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.
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.