Robert Gottlieb: “The Basics of Editing as I Understand Them…”

From the book Avid Reader by longtime book editor Robert Gottlieb, who also edited the New Yorker from 1987 to 1992:

What do I tell students hoping to have a career in book publishing or journalism? The basics of editing as I understand them: “Get back to your writers right away.” “It’s the writer’s book, not yours.” “Try to help make the book a better version of what it is, not into something that it isn’t.” “Spend your strength and your ego in the service of the writer.”…And over and over again, “It’s a service job.”

And the basics of publishing as I learned it and tried to practice it: “Publishing is the business of conveying your own honest enthusiasm for a book and a writer to the rest of the world” “If you believe in a book, there are others who will too, because you’re not special.” “Every book has its own potential readership—figure out what it is and reach for it, don’t try to sell every book to everyone.” “Take every detail seriously, since we just don’t know what makes certain books do better than others. Except, of course, their innate qualities.” And perhaps hardest to accept, “Readers aren’t stupid—their instincts may prove to be sounder than yours.”

My love affair with readers was ignited and confirmed by the message that Richard L. Simon expressed to the entire staff of Simon and Schuster by means of bronze paperweights on which were etched these words. GIVE THE READER A BREAK. There was one on my desk on my first day of work sixty years ago, and it’s on my desk as I type this.

This succinct philosophy can be adhered to in many ways. For me: Keep the price of a book as low as possible. Make sure the type is legible—when possible, generous; readability is all. Don’t talk about an important photograph or portrait and then not show it….Don’t deploy fancy ornaments or folios on the page that may distract from the text—in other words, don’t overdesign. Etc. etc. It’s easy—just remember the things that irritate you in books you’re reading. Do unto others…

Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre wrote a column about Gottlieb‘s book. A sample:

About collaboration of author and editor: In working with Joseph Heller on Catch-22, “we labored like two surgeons poised over a patient under anesthesia.” This was one of a number of examples of “how many ways the relationship can be productive when each party to it trusts both the judgment and the goodwill of the other: the writer able to hear with an open mind and a lack of egotism what the editor is saying, the editor feeling free to say just about anything with the knowledge that the writer has the flexibility and self-confidence to make use of his advice.”

About misguided copy editors: On Catch-22, “we had a copy editor who was literal-minded and tone-deaf. Her many serious transgressions included the strong exception she took to Joe’s frequent, and very deliberate, use of a string of three adjectives to qualify a noun. Without asking me, she struck out every third adjective throughout. Yes, everything she did was undone, but those were pre-computer days: It all had to be done by hand, and it wasted weeks.”
From a New York Times story ab0ut Gottlieb and Avid Reader:

Many of Mr. Gottlieb’s fights with authors over the years seem to have involved punctuation. He and Ms. [Toni] Morrison often bicker about commas—he loves them, she uses them sparingly. “I am right and he is wrong,” she said in an email. “He uses commas grammatically. I deploy them musically.” He usually wins, she noted.

Mr. Gottlieb and Robert Caro, the author of “The Power Broker,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Robert Moses, and an ongoing, multivolume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, fight about semicolons, which Mr. Caro finds indispensable, and Mr. Gottlieb uses only as a last resort. Often, their shouting matches erupted into the hallways of Knopf’s offices, when one of them slammed the door and stormed out.

Mr. Cornwell [John le Carre], who recently published his own memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” said that Mr. Gottlieb often gave editorial direction through hieroglyphics scribbled in the manuscript’s margin—a wavy line, for example, meant the language was too florid; an ellipses or a series of question marks meant think harder and try again. But Mr. Gottlieb never condescended to him, Mr. Cornwell said.
The Paris Review did a long interview with Gottlieb in 1994 but in reading it you fairly quickly hit a paywall where you have to subscribe (a year of four issues for $49) to continue reading. One Gottlieb comment you can read:

For a while I was editing the two best writers of quality who were writing spy novels, John le Carré and Len Deighton, and you couldn’t find a more perfect pair of opposites in the editorial process. Le Carré is unbelievably sensitive to editorial suggestion because his ear is so good and because his imagination is so fertile—he’ll take the slightest hint and come back with thirty extraordinary new pages. Deighton, on the other hand—who is totally willing, couldn’t be more eager for suggestions—is one of those writers for whom, once a sentence is down on paper, it takes on a reality that no amount of good will or effort can change. So you can say to him, Len, this is a terrific story but there is a serious problem. He’ll say, What is it? What is it? And you say, Well, on page thirty-seven this character is killed, but on page a hundred and eighteen he appears at a party. Oh my God, Len says, this is terrible, but I’ll fix it, don’t worry. Then you get the manuscript back, and you turn to page thirty-seven, and he’ll have changed it to, He was almost killed.

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