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God Bless the Editor

God Bless the Editor: The Power Behind the Scenes

The late writer Norman Mailer was known to be a tough guy, and he was also quite a writer having won both of literature’s highest prizes – the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award – for his account of the domestic protests against the war in Vietnam, The Armies of the Night.   He was once asked by an interviewer to divulge the “secrets” of writing, and Mailer immediately invoked his First Rule, “Always trust your editor.”

I’ve thought about this more and more as I come across works by newer and debut authors; whose works often show promise (“There’s no heavier burden than a great potential,” to quote the wise philosopher Linus) but lack a firm and unified voice.   All too often I see the debut novel that starts off like a house afire but then dwindles away from the halfway point until the ending.   Perhaps it’s because the writer’s energy and confidence faded out; more likely, some type of scheduling conflict meant that the editor involved did not have the time to devote to smoothing out the rough spots in the second half that was devoted to the first.

I think that the work of a literary editor can be fairly likened to the work of a recording engineer.   Bands make all kinds of sounds in the recording studio – some too loud, some too harsh, some too tame and quiet, some jarring, some pleasant – and it’s up to the recording engineer (for a brilliant account read Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick) to mold the sounds into something uniform.   Even more than uniform, they must be pleasing to the ear.   The human ear loves mid-range sounds, so the very best sound engineers minimize the highs and lows to produce a product that sounds unnaturally “natural.”

Buy a very expensive car today and you’ll be offered an equally expensive add-on option, a top-of-the-line audio system (think an extra $5,000 to $7,000) that produces comforting mid-range sounds from any genre of material, rock to jazz to classical or country music.   This stereo reproduction system will have a built-in range limiter, a single-function computer program that mimics and sometimes even  improves the sounds produced by a top-flight recording engineer blessed with perfect hearing and “golden ears.”

Similarly, the writer’s editor must take out what’s jarring, what’s unexpected or simply not registered in the author’s best, pleasing voice…  It’s the editor who must decide, whether or not the author concurs, the answers to the questions:  “What is it about this author’s tone that is pleasing to the reader’s inner ear?   Which part of the writer’s voice is pleasingly mid-range?”

In order to complete his/her task, the skilled editor must edit and sometimes brutally cut out that which does not seem to fit.   And this is where Mailer’s advice is so important to the new writer, the prospective writer.   I will restate his advice this way, in my own words:  Don’t argue, don’t take it personally.   The very best, the most talented, of writers have found that they must trust their editors.

The skilled editor can take multiple, disparate voices and make them harmonize like the fine instruments in an orchestra.   As an example, take the short story collection about true love, Love Is a Four-Letter Word.   This compilation contained 23 stories written by just as many writers.   Yet in the hands of editor Michael Taeckens, the collection never seemed choppy or disjointed.   I found that it had a singular mid-range tone – not too loud, nor too soft – that made it seem quite enjoyable.   And it wasn’t just me.   One reader noted at Amazon that, “…this collection was pretty good…  not just in theme but in tone.”   Said another, “…the stories flowed quite seamlessly from one to the other.   We have Mr. Taeckens, the editor, to thank for that.”   Exactly!

When a highly skilled editor can take 23 voices and make them sound like one melodious voice, just think of what he/she can do to assist the previously fledgling, isolated writer in finding his or her natural voice.

One other key function is left up to the editor.   Carolyn Parkhurst wrote, “…the ending of a novel should feel inevitable.   You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming…  you should (feel) satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.”   If the draft ending of the book does not feel natural and inevitable, it’s up to the editor to tell the writer so.

In the end, it does come down to that one word: trust.   Mr. Mailer was so right.

Joseph Arellano

Note: Thank you to author (The Language of Trees: A Novel) and former professional editor Ilie Ruby, for serving as one of my editors on this piece. And thank you to Daniel D. Holt for serving as the second editor. 

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It Don’t Come Easy

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)

“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.”   Paul Simon

The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year.   But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs.   The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon:  “I consider his soft sound a copout.   And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation,  like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”

Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote:  “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.”   Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).”   And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.   Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”

Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory.   This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America.   Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY).   Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.

If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John.   Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s.   In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.

I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids.   Here’s another one…  According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin.   Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them.   It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.

If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up.   As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).

Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.”   Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.

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