The master editor

A fellow editor suggested that I look into Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, Avid Reader (Farrar, Straus ands Giroux, 337 pages, $28), and it is a book of the sunniest egotism you can imagine.

I say that in tribute. Mr. Gottlieb is upfront and straightforward about his pleasure in encountering and working with celebrities (Gloria Vanderbilt, Lauren Bacall, Bill Clinton, scores of others), about his various enthusiasms (ballet, the plastic handbags of the 1950s, which he collected and about which he published a book), and about editing.

He is the editor who brought us The Collected Stories of John Cheever and Catch-22. He was the editor who encouraged Robert Caro to take on his massive project of Lyndon Johnson’s life and times. He was the editor who had the unenviable task of succeeding William Shawn at The New Yorker.

Though Avid Reader is a memoir and not a treatise on editing, in his account of his years in publishing, first at Simon and Schuster, then for many years at Alfred A. Knopf, a reader finds passing remarks that illuminate the craft. Here are some of them.

About collaboration of author and editor: In working with Joseph Heller on Catch-22, “we labored like two surgeons poised over a patient under anesthesia.” This was one of a number of examples of “how many ways the relationship can be productive when each party to it trusts both the judgment and the goodwill of the other: the writer able to hear with an open mind and a lack of egotism what the editor is saying, the editor feeling free to say just about anything with the knowledge that the writer has the flexibility and self-confidence to make use of his advice.”

About misguided copy editors: On Catch-22, “we had a copy editor who was literal-minded and tone-deaf. Her many serious transgressions included the strong exception she took to Joe’s frequent, and very deliberate, use of a string of three adjectives to qualify a noun. Without asking me, she struck out every third adjective throughout. Yes, everything she did was undone, but those were pre-computer days: It all had to be done by hand, and it wasted weeks.”

The bread and butter of editing: “Usually it was just standard cosmetic work—repetitions, questionable punctuation, matters of tone.” Or “the kind of manicuring copyediting Cheever always needed (and was grateful for: his talent didn’t stretch to punctuation and spelling).”

About cutting: “Cut, sift, trim, prune, snip, crop, pare, and polish.” Further, “most cutting is done because an editor’s reading antennae tell him it will edge a book close to its Platonic self, not to make it more commercially successful.”

Of that Platonic self: “The most damaging thing an editor can do to a writer is to try to change a book into something other than what it is, rather than try to make it a better version of what it is already.”

About professionalism: “I’ve bored young hopefuls with the unexciting news that though you can’t legislate talent into yourself, you can legislate efficiency.”

The collaborative effort: “Although I had been a loner as a child, I discovered I was much happier as part of a relatively small group of congenial, like-minded people with whom I shared a common goal.”

And finally, perhaps most valuably, “the message that Richard L. Simon expressed to the entire staff of Simon and Schuster by means of bronze paperweights on which were etched these words: GIVE THE READER A BREAK. There was one on my desk waiting for me on my first day of work sixty years ago, and it’s on my desk as I type today.”

Go thou and do likewise.

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