When I was a young editor, a film crew moved into my office. They watched me sharpen blue pencils and draw furious lines through authors' prose. They snapped Polaroids of me amid the chaos of my office. But when the film Fatal Attraction came out, all Glenn Close recreated of my old-fashioned editing moxie was my big hair. Her pencil got supersized into a butcher's knife. The one display of her editing prowess was her ability to remove from the plot line that adorable little bunny rabbit. But times have changed. Editors who edit are the new hotties: Courteney Cox is a clever crafter of stories and way more compelling than the brain-dead celebrities she covers in her TV drama magazine Dirt. Meryl Streep won a Golden Globe for her cold fire portrayal of fashion editor Miranda Priestley, who behaves as if words were as seductive as cashmere. Vanessa Williams, Salma Hayek and Ugly Betty are word-nannies, too, spanking stories—and each other—into furious shape.
Why our culture's sudden love affair with editrixes? Perhaps it's because our world is lacking real, old-fashioned editors, at least from a public standpoint. Because in the world's-eye view, editors have not been doing much actual editing lately. 2006 was the winter of our Judith Regan, who could have edited every word from O.J.'s book until it ceased to exist. It was the summer of our Nan Talese, who should have removed the word “memoir” from the fictional bloviations of James Frey.
Old-fashioned editors could be stars again in the real world... if they sent their writers to the Naughty Corner to be diction-spanked and critiqued with a sharp blue pencil. Word-nannying is desperately needed, not just in TV Land. The reason is that everyone is a writer nowadays, thanks to technology. Writers are typically moving at the speed of thought. We blog, we self-publish, we Wiki, we wail into our cell phones every stream-of-consciousness detail of our lives. To me, though, this ultralenient verbal behavior is getting boooorrrinnnggg.
Words have become commodities, blind instruments of rage and mindless jolts of entertainment. Few books are read clear through, because few are lovingly edited. Someone must take charge, because we all want to inhabit a sound scape of words more sparkling than a first-draft world. We want our newsmakers to stop backtracking for talking too hastily (think “weapons of mass destruction”) or apologizing too frequently (think Mel Gibson and Isaiah Washington). How much more civilized to live in a self-edited world.
But if global publishing moves too fast for editors to be old-fashioned anymore, then writers must fill the breach. Novelist Don DeLillo composes sentences in a 48-point font—the size of a front-page New York Times headline—so he can really see the words. They don't scroll by in a speedy blur. Only then does he decide if the sentence is a keeper. Let's all take that scrutiny to our prose—spoken, thought and written. James Ellroy does that, cutting every third word just to see what kind of insight emerges when less rules over more. The habit of self-editing makes us more careful and more caring.
Ten years ago I left publishing. I thought, 'Hooray, now I can concentrate on creating, not on cutting.' My mistake. AA insists there are no former alcoholics, and I confess there are no former editors. I still mentally edit conversations; friends swear they hear the delete key clicking in my mind. And I love when others edit me: I know the thrill Victor Hugo felt when his editor handed back a cleanly pruned manuscript. From a mess to Les Mis. Hugo bowed gratefully to his editor. “You have filleted a genie out of my smoke,” he said.
Cultures that value wisdom most have made editors celebrities. Builders of ancient temples in Asia typically carved two statues at the temple gate. One holds a book, the other a sword. The book symbolizes knowledge. The sword is there to remind people to cut things off: to edit. Knowledge is not wisdom until you slice through the words you hear, judge them and are moved to silence.
|Harriet Rubin is the founder of Doubleday/Currency, and the author of The Mona Lisa Stratagem, just out from Warner.|