Authors and readers alike often have this idea that editors want to completely change a story. The famous partnership between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish is one of the most controversal incidents of editorial involvement. But is heavy editorial involvement necessary? More importantly, is it right?
How Much is Too Much?
If the author has a particular artistic vision, it feels wrong for the editor to alter it. Generally, editors want to bring out the quality story they see within a work.
In some situations, the editor may take revision to the extreme. A famous example is the partnership between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. Carver never went to college and didn’t start out as a writer. He was just a blue-collar guy who wanted to publish his stories. Lish saw the potential in his stories–but he also saw a way to completely recreate them.
To learn more about Carver and Lish, read The New Yorker’s article about the controversial story.
As both an aspiring writer and editor, I find myself hesitant to choose sides in the Carver-Lish situation. Carver had a vision, and Lish’s heavy edits and rewritings brought those visions to life. Were they in the same voice Carver originally wrote them in? Not really. But Lish carved out the true potential of those stories.
Without Lish, Carver may not have had the success and influence that he did. Of course, most editors aren’t near as invasive as Lish (unless he or she is a Lish acolyte). But the situation still raises concerns about editorial involvement even now.
I recently heard a peer accusing editors for adding unnecessary content to two different stories she had read. She said that editors “always like to add stuff that doesn’t belong”.
But the issue isn’t that simple, and there are many other factors involved. For all we knew, the author could have written those awkward parts of the stories, and a non-invasive editor just left them in. A more invasive editor may have cut them out.
If you’re like me, you actually enjoy taking a hammer to your work and putting it back together. Check out my post Writing Like an Editor for some writing tips that’ll bring out the editor in you.
More Involved Than You Think
Editing isn’t as simple as just correcting a writer’s grammar. The fate of a writer’s work is in the editor’s hands. This is probably partially why many writers are wary about editors. They don’t want the editor to totally change their work into something that doesn’t sound like them.
Good editors care about the work they’re given and want to unlock its true potential. Often this means cutting away fluff, or extraneous words (or even passages) that interrupt the story. But what qualifies as fluff? For Lish and many other editors, it’s any extra words or passages that pull the reader away from the story’s flow.
For example, looking at Carver’s original work, there’s lots of instances where the narrator explains a character’s thoughts and backstory in great detail. Lish cut all that away. In Lish’s versions of the stories, the characters’ actions spoke louder than the narrator’s words. Fewer and shorter descriptions created more impact than longer, detailed explanations.
Editors are necessary for writers, and no good writer should think they can get by without one. Having good communication with an editor is key. The editor should understand your vision and intention, and help your story be the best version of itself. Even if that means cutting things out (and sometimes, adding things in).
Collaboration with editors should be “an indispensible meeting of the minds”, according to freelance writer Alaina Mabaso. Read more about her experience with editors.
There’s No Easy Answer
Every work of fiction we have ever praised has had an editor working behind-the-scenes. That doesn’t mean the author doesn’t deserve all the credit. They certainly do.
I’m pretty defensive about editors, but I’m on the fence about the Lish and Carver situation. On the one hand, Lish rewrote and edited the stories until Carver didn’t feel like they were his anymore. But on the other hand, Lish’s influence brought the world’s attention to Carver. He enabled Carver to leave a profound mark on the American minimalist literature movement.
Generally, I believe that the author’s artistic vision is important. But I also believe editors are necssary to make a work the best it can be. Editors are responsible for chiseling the statue out of the marble.
Editors are important! Read this article by Huffington Post that debunks the myths about editors.
Editors care about the stories they edit. At the end of the day, writers and editors are people and artists. So before you fear the editors, remember that they’re people who care about writing, too.
What’s your opinion on editorial involvement? Where do you stand on the Carver and Lish story? Leave a comment!