Robert Gottlieb on Editing
This is a wonderful interview that former Knopf and New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb (and several writers he edited) gave to Larissa MacFarquhar for the Paris Review in 1994.
In his career, Gottlieb witnessed 20th-century publishing at its height; he ended that career at the beginning of the giddy swan song bubble that began in the early 1990s. Because of changes in publishing at the time, Gottlieb was one of the last of his species of editor. “The tempo of it all,” explained John Le Carré, “the speed with which books go on and off the market and shoot to the top of the best-seller list, only to be unheard of three months later—produces a much faster and more careless approach to the product itself.” Although Gottlieb was (and probably still is) a fast reader, when he edited he read in service of reading slowly, immersively: “You have to surrender to a book. If you do, when something in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have surrendered to a book, the more jarring its errors appear.” This is the process not just of a book editor, but an editor of narrative—it’s no accident that most of the writers in the interview are novelists.
The authors’ comments about Gottlieb and his influence on their work are worth reading in their own right. Toni Morrison seems to have appreciated Gottlieb but hardly needing anyone’s input; Michael Crichton, quite the opposite.1 No two relationships between writer and editor were the same: some were adversarial, others therapeutic, and the rest were everything in between. This, said Gottlieb, is the nature of the job:
If you are a good editor, your relationship with every writer is different. To some writers you say things you couldn’t say to others, either because they’d be angry or because it would be too devastating to them. You can’t have only one way of doing things; on some instinctual level you have to respond not just to the words of the writer but to the temperament of the writer.
Which is basically saying a good editor has tact:
One’s first job is a swift and honest response—tempered, of course, by tact.
As an editor I have to be tactful, of course (which I wasn’t very good at when I was young). But goodwill has to be natural. You can’t fake it. It just doesn’t work that way.
Your job as an editor is to figure out what the book needs, but the writer has to provide it. You can’t be the one who says, Send him to Hong Kong at this point, let him have a love affair with a cocker spaniel. Rather, you say, This book needs something at this point: it needs opening up, it needs a direction, it needs excitement.
Gottlieb’s discussion about editing ranges wide over the course of the interview, contrasting magazine editing to book editing and even addressing the challenge of working with nonprofessional writers (“you have to give them a tremendous amount of encouragement simply to convince them that they can write at all”). At length and in different contexts, Gottlieb made the point that editors do their work in spaces between: between writers and their work, between writers’ desire and readers’ pleasure. In between can be a challenging place to work, requiring combinations of self-awareness, selflessness, goodwill, critical judgment, authority, and nimbleness.2 How does an editor develop these qualities? For his part, Gottlieb hedged: “you’re either born with them or you’re not. It’s luck. And that’s why you can be as good an editor your first day on the job as on your last; you’re not developing some unique and profound gift.”
What editing was to Gottlieb was a compulsion to make things better—more aesthetically pleasing:
What is it that impels this act of editing? I know that in my case it’s not merely about words. Whatever I look at, whatever I encounter, I want it to be good—whether it’s what you’re wearing, or how the restaurant has laid the table, or what’s going on on stage, or what the president said last night, or how two people are talking to each other at a bus stop. I don’t want to interfere with it or control it, exactly—I want it to work, I want it to be happy, I want it to come out right. If I hadn’t gone into publishing, I might have been a psychoanalyst; I might have been, I think, a rabbi, if I’d been at all religious. My impulse to make things good, and to make good things better, is almost ungovernable.
May we editors all share in that impulse!
1 Le Carré strikes me as the most intriguing to work with.
2 Gottlieb’s actual list was “capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill,” though I think mine captures a bit more of the breadth of the entire discussion.