Tuesday, July 12, 2011

You don’t have to be a genius to be a book editor

So says RobertGottleib, former editor-in-chief at US publisher Knopf, who should know, in the Paris Review:
[You] don’t have to be a genius to be an editor. You don’t have to have a great inspirational talent to be a publisher. You just have to be capable, hard-working, energetic, sensible, and full of goodwill. Those shouldn’t be rare qualities, and they don’t deserve a lot of credit, because 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.
But publishing has changed in many ways, and one of them is that these days many editors don’t edit. There are editors now who basically make deals; they have assistant editors or associate editors who do the actual editing for them. When I was growing up in the business, editors, even if they were heads of publishing houses, tended to edit what they brought in, or they had someone who worked with them who could help them. Now it’s much more splintered, and the business of publishing has become far more complicated and fierce and febrile.
It’s a great piece with comments from authors Gottlieb edited – Joseph Heller, Crichton, John Le Carre, Doris Lessing, Chaim Potok, Toni Morrison, Mordecai Richler and more. It’s an amazing range – even though I have edited James K Baxter, Vincent O’Sullivan, Lauris Edmond, Mike Moore and Rob Muldoon I must concede that Gottlieb has the edge. I loved this from Lessing:
There have been two pressures that have eroded excellence in publishing. One is its increasing commercialization, the other is politics. We now have a generation of people whose literary education has consisted not of being soaked in excellence, but of judging novels and stories by their theme or by the color or political stance of their authors. Now it is common to meet editors who will talk about a second-rate book as if it were the best. My guess is that they probably started off with high standards—that is, if they weren’t political—but the commercial pressures slowly brought them low.
Gottlieb went on from editing books to editing the New Yorker. Eventually he saw sense, gave up magazines and returned to books. Much the same career trajectory as mine, then, apart from the success and the fame and the money. 
Monitor: Chris Bourke

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