Good Books: What Do Editors Actually Do?

By Jack Limpert

In the late 1970s my sense of how an editor should behave was shaped by reading Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Scott Berg. Perkins was a book editor at Scribner’s and his authors included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones, and many others. His genius was his ability to inspire writers to do their best work. He often had a big impact on a book—the length, structure, and title—but to the outside world the finished book always was the author’s—it was the author’s genius, not the editor’s. I translated that to often just saying, “Writers are more important than editors,” and always believed it.

In the newspaper world, All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, was a good window on how editors at the Washington Post shaped the coverage of Watergate. I haven’t read Jeff Himmelman’s new book, Yours in Truth: A Personal Portrait of Ben Bradlee, but it’s getting interesting reviews and I’m looking forward to reading it and getting an inside look at how Bradlee did his job.

The best book I’ve read about a magazine editor is Genius in Disguise, by Thomas Kunkel, about Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker. Tom worked for the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News,  and other publications, then headed the journalism school at the University of Maryland, and now is president of St. Norbert College in Wisconsin.

Tom’s book is full of wonderful characters and includes lots on how Ross did his job as editor. Starting in 1925, Ross hired many talented writers and editors and he built the New Yorker into one of the nation’s great magazines. Along the way he got into plenty of fights and made plenty of mistakes—the reader can learn as much from the mistakes as from the successes.
I asked Tom for some of his favorite words about Ross and the work of an editor. Here are three:

“In the narrowest sense, editors lay twitchy hands on someone else’s work, fixing it, patching it, polishing it, and generally trying to keep it upright. In the broadest sense, however, they set the agenda, standards, and tone for a publication. They hire and fire; they pick stories, and the writers to go with them. They must have enough ego to confidently steer talented people, but the will to subordinate it. They must assuage prima donnas, compel laggards, and sober up drunks. Equal parts shaman and showman, they must have an unwavering vision for their publication, convey it to a staff, and then sell it to the great yawning public. For these reasons and many others, editing a magazine is not a job suited to the faint or uncertain, and it is enormously difficult to do well.”

“Ross also believed that talent attracts talent. You get talent if you publish a good magazine, you get tripe if you publish tripe….And talent, the editor understood, was the key. He never stopped searching for it or, once he had found it, nurturing it. Ross had a respect for creative people that bordered on veneration; everyone else, himself included, was meant to be in their service.”

“Ross’s New Yorker changed the face of contemporary fiction, perfected a new form of literary journalism, established the standards for humor and comic art, swayed the cultural and social agendas, and became synonymous with sophistication. It replaced convention with innovation.”
Here are some of my favorites:

“Ross often pretended not to know something when in fact he did. He made it his business to be informed about a good deal more than he let on, be it a writer’s rocky marriage, Europolitics, or maybe even Herman Melville. Yet by occasionally “presenting himself” (Shawn’s phrase) to the world as a bit of a rube, Ross could use his rusticity to great advantage. Playing the Colorado hayseed, a dim fellow who needed things explained to him in one- and two-syllable words, he might elicit from a writer that perfect word to clarify a muddy sentence, or the right fact to finish an incomplete thought.”

“The contrast between the two men [Harold Ross and William Shawn] was so pronounced, in fact, that it was easy to miss how at a more fundamental level they were soulmates. Each of them lived for The New Yorker. Each prized good writing, was a fiend for punctuation and accuracy, and preferred the spotlight to be on his writers rather than himself. And each had a passion for discovery; if such a thing were possible, Shawn was every more voraciously curious than Ross.”

In 1950,  a year before Ross died, Wolcott Gibbs, the magazine’s legendary theater critic, wrote a play, Season in the Sun, which opened on Broadway. It tells the story of a magazine writer who goes off to write a novel and to get away from Horace William Dodd, his brilliant, tyrannical boss, a character clearly patterned on Ross. “Near the play’s end,” Tom writes, “Gibbs has the protagonist’s attractive young friend tell Dodd/Ross, ‘He says you’re the greatest editor in America.’ To which Dodd/Ross replies, ‘Well, they’re a pretty seedy bunch, generally speaking.'”

Know of other good books about editors or editing? Use the comment link or send me a note at [email protected] and I’ll post it.


  1. Jack Limpert says

    Wes Pippert, director of the Washington Program of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, sent a note saying, “A collection of Maxwell Perkins’ letters to and from some of his writers, like Thomas Wolfe et al, really impressed me.”

    The book Wes refers to is Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, and it’s available from Amazon and elsewhere. Perkins wrote long, wonderful, helpful letters to his authors.

    In 1924 Perkins wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald about the manuscript that became The Great Gatsby. Perkins first tells Fitzgerald “It is an extraordinary book….You adopted exactly the right method of telling it, that of employing a narrator who is more of a spectator than an actor: this puts the reader upon a point of observation on a higher level than that on which the characters stand and at a distance that gives perspective….I could go on praising the book and speculating on its various elements, and means, but points of criticism are more important now.”

    Perkins then tells Fitzgerald, “I have only two actual criticisms: One is that among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and could you add one or two characteristics…”

    Here’s an excerpt of letter written to James Jones, then struggling to finish the book that became From Here to Eternity. Jones apparently had told Perkins he was reading books that offered advice on how to write, hoping that one might help him resolve plot problems. Perkins wrote him: “I share your distrust for the artificiality of plots but, after all, the greatest of all novels had several of them, “War and Peace.”…I think it would be much better to read that book over and over, to the neglect of books on the art of fiction.”

    Perkins wrote that on March 28, 1947. He died three weeks later.

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