Editors and Their Writers: “Well, Then You Just Don’t Care About Talent!”

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 3.52.37 PM“Another attribute which went into the making of a great editor was Max’s selfless devotion. The recognizing, the encouraging, the guiding of talent—this, in his view, was a sacred task worth any amount of effort, of risk, of time expended. I recall the visit of a certain eminent critic and a dispute over the merits of Thomas Wolfe as a writer. His faults, thought the eminent critic, were so many and so serious as to render his work unworthy of the amount of labor and attention Max was giving it. And I remember Max’s answer, flaring into rage. ‘Well, then you just don’t care about talent!’ Max did. And he had the courage of his convictions, then and always. That, perhaps, must come first among the qualifications necessary to be a great editor….

“His gifts of temperament and equipment made him the ideal father-confessor, the listener, wise and sympathetic, whose understanding, often conveyed without words, acted as a catalyst, precipitating in many a writer the definite self-discovery which till then had been vast but formless aspiration….

“The function of an editor, he feels, is to serve as a skilled objective outsider, a critical touchstone by recourse to which a writer is enabled to sense flaws in surface or structure, to grasp and solve the artistic or technical problems involved, and thus to realize completely his own work in his own way….Further, an editor is important as a means only and he should remain in the background….In one of the letters he remarks that if it be true, as the old adage has it, that children should be seen and not heard, an editor should not even be seen.

“Most writers are in a state of gloom a good deal of the time; they need perpetual reassurance. When a writer has written his masterpiece he will often be certain that the whole thing is worthless. The perpetrator of the dimmest literary effort, on the other hand, is apt to be invincibly cocksure and combative about it….Through it all, Max kept his countenance. To the many aspects of an editor’s work he brought a tremendous seriousness, masculine drive and energy, daring coupled with shrewd judgment, quiet strength, and a self-effacement and delicacy of feeling almost feminine in character. But he brought a sense of humor, too. After the departure of some particularly excited visitor he could burst out in laughing desperation: ‘What sort of a madhouse is this anyway! What are we supposed to be—ghost-writers, bankers, psychiatrists, income-tax experts, magicians?'”

—From the introduction, by John Hall Wheelock, to the book, Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins, published in 1987 by Charles Scribner’s Sons/New York.

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