Editing The Greats

Tim Parks’ recently praised grammar police for their role in making literary innovation possible – particularly noting the editor’s part in finding which newfangled styles actually work. John Simon recounts his experiences editing three giants of the mid-20th century American intellectual scene, W.H. Auden, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun:

Auden, who was jovially insouciant, handed in smart but sloppy stuff that needed a lot of editing, which he readily and gratefully accepted. Trilling was more difficult. Always by telephone, one went over proposed changes, some of which, after some discussion, he accepted, some not.

Barzun, however, one was not allowed to edit. Everything, down to the last comma, had to be left as it was, even where — an admitted rarity — improvement was possible. When we spoke on the phone, I could conjure up my interlocutor. He was undoubtedly smiling his frosty smile, one part convivial and two parts condescending. Since he was tall, the smile, when delivered in person, would literally descend upon you, accompanying an elegant diction that itself had a sort of smile in it.

Sal Robinson, musing on both pieces, considers the nature of the editing task, urging those wielding the red pen to remind themselves everyday “to check absolute senses of rightness and wrongness”:

There is, indeed, a conservative tendency to editing at times — a worry that the book won’t sell or will be misunderstood, a leariness about putting between covers and into the public record something bizarre or unfamiliar. But I think it’s fair to say that in many of these cases we may be underestimating readers, who read all kinds of things all the time and absorb them willy-nilly, double quotes outside the period or no. And who (often but not always) turn to reading in the first place for linguistic surprise, for daring, for saying what can’t be said elsewhere.