re still out there, doing a helluva job, and shaping manuscripts, helping careers, and creating art.

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