How many times have you read this snippet of a book review, either on Amazon.com or in a major newspaper or blog?
This book is badly in need of an editor.
It is not without irony that these sorts of reviews are most often attached to titles that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Rare is the “where was the editor?” decree for a work of meta-fiction from the writer with an M.F. A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Why is that?
Beyond The Emperor’s New Clothes factor many reviewers succumb to via Alfred A. Knopf’s press releases or advance praise from last year’s bright young thing, “Literary” works are given a much wider critical berth than the commercially appealing salted peanuts kind of storytelling.
The reason why is that there is no comprehensive formal education available for learning the essential fundamentals of Story. Let alone how to take those fundamentals and turn them into clear tasks capable of being objectively (or better still subjectively) evaluated. While reviewers–by the very nature of their critical point of view–profess to have such knowledge, most do not.
They just don’t get “works, doesn’t work.”
It’s as if a person alien to the qualities of life, were presented with a live mongoose and a perfectly preserved taxidermy of a mongoose and asked which one is “better.” The stuffed carcass, while perfectly quaffed and “life-like” is impressive. But given a choice of having to look at a dead mongoose stuck to a plank of cedar and a live mongoose in its natural habitat for four hours, which choice would you make? I’ll take the wild thing over the pretty thing every day of the week. Even if it has only one eye, has matted hair, and is unmistakably rabid. Sometimes, especially because it has those immediately recognizable scars and afflictions.
Others say, quite volubly, that they would choose to contemplate the stuffed animal. (I think they’re putting on airs no matter what they say…)
For me, as long as the thing is alive and I have no idea what it’s going to do next, I’m in.
There are plenty of ways to praise or critique a writer’s sentences, or a taxidermist’s fur fluffing for that matter, but few critics are capable of explaining why some novels or histories or narrative nonfictions read like bats out of hell while others put your right to sleep.
It’s also much easier to attack the bestsellers than it is to de-bullshit M.F.A. fiction. When you get right down to it, the “where was the editor” reviews are not really written to shame the bold name writers who know how to spin a wildly intoxicating tale, but are not the best sentence to sentence. They are written to show off how erudite the reviewer is, be it a Wall Street Journal review or the 1123rd amateur review at Amazon.com.
The subtext, of course, is that editors aren’t doing their job at the very least…and publishers are idiots at the worst. Why don’t they help the poor Story savants out and teach them how to write a proper sentence? If they did then the collective culture wouldn’t be subjected to such pablum is the ad nauseum refrain.
But, the reality is that editors are doing their jobs. Very well in fact.
You just need to remember one primary tenet of business to understand exactly why this is so. People collect pay when they satisfy their employers. If they keep the machine that signs their bi-weekly paychecks happy (and that requires pumping in a multiple of cash above and beyond one’s salary, benefits and expenses), they get to keep their job. Just like working at a Wells Fargo bank or at Widgets Inc.
Here’ the thing. Editors at publishing houses don’t work for writers. Or for the beneficence of literary culture.
Editors at the Big Five brand name publishing corporations (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Macmillan) work for multinational corporations. And would you expect General Electric or Apple or Google to keep an employee on if he weren’t pulling his share of the Gross Revenue load? Would you hire someone who did not hold your interests primary? Of course not.
So, if these editors are doing their jobs, how in the world do these books escape the editorial process? Aren’t there conscientious editors in the world who would never let some of the poorly constructed sentences and/or cliché scenes from ever reaching the printed and/or digital page? Isn’t there a way to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and still create art?
How indeed do the cheesy, poorly drawn line-by-line writers escape without being re-written?
The reason why this happens is that a Story either works or doesn’t work. It either engages the reader or it doesn’t. It’s alive or it’s dead, like our mongooses. And the last thing an editor wants to do is kill a living story, no matter how mangy.
And thus, the oath of the professional editor (one dependent on his sustenance from a multinational media conglomerate or on the vagaries of the independent publishing market) is like that of the physician, a Hippocratic one.
First, do no harm!
But there’s a catch. And the catch is the hypocrisy of the business.
Working “literarily” and working “commercially” can be two very different things. A Story can take the reader through expertly crafted sentences with innovative metaphors that would be the envy of Proust. Technically, its sentence-by-sentence craftsmanship is beyond reproach. And perhaps there are many novels that are honed to line-by-line perfection through a dynamic relationship between writer and a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence editor. But for all of the minutiae skill of these novels, the Story may have absolutely no narrative drive.
This book may “work” literarily, but in no way does it work as a Story. These books are the equivalent of our perfect taxidermy mongooses.
This is not to say that these well tended corpses can’t sell a lot of copies and become bestsellers through the forces of the previously mentioned The Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon…If everyone says it’s great, it must be great even though I can’t get past page 9.
And there are some editors expert at finding these properties that today’s Emperor’s Court will lavish praise upon and make the work that year’s must read…or that is, must buy. But as there are fewer and fewer trusted arbiters of genius in the media these days (there are only a handful of newspapers that even review books anymore), it’s getting more and more difficult to sell copies of a book based purely on its literary cache.
Mind you, there are writers who take on a project knowing that they are more interested in fluffing fur than caretaking a wild beast. For them, a success is defined almost academically. That is, they know they are experimenting with technique and know that getting the attention of like-minded intellectuals is their preferred goal…not necessarily The New York Times bestseller list. They’re pushing the boundaries of form intentionally and understand that when they make that decision will inherently limit their audience.
They’re pros though and thus, they’re cool with it.
Knowing exactly what it is you are doing is the key to managing market expectations.
And making a conscious decision about your project as best fits your goals for that single project is crucial to managing your own private expectations. I think it doubtful that James Joyce thought he’d make a killing writing Finnegan’s Wake or that Samuel Beckett put down a deposit for a beach house while he was writing Waiting for Godot. They knew what they were doing—breaking Story form and taking the chance that the project would die in their desk drawer.
You better believe they knew Story form, though before they chose to deviate from it. Just as Beethoven knew symphonic structure before he pumped it full of steroids with his Ninth Symphony. Those form breaks were so well constructed that they pushed Story structure’s edges out further, giving birth to the stream of consciousness novel and theater of the absurd.
On the other end of the spectrum, a writer’s prose that wouldn’t challenge an eight-year-old’s vocabulary or ability to follow a sentence can be impossible to stop reading. And when one finishes that book, it’s most often disingenuous for the reader to say that he wasn’t satisfied. He may have quibbles, but he read the whole thing to the very last word. Though it will not end up in the pantheon of Western civilization, that’s a Story that abides form. It works.
So what’s the bottom line here?
Learn the form. Master the form. Then if you want to try and write the next Gravity’s Rainbow, knock yourself out.
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