I just finished reading Maxwell Perkins – Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg.
The reason I was drawn to this book was a movie I watched flying back from India, on the flight. It was about Thomas Woolfe and his editor Maxwell Perkins based on this book called Genius.
While the movie itself was criticised a lot, the book was praised by so many for not just chronicling the life of an editor who normally is never seen, it chronicles the rise of literary fiction in the US through the lives of Thomas Woolfe, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and so many others as their manuscripts crossed the desk of Maxwell Perkins. And it won a Pulitzer for A. Scott Berg.
This article in the Guardian in 2013 reminds us that in today’s world of modern publishing, an editor still plays a critical part in the development of a book. Perhaps we read proofs in PDFs but what’s in the proofs is a by-product of two minds – one with a vision guiding often one with the genius.
As I read this book, I was feeling nostalgic about a time (when I couldn’t be nostalgic about as I didn’t live in the 1930s America or England) when writers could develop over a period of time under the guidance of an experienced editor. There is a line in the book that advises young writers that whatever you do, do not join creative writing courses. Everything you need can be learnt between the pages of good fiction. Ouch! My MA now seems indulgent. Perhaps I should have spent the whole year reading books (which I did anyway).
It took me about two weeks to finish as it was a long book. But usually when I’m reading a really big book (which most books for grown-ups are), I keep checking how many pages are left – impatient to finish. But while reading this one, I was happy that a week’s reading had only taken me into a quarter of the book. I was so happy I had this book for company for longer.
For those who want a master-class in writing, there are a lot of hidden gems in the book. Maxwell Perkins advises his authors via long letters (he would loved to be in today’s age of blogging, although he might despise the vlogging). Much of the advice he gives is useful to every writer.
“It gives the impression of having grown rather than of having been planned.— And that is the characteristic of a great book.”
"Writing a novel is a very hard thing to do because it covers so long a space of time, and if you get discouraged it is not a bad sign, but a good one. If you think you are not doing it well, you are thinking the way real novelists do. I never knew one who did not feel greatly discouraged at times, and some get desperate, and I have always found that to be a good symptom."
"Generalizations are no use—give one specific thing and let the action say it. . . . When you have people talking, you have a scene. You must interrupt with explanatory paragraphs..."
“It is always better to give a little less than the reader wants, than more.”
And if you’re an editor (or an aspiring one), there is a lot of good advice in here for you too.
"That is, the publisher must not try to get a writer to fit the book to the conditions of the trade, etc. It must be the other way around."
It was an example of two qualities that distinguish the professional editor: the vision to see beyond the faults of a good book, no matter how dismaying; and the tenacity to keep working, through all discouragements, toward the book’s potential.
I know this feels like a book review that belongs in the ABBA Review site. But bear with me for a moment longer. I wanted to write about it here because this book moved me unexpectedly.
I have been overcome with a huge sense of responsibility about my writing, an inspiration that I thought was not possible by reading a biography of an editor whose writers are legends. There is nothing similar in my experience to those of the writers mentioned in the book. I’m a mortal and my work is not genius. But this book has made me yearn to do better work even if it is just marginal.
And I wasn’t expecting that. Having done a number of short term and long term courses, weekend courses and master classes and now studying a MA and still struggling to land an agent, I’m quite wary of how-to books, random advice and snake oil solutions. But this book blew me away when I wasn’t looking for advice.
I wasn’t expecting to be inspired; all I wanted was to read a biography of a literary giant. But the magic has crossed decades and through his words has somehow connected with me unexpectedly.
Turning to the commercial discussion of publishing in the book, it starkly contrasts today’s publishing culture with the 1930s. Giving time and effort to a single book over a year of editing, helping the author financially, supporting them through their first book to third book knowing very well that perhaps only the fourth would make any money, solving girlfriend problems, marriage counselling – these were times when authors were nurtured. A book didn’t need to be perfect - it needed to have promise.
It is definitely more competitive and commercial now; we have different types of publishing platforms and different types of writers and publishing houses. I somehow feel we still have those editors amongst us – those who believe in the book and while they might not be able to loan the writer any money for rent, will definitely throw their free time and some into the book to make it better.
On a political note – due to the time period of this book sandwiching World War II, there are a number of chilling echoes that we should pay heed to. If you were following the controversies about publishing (or not) hateful books, this is what Maxwell Perkins has to say.
"The ideal of publishing would be a forum where all sections of humanity could have their say, whether their object was to instruct, entertain, horrify, etc. Nevertheless, there are certain rules of quality and relevance, which can only be determined by some sort of selection and this the publisher, representing humanity at large, attempts—with many mistakes—to make."
And in the context of communist Russia vs capitalism, he says,
"But if freedom and human dignity are to be defended, they must be defended honestly: against all tyrants and all corrupters.”
It is worrisome that we are finding parallels in our past to our present and it is comforting to know that we always had visionaries in all fields who knew how to lead us through the crisis.
On that note, I wanted to conclude by saying, if you haven’t read the book, try it and tell me if it inspired you as much as I was.
And if you are interested in other publishing biographies, here are my favourites.
- Sebastian Walker, 1942-1991: A Kind of Prospero by Mirabel Cecil
- Another Life: a Memoir by Michael Korda
- Beyond the Bestseller: A Literary Agent Takes You Inside the Book Business by Richard Curtis
- Why I Write by George Orwell
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