​​On Editing / Dan Sinykin

Photo by Brandi Redd.

No one knows what editing is, not even editors.1 There are few courses on the topic, and only a couple of useful, if scattershot, handbooks. Knowledge is usually passed along through apprenticeship. Or editors figure it out as they go.2

In practice, editing—specifically, book editing—encompasses three roles: Acquirer, Editor, and Manager. In the first, the editor acts as a scout, visiting AWP and MFA programs, kibbitzing with agents, and scouring magazines for new talent. The second role can itself be divided in three: developmental, which can begin as giving a writer an idea, and runs through characterization, plot, argument, pace, and everything structural; line editing, which consists of tightening and cleaning up writing at the sentence level; and copy, perfecting grammar, punctuation, formatting, and the rest. The third and final role requires serving as a text’s representative within the publishing house as it proceeds to publication and out into the world. Naming these roles, though, is far from understanding what they mean or knowing how to perform them.3

History illuminates how we have arrived at our ignorance. According to one account, “by the 1930s a cultural mythology had formed around editing: the editor as savior, finding the soul of a manuscript; the editor as alchemist, turning lead into gold; the editor as seer, recognizing what others had missed.”4 Maxwell Perkins, editor to Taylor Caldwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Thomas Wolfe, lived this myth. A. Scott Berg, in his biography, writes that “few editors before him had done so much work on manuscripts,” and observed that Perkins, further, acted as “psychoanalyst, lovelorn adviser, marriage counselor, career manager, money-lender.”5 But Perkins transformed the myth, too, insisting, despite all facts to the contrary, that the editor is but mere servant to an author’s vision, adding nothing beyond catalysis. We live with Perkins’s legacy still. As Jack Stillinger has written, “the myth of the author’s preeminence is strongly cherished by the very people”—editors—“who have the greatest knowledge of authors’ failings and needs for assistance.”6 Invisibility remains the ethos of many an editor, in service of the romantic myth of the author-genius.

There’s a rational motivation for the delusional beliefs that editors espouse about their work. Readers want to believe they are receiving an author’s authentic expression. The reader-as-consumer became sovereign when shareholder value became the highest value for the parent companies of publishers, and thus for publishers, and thus—however creatively buffered, psychologically—for editors.

In a slow burn of historical irony, the editor has, in the last half century, with the conglomeration of publishing, become increasingly sidelined as a practitioner of her eponymous role—editing—under pressure to devote ever more time to the tasks of the acquirer and manager: select and sell.7 It’s even a cliché in the biz, editors no longer edit. Editors faked invisibility until they made it.8

But that’s not entirely true. The cliché touches on a truth of conglomeration: under multinational corporations, editorial lists have become portfolios of risk managed by profit-and-loss forms and a reliance on comparative titles, or “comps,” incentivizing the investment of time on acquisition and management at the expense of editing.9 But it can also encourage lazy nostalgia about a lost golden age. Many editors work overtime to edit, still, and it’s good for literature that they do. What would happen if we were to bring this shadowy figure into the light? It might demystify authorship, change how we read, and transform our understanding of literature and what it does to us. These, at least, are the promises of two new studies that haul the editor onto center stage.

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In The Editor Function, Abram Foley searches for utopia and catches glimpses of it in the work of editing by pursuing publishing’s counter-history. The official account since the 1950s—his period of study—is about conglomeration, what Foley imagines as a centripetal force that disciplines contemporary literature toward an ordered homogeneity, taming its dissident impulses. Foley has his eyes on those editors who, by his estimation, achieved escape velocity, and in so doing, enabled “excess and discord,”10 an “opening up and disordering”11: John O’Brien, Nathaniel Mackey, Chris Kraus, and Janice Lee. They edited to compose worlds better than our own.12

Each chapter takes an editor as a case study to build the book’s argument about the dismantling and world-building powers of editing. Foley’s first chapter considers the poet Charles Olson, who offers a rich text for Foley to establish his book’s deconstructive methodology and style (Adorno, Blanchot, and Foucault are also influences). Olson preached the primacy of breath—in print; he strove for immediacy but often situated his speakers at a distance. Foley draws our attention to these generative tensions while writing in Derridean loops, riffing off figurative language and spiraling round repeated quotes, leveraging tightly delimited evidence.

At its best, as in the chapter on Nathaniel Mackey, Foley’s method is symphonic. Repeated motifs play against each other and build into complex and synthetic movements. Mackey is a poet-scholar who wrote a dissertation on Black Mountain College at Stanford in the 1970s. He has also been the editor of Hambone magazine for forty years. Mackey’s editing is, writes Foley, “ensemblist” and an expression of “discrepant engagement”—Mackey’s term of art for fugitivity from canons, consolidation, stereotypes about black experimentation—captured by institutions of all kinds.13 With Hambone, Mackey gathers unlikely groupings of writers, cross-cultural juxtapositions that produce the kind of world-building that Foley sees as editing’s utopian horizon.

The Editor Function focuses on the editor as acquirer. It says less about editing—developmental, line, or copy—or managing a text’s journey through an institution to its readership. John O’Brien built a list at Dalkey Archive as a counter-history of contemporary literature: “its limbo-like archive calls forth literary histories that unsettle those instituted more forcefully by market strategies and dominant academic discourse.”14 Chris Kraus published a coterie of friends whose work thus displayed intimate collectivities governed by eros. Acquisition is what matters, here: fields of force, lists, ensembles, coteries, and the labor that conducts them, vision, communication, composing manifestos, aesthetic and ethical commitments.

Foley’s editors sometimes emphatically refuse to edit or minimize editing as a polemic against the editor as gatekeeper, as in the example of the anarchic journal Assembling or Janice Lee’s Entropy, the subject of the conclusion, where an ample masthead of volunteer editors commission writing and field submissions but are advised not to accept anything in need of real attention. Lee’s benchmark is if it looks like it will take more than twenty minutes to edit, she says no. This policy aims to resist the inequities of our time by treating publishing as egalitarian community-building rather than a perpetuation of a fantasy of meritocracy that obscures the power differentials that often determine who is published where. It makes a virtue of the shibboleth that editors no longer edit under present material conditions.

The eschewal of editing—even in the name of democracy—is misguided. It does disservice to writer and reader alike. There is more than enough writing in the world; most of it that’s any good depends on editing; it’s just a matter of who edits, and if it’s not editors, it’s displaced onto literary agents and the writer’s informal networks. Or the writer remains no good. Foley acknowledges, elsewhere, “The ‘beyond’ that editors so often seek… is immanent in editorial work.” But what counts as work in The Editor Function is unclear, as it too often withholds detail in favor of abstraction and metaphor. Foley visited several archives for his Mackey chapter, reporting that “Mackey’s meticulous reading and editing practices are apparent throughout these documents.”15 I wanted Foley to show us more than a few excerpts from correspondence and one example of Mackey’s line editing, largely consisting of fixing Will Alexander’s typos. I wanted to see the messy minutiae that confronts the editor and the meticulous practices—what practices?—from which she builds worlds. I wanted to see Foley’s brilliant mind making order from this chaos.

Yet Foley’s quarry is elsewhere, in questions he answers with care. How did O’Brien envision Dalkey Archive? What did Mackey aim to achieve with Hambone? How did Kraus make Native Agents cohere as a Semiotext(e) imprint? The conceptual work of acquisition is a form of editorial work—designing neighborhoods where outcast literature can find a home—and revealing it, and its utopian ambitions, is Foley’s considerable achievement.

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If Foley’s editors are utopian, Jordan Carroll’s editors in Reading the Obscene are accommodationist. They are the secret shapers of the professional-managerial class, a term introduced by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in 1977 to describe “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations”16: administrators, consultants, lawyers, professors.Carroll’s surprising argument is that editors trained PMC men in the exigent art of cool detachment through obscenity.

Though I came in skeptical—doesn’t the obscene arouse, titillate, not detach? Isn’t it more likely to instigate carnivalesque inversions of power? Did H. L. Mencken, William Gaines, Hugh Hefner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Barney Rosset forge good capitalists? Do editors have such power?—Carroll is convincing. He turns our attention to the editor’s third role, not acquirer nor editor, but manager, who facilitates safe passage for texts and frames their reception: the editor at his most PMC. Pierre Bourdieu and Janice Radway are his theoretical touchstones, in the tradition of the sociology of literature. (He criticizes Bourdieu for underestimating editorial agency in generating the taste and mental habits of readers.) He analyzes case histories and Congressional hearings. He cites studies that reveal the demographics of readerships. He draws from “editorial pages, prefaces, and letters to the editor” that “often present exemplary interpreters responding to the editor’s publications.”17 He doesn’t deploy Radway’s kind of ethnography in defense of his thesis, but his circumstantial evidence is overwhelming. Reading the Obsceneteems with telling details and relishes double-entendres.

In the early twentieth century, judges in the US began evaluating obscenity cases in terms of publishing contexts, with a growing number ruling against censorship if it was clear that publishers oriented the work toward aesthetic appreciation rather than vulgar instrumentalism. In practice, this meant addressing work toward educated, upstanding white men, because women, children, the working class, and people of color were considered incapable of elevating themselves above instrumental engagement, making them susceptible to corruption. This was an ideology it served editors to adopt, not least because they were the ones subject to punishment, and were regularly fined and incarcerated. (It didn’t help one mischievous editor that he obtained “mailing privileges from Intercourse, PA, and Blue Ball, PA, a dirty little joke conferring on his publications a ‘salacious appeal.’”18) Meanwhile, corporations came to dominate the US economy, and, with them, PMC men. Many classics from the period—The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Organization Man, Revolutionary Road—show these men suffering spiritually. Their mental labor often required them to abstract themselves from their work to avoid emotions and maximize efficiency.

Carroll’s tactic is to recognize how big-time editors found success at the intersection of corporate culture and obscenity law. It wasn’t just marketing. Through the texts they published, “overcoming obscenity became a spiritual exercise for developing and disciplining a distinctly middle-class will to abstraction.”19 This would never have occurred to me as a way to describe the practice of reading Tales from the Crypt or Mad Magazine, published by EC Comics. But in virtuosic and often very funny close readings, Carroll shows how EC Comics provided “rehearsal spaces” for the kind of corporate game theory that treats individuals like manipulatable pieces, culminating in a statement best read in Adam Curtis’s voice: “The game-playing attitude and the pattern-seeking perspective [promulgated by EC] would be employed by hippie gurus and hawkish technocrats alike.”20 Today’s snotty brats became tomorrow’s sex pests and bureaucratic war criminals.

Obscenity helped suits feel like rebels. “By viewing their occupations from the distanced perspective of a pornographic voyeur,” writes Carroll, “men were able to see themselves as outwardly conforming but inwardly nonconforming.”21 It’s Don Draper reading Meditations in an Emergency—published by Barney Rosset’s Grove Press. The average Grove reader was “a 39-year-old male, married, two children, a college graduate who holds a managerial position in business or industry, and has a median income of $12,875,” which, today, would be six figures. Hardly, as Carroll points out, “the image of the austere militant or hedonistic youth” projected by Rosset.22 Office workers could read Beckett and Borges for instruction in abstraction, or Fanon and Malcolm X to cosplay as revolutionaries in their minds, or William Burroughs, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller for a kind of “masochistic selflessness” that enabled them, in fantasy, to cease to be an individual member of a dominant class and become instead a victim or a conduit for forces outside his control, even as he reaps his private rewards.”23

These reading methods—emotional distance, masochism, self-abstraction—provided a masculine alternative to the dominant mode of the day, the middlebrow. Both obscenity and the middlebrow provided “some small relief from the hidden injuries of the professional-managerial class,” but from opposite directions. Radway showed a long time ago how the middlebrow, via the dominant midcentury literary institution of the Book-of-the-Month Club, encouraged empathy and identification, a “middlebrow personalism” that gave PMC readers “respite from the coldhearted rationalism that came from seeing the world like a technocrat.” Here one could feel better about oneself by sentimental attachment to those from other classes or races, “while still maintaining the reader’s sense of distinction and self-possession.”24 Some turned to books to feel for the world’s abject, others to feel abject themselves, others to master emotional distance and the gamification of life, but most of them shared a privileged class background that such reading helped them cope with.

Carroll’s account stops in 1973, when Miller V. California in effect ended prosecutions of literature on the basis of obscenity. It’s also the year often cited as the end of the postwar boom in the US, which entailed a transformation of the publishing industry, accelerating conglomeration, raising the profile of the literary agent, and eroding the power of the editor while enhancing that of the marketer and publicist. The market supplanted the law, compelling editors, more each year, to focus on their roles as managers, making good commodities of their books. 

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Editing—it’s hard work and poorly paid. And, though you wouldn’t know it from this review essay, it’s also feminized. Editors affirm, cajole, console, motivate, and persuade across their many roles. “Often invisible,” writes Sarah Blackwood, “the editor nurtures talent and creates common spaces in which individuals can thrive.” She calls editors “careworkers for the commons.” Their invisibility makes it easy, second nature, to credit texts wholly to their authors, erasing the communities that are their true matrix and elevating in their place an ideology of liberal individualism and Romantic creativity.

What do we see when we recognize editorial labor? Reading Foley and Carroll together allows us to see the inevitable dialectical tension in editing: it is both utopian and accommodationist, in turns and at odds, which is to say, within the churn and dynamism of history. Often an editor embodies both tendencies. John O’Brien rescued traditions of experimental literature from oblivion in the US, but kept black experimentalists obscure—an injustice Foley attempted to rectify during his brief stint working at Dalkey. Editors open worlds and they foreclose them.

Whether an editor opens or forecloses a world depends not on that editor’s disposition alone, but also on their employer, their employer’s location in the literary field, and where they find themself in the history of the law and of capitalism. For that reason, Foley focuses on editors outside of conglomerate publishers who evade the worst commercial incentives, whereas Carroll teaches us that even the most assertively countercultural editors find themselves submissive to laws and markets. But so much about our literature has already been decided long before an editor makes a single move. The tiny pool of writers who receive an editorial audience have, for the most part, passed through the needle’s eye: they were born in the right zip codes, went to the right schools, impressed the right professors, teamed up with the right literary agents, and, now, have a chance to persuade an editor. Bless the editors who fight against the stream. The cruelest gatekeepers, the most disciplinary shapers of class, are not editors but the merciless dictates of our immiserating world.

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  1. I refer here to what Alice Grundy terms “professional editing,” or “work undertaken in advance of publication when an editor works in collaboration with an author.” This is in opposition to more typically scholarly work that Grundy terms “textual editing,” which “is concerned with changes made to a text—whether by an author, editor, or in the course of production (for example, by a typesetter)—which becomes evident in the post-publication stage.” As Grundy goes on to note, “Textual editing is a large and rich field of scholarship. Coverage of professional editing is scarce.” Alice Grundy, Editing Fiction: Three Case Studies from Post-war Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 1–2.
  2. “Identifying principles and methods in modern commercial editing is difficult, since standardization has traditionally been lacking and practices vary between individuals and between publishing houses.” See Tim Groenland, The Art of Editing: Raymond Carver & David Foster Wallace(London: Bloomsbury, 2019), 5.
  3. I take this schema from Alan D. Williams, “What Is an Editor?” Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do, edited by Gerald Gross (New York: Grove, 1993), 4. Grundy provides a somewhat different typology, offering “structural editing,” “copyediting,” and “proofreading.” Grundy, Editing Fiction, 3.
  4. Marc Aronson, “The Evolution of the American Editor,” Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do, edited by Gerald Gross (New York: Grove, 1993), 11–12.
  5. A. Scott Berg, Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius (New York: Berkley, 2016), 4.
  6. Jack Stillinger, Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 155.
  7. What does this look like? “Unceasing reports, correspondence, phoning, meetings, business breakfasts, lunches, dinners, in- and out-of-office appointments” (Gerald Gross, “Preface: Reflections on a Lifetime of Editing,” Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do, edited by Gerald Gross [New York: Grove, 1993], 7). Editors “must master an entire gamut of disciplines including production, marketing, negotiation, promotion, advertising, publicity, accounting, salesmanship, psychology, politics, diplomacy” (Richard Curtis, “Are Editors Necessary?” Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do, edited by Gerald Gross [New York: Grove, 1993], 34). Editing has been displaced onto “assistants, agents, copy editors, writers’ groups, book doctors, packagers, and well-meaning friends” (Aronson, 19).
  8. Evan Brier offers a provocatively heterodox account. The editor, by Brier’s lights, became increasingly visible under conglomeration through imprints, prizes, and published critiques of conglomeration itself, a visibility that positioned editors “to champion, and to stand for, the residual, symbolic, ostensibly noneconomic value of the book” in an era when everyone else was subject to the vicissitudes of greater capital flows. See Evan Brier, “The Editor as Hero: The Novel, the Media Conglomerate, and the Editorial Critique,” American Literary History 30, no. 1: 92, 101.
  9. John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Polity, 2010), 136.
  10. Foley, 5.
  11. Foley, 2.
  12. Michael Pietsch offers a salient contrast. Working first at Crown then Little, Brown he acquired business titles, nonfiction about Elvis, Hank Williams, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, and fiction by Martin Amis, Mark Leyner, and, famously, David Foster Wallace. He told Publishers Weekly in 1997 he didn’t want midlist books that sold fewer than 10,000 copies, he wanted “writers who can break through to a larger audience.” (Heather Vogel Patrick, “The Competition is Murder,” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 15 (April 14, 1997): 40.) Editors, he advised, should understand themselves as product managers and hone their “diligence, diversification, financial acumen, project management, enthusiasm-spreading.” (Michael Pietsch, “The Flip Side of the Pizza: The Editor as Manager,” What Editors Do: Art, Craft, & Business of Book Editing, edited by Peter Ginna [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017], 120.) He is now CEO of Hachette, one of the Big Five.
  13. Foley, 93.
  14. Foley, 82.
  15. Foley, 115.
  16. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” Radical America 11, no. 2 (March–April 1977): 13.
  17. Jordan S. Carroll, Reading the Obscene (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021), 9.
  18. Carroll, 23.
  19. Carroll, 11.
  20. Carroll, 99.
  21. Carroll, 27.
  22. Carroll, 155.
  23. Carroll, 156, 179.
  24. Carroll, 177.