Editors: Serpents in the Garden of Perceptual Eden

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This Year’s Not the Booker Prize has raised all kinds of interesting questions – about small presses, contemporary literature, social media, the nature of prizes, and, of course, how to slot a current book into “the canon”. We seem to have become lively participants in the debates, so we thought it might be a plan to run a series of articles based on questions that have come up. We also hope to run a series of interviews with the authors of this year’s shortlisted books.

We hope you find the articles thought-provoking but also informative. They are opinion pieces (my opinion, Dan’s – here’s me, not necessarily that of our authors), but there’s belief and reasoning behind it. Ask questions and you’ll get what answers I can give to explain any way I can.

First up, for those scratching their heads because they just think we’re odd – here’s our manifesto, and here’s our statement of artistic intent.

So – piece 1: Editors: Serpents in the Garden of Perceptual Eden

Editors have been around since people figured Homer was more than just one guy and beyond. And as self-publishing and “indie” publishing (what, to paraphrase Prince Charles, ever that means) become increasing popular, editors find themselves more and more in the spotlight. Defenders of traditional publishing point to the essential work that editors do in readying a manuscript to meet the world. Self and indie publishers rush to counter by demonstrating they take editing every bit as seriously as their traditional colleagues. Sometimes they even go for the outflank – because they’re not driven by central marketing budgets they can give *more* time to editing.


It’s time for a little corrective. Before I start, please go away and google Cesar Aira. And then come back, because “non-editing isn’t just me being weird, it’s out there and successful” isn’t something I want to spend much time on.


And because I don’t, as usually happens when I talk on this subject, want to spend all my time defending myself against criticisms of a point I haven’t made, I’ll say up front: 99% of books need an editor. An editor will take most books with any promise and turn them into a very good book.


And that’s one of the problems. They will also take a great book and turn it into a very good one. Giving a text an editor is like giving it lithium – you take away the troughs, the lows, the raggedy wonky bits; but you also take away the soaring highs, the glorious idiosyncracies, the sprawling, shambolic, inconsistent, incoherent wonderousness of genius.


And yes, yes, yes, I know most people *think* they are the genius who doesn’t need an editor. And almost all if not all (those I’ve met least in need of an editor have been those most keen for one, and the most sensitive editor would hand their manuscript right back) will be wrong. But so what if they are? It’s a shame for them (but they’ll soon learn to be more self-aware). We will be deprived of some very good books. What a shame. The world is full of very good books. More than you or I could ever read in a hundred lifetimes. I don’t actually care about saving very good books. I care about not losing great ones.


Now it will be very clear that all of this will rest on an answer to that hoary old chestnut “what is art?” that’s fairly quirky. Fine. This is a corrective. An opinion piece. It’s the place for quirk.


In part I mean what you imagine I mean. Editors take a work of flawed brilliance and turn it into a work of flawless very-good-ness. Of course there’s an element of that.


But it’s also this. Art must start with the individual. It must first look in, and never out. Because only what is inside lacks the distance and categorisation that creates falsehood – only inside can we find the percept that we then struggle to conceptualise. And whilst that is a struggle we will always lose, because we must crape the thoughts out of our head and dress them up using language, that socially-constructed stuff that sets itself out to bring people together and does so only by creating equal amounts of disconnection between them, we nonetheless begin in the right place. Kant was wrong that ought implies can – we cannot maintain the purity of our percept, but as artists that is what we ought to seek to do.


Editing is the snake in the Garden of perceptualEden. It brings division, distance, at the root source of our work. There is much talk of sympathetic or empathetic editing, editors who “get what we’re trying to do.” Which is all well and good if you are happy to play out your tale in the communal miasma of discourse. But if you believe in the ought that “cannot” doesn’t negate, then external editing is one of the things you “ought” to ditch straightaway.


So where does this leave literary art? In a good place, in that whilst regular publishing long ago turned its back on art in favour of the falsehood-covering shiny surfaces of edited novels, self-publishing offers a possibility for art to find the open air. But in a bad place, in that most self-publishers are now flocking after the mainstream to lock themselves away in the fetid, air-free basements where the stifling hegemony of the editor goes unquestioned.

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19 Responses to Editors: Serpents in the Garden of Perceptual Eden

  1. Viv says:

    Thought provoking indeed.
    I think that as someone who suffers with soaring mood swings and ragged jagged edges of my soul, this struck a chord with me. I think as a soul I now resist every attempt to homogenise me, make me safer and easier(for me as much as anyone else) to live with. I live at every turn trying to reconcile being pulled and pushed in opposite directions from the inside out and the outside in.
    I’m thinking about Golding….

  2. JBriggs says:

    This reminds me of a Steve Aylett quote: “Most books are so well written they barely have any effect on the reader’s senses”

  3. Pingback: For the Love of It « Pete Morin

  4. danholloway says:

    Vov – William? I was talkng about him just yesterday – he used to be my dad’s English teacher (a terrible teacher from what I’ve gathered – most of the class took several attempts to get their o-level). I know how hard that struggle is – especially when it comes to “treatment” and the balance between retaining one’s idenity however in fux yet being able to particpate in “normal” society enough at least to keep a roof over one’s head. It takes up sop much head space and physical energy.

    Joe – yes. And it seems to have become almost an object of ridicule to talk about an emotional response to a piece. It’s certaibnly seen as unworthy of a place in critical writing – our reviewers need to get their act in order.

  5. Charlie Hill says:

    Hello Dan.
    As usual, a thought-provoking piece. And as usual, my thoughts on the subject differ a little from yours.
    The first thing I’m unsure of is your ‘definition’ of genius. You say that editing removes ‘the soaring highs, the glorious idiosyncracies, the sprawling, shambolic, inconsistent, incoherent wonderousness of genius.’
    But any of these characteristics in isolation – or even as part of a full house – do not ‘genius’ make. Genius (or great art) is the marriage of these characteristics with absolute precision. Even if the desired final effect is one of incoherence and inconsistency – or even that of a shambles – you’re not going to achieve this without coherence and consistency of both purpose and execution…

  6. Surely this blog is offering a form of editorial direction (admittedly away from traditional editing processes), but still the similarities are quite fun. Should you feel the need for editorial direction, and precision, then you should seek it out. Should you not feel the need for such focus then don’t seek it out. I think I might be missing this cataclysmic battle between authors/artists and editors. What I do find about the self-publishing world is that only real thing they struggle to come to terms with is distribution. I should say that the big and even medium publishing houses didn’t just happen across these channels of distribution and dissemination; they have been painstakingly built (by editors and their compatriots). So should you want access to the precision and distribution use the established channels. If you would like to remain in complete editorial control of your work then don’t. Do the thing you want to do.

  7. danholloway says:

    Hmm, yes, Charlie, I did use the g-word. That was probably an oops. I don’t believe in it in many ways. I’m certainly not denigrating technique – if I were after creating “art” (I’m not sure I am, to be honest – I don’t think my own writing’s up to it – but it’s certainly what I seek to publish) I would learn every technique I thought I needed to do the job. I don’t mean that the intention is one of incoherence and inconsistency – the intention of art can only be (axiomatic assertion alert!) to take what’s inside your head and externalise it as immediately as possible.

    There’s a lot of theoreti detail that needs fleshing out about the reader-writer relationship. First off, I’m absolutely rejecting the notion of the death of the author – I think that’s run its useful (very useful as an antidote to the wild flights of self-indulgence of proggyness) course and, er, died. Second, I’m absolutely rejecting the notion of any externalised point of contact between a writer and their reader. We are all hopelessly alone. Metanarratives about our connectedness are lies. and we can either perpetutae that lie with the possibility of one day suddenly waking up and discovering the truth and being unable to cope with it, or we can embrace the truth and start to explore how others deal with their aloneness. And I feel it’s here that the true connection between readers and writer occurs – when one person’s solitude cuts across another’s and the realisation surfaces that maybe the one point in which we are not alone is our aloneness. That connection is of a qualitatively different kind from all others, and in order for a writer and reader to achieve it, the writer must eschew all pretence of “standards” or “categories”, must stop trying to “takle issues” or “touch the universal” and scrape that festering, glorious, inchoate soup form their heads and spread it uncooked

    • Viv says:

      I think it was Picasso who said something along the lines of you need to know what the rules are before you can break them convincingly.
      And yes, I was referring to William Golding. I understood his method was to write a book and never look at it again.
      I suspect that much of my own response to books and art generally is very much about emotional, gut reaction. Intellectual analysis of that reaction may come later.

      • danholloway says:

        That’s how it happens for me too. Something needs to grab my gut. But in the days that follow, as it works its way through me, I will start to think about it in other ways.

  8. danholloway says:

    “Should you feel the need for editorial direction, and precision, then you should seek it out. Should you not feel the need for such focus then don’t seek it out”

    At a practical level, Nikul, I think that’s exactly it.

  9. I have often been accused of being glib, but I think the point stands.

  10. danholloway says:

    I don’t think it’s glib at all – I think it’s spot on!

  11. Loved reading this – great points. I often read novels and wonder what the original ms was like – there is definitely a homogenization that happens when edited for publication in traditional, big-house publishing.

    claire used to have no quotation marks and the dialogue was “embedded” in the narrative in a way that intensified the story being the interior journey of the main character. I was told by every agent and editor, early on, that those two things needed to be fixed. I did. One day maybe I’ll put the original version “out there” and see if the reader response is the same.

    There was also a sub-plot about a band named Plastic Jesus that was said to be distracting. I’m still on the fence about that one!

    • danholloway says:

      I would find it very hard to criticise subplots about bands!
      Interesting what you say about embedded dialogue- there are elements Claire-Obscure has in common with Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, whose dialogue is wholly embedded

  12. Viv says:

    As a side note on the issue of genius, I have a cautionary tale.
    I once declared (while slightly drunk; only slightly, I cannot let alcohol be my alibi) as a student that I was a genius. The words had barely finished leaving my mouth before I managed to poke myself in the eye with my own umbrella. Cogito ergo dumb, I think.

  13. I’m not sure if it’s editors themselves who are the problem, or the fact that their relationship with writers has become one-sided – because the author’s view of their own work is subjective, it’s assumed the editors is objective and so somehow better – i.e. in a disagreement, the editor is *right*.

    The most sympathetic edits I’ve received are those where someone essentially says “you might want to look at this line again it’s a bit shit and/or I don’t understand it”.

    • danholloway says:

      Yes, I probably didn’t word that as well as I could – it’s not actual editors but the editing thing as a whole. I think you’re right about how people see objectivity and subjectivity – I would say the opposite is the case.

  14. Pingback: Not the Booker Prize: Chirs Morton and English Slacker | eight cuts

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