Friday, November 20, 2020

Are Editors Just Failed Writers?

Robert Giroux was the editor for T.S. Eliot for many years. In "A Personal Memoir" (Sewanee Review, Winter 1966, 74:1, pp. 331-338, available via JSTOR),  Giroux tells anecdotes about knowing Eliot; indeed, for Eliot buffs, the entire issue is devoted to people talking about their interactions with Eliot. But as someone who has worked as editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives for many years, the story that caught my eye was Eliot's response to the question of whether editors are just failed writers. Here's Giroux: 
I first met T. S. Eliot in 1946, when I was an editor at Harcourt, Brace under Frank Morley. I was just past thirty, and Eliot was in his late fifties. As I remember it he had come into the office to have lunch with Morley, who had been his close editorial colleague at Faber & Faber, and Morley discovered that he had forgotten a previous luncheon appointment for that day. Since I did not know this when Morley introduced us, I was dumbfounded when Eliot said, "Mr. Giroux, may I take you to lunch?" It was like being invited to eat with a public monument, and almost as frightening as shaking hands with the statue in Don Giovanni. I wondered what I could find to say to him.

We went across the street to the old Ritz-Carlton. It was a lovely spring day and the courtyard restaurant--I think it was called the Japanese Garden--had just been opened for the season. For some reason I was astonished at the sight of newly hatched ducklings swimming in the center pond, perhaps because they seemed to embody the odd and improbable quality the occasion had for me.

Eliot could not have found a kinder, or more effective, way of putting me at ease. As we sat down, he said, "Tell me, as one editor to another, do you have much author trouble?" I could not help laughing, he laughed in return--he had a booming laugh--and that was the beginning of our friendship. His most memorable remark of the day occurred when I asked him if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers, and he replied: "Perhaps, but so are most writers."

Perhaps this comments appeals to me only as a defense of my amour propre, but I think there's also a deeper issue. Explaining is hard. It's hard in nonfiction as well as fiction. It's hard for both writers and editors. Surely, some writers fail because they are poor editors of their own early drafts.  

For some other posts on the challenges and rewards of editing, see: