“Get me rewrite!” So went the popular image of the rewrite editor at the other end of the line from the reporter breathlessly dictating into the phone.
This summer, when the new ‘”Avengers: Endgame” movie clocked in at nearly three hours that could have easily lost an hour and saved some of our prostates, we need an editor more than ever. But there are few around.
Editors still exist at newspapers such as you are reading, fashioning headlines --remember “Headless Man Found in Topless Bar” -- and keeping writers from some of our most egregious mistakes and infelicitous phrases.
By and large, however, publishers, television and movie studios have lost the discipline, and crisp content has fallen to pre-sold commodities, marketing and digital social media. Speed is valued over finesse and craft. Once it’s sold, caveat emptor. Agents sell manuscripts ready for the printer. How many typos and errors did you spot in the last book you read? How many movies felt too darn long? How many TV series seemed to wallow in plot-lines that meandered endlessly?
It wasn’t always this way. When I was coming up at Time-Life, my lowly black pencil got slashed by an editor’s red pencil and, often to my complete chagrin, by the managing editor’s withering blue pencil, a vorpal blade that cut closer than any shave. Before, at university, I had been lucky enough to study under the great New Yorker writer John McPhee, who had also apprenticed at Time, so that his prose shone like the metallic brawn of a Corvette.
The first major author’s editor was undoubtedly the legendary Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s, who helped F. Scott Fitzgerald turn a virgin manuscript you never heard of, “The Romantic Egotist,” into ‘”This Side of Paradise” after a full year of revisions before it reached the typesetter. Similarly, Perkins aided Ernest Hemingway in burnishing his taut prose. With heavier hatcheting, Perkins lopped 90,000 words off the overweight torso of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel.”
In recent years, it has become clear that two of the 20th century’s most esteemed fiction writers would likely have been shoveling coal on the dustbin of literary history were it not for the unsung heroism of their editors. In the case of the pithy short story writer Raymond Carver, the publication of his original, unedited drafts prompted Giles Harvey to lament in The New York Review of Books that this “has not done Carver any favors. Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish.”
In his later years, Lish was blunt about it, as he told The Guardian in 2015: “I saw in Carver’s pieces something I could (four-letter expletive) around with.” Not satisfied that his point may have had an Anglo Saxon emphasis but needed further clarification, Lish added: “Had I not revised Carver, would he be paid the attention given him? Baloney!” No shrinking violet, Lish was finally reclaiming his place in a modern era lacking in the fine art of editing.
More disturbing to the cultural vibrations of the moment, the belated publication, under suspicious circumstances, of Harper Lee’s first version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” freighted with the ungainly title of “Go Set a Watchman,” reveals just how extensively Lee’s editor at J. B. Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, led Lee by the pencil-wielding hand. The Atticus Finch of the earlier “Watchman” is an unrepentant racist, virtually turning the book on its head. Had the manuscript been published as originally penned, when Hohoff found it “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel,” screenwriter Horton Foote would never have been commissioned to write a screenplay fit for the likes of Gregory Peck. Generations of readers would never have cherished “Go Set a Watchman.”
Small wonder Lee never published again. The truth may be that her singular success was in collaborating with Hohoff, which Lee would not or could not repeat.
The list goes on and on. Malcolm Cowley at Viking Press guided Jack Kerouac’s one bestseller “On the Road” from unbroken typescript to the bible of the Beat Generation. The great Hollywood films of the 20th century seldom overstayed their welcome on the screen. They left you wanting more, and were the better for it. They didn’t need sequels; there was no “Casablanca: Endgame” and we were left to imagine for ourselves the beautiful friendship.
Me, I like my 800 words, and I don’t know what I’d do with more room to ramble. When we have lost the discipline to curb excessive duration, we forget French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal’s epistolary adage back in 1656, often misattributed to the king of aphorisms, Mark Twain: “I made this longer only because I do not have the time to make it shorter.”
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.