In the Guardian
over the weekend, Blake Morrison had a fascinating essay
on the oft-overlooked role of the editor in literature. "By editor I suppose you mean proofreader," Nabokov once sniffed. But tut tut, editors really can make a difference for a novel, or story, or poem—anyone who's looked at the page proofs of "The Waste Land," complete with Ezra Pound's vicious hacking and dicing, can see that—and sadly, as Morrison points out, the fearsome, pen-wielding literary editor appears to be a thing of the past.
Why is that? Why are editors so meek these days, as Morrison claims? One guess: authors have become such stars and editors such nobodies, mere cogs in the literary mass-production machine at Random House and Penguin, etc., that the editors are afraid to take on the former. Another guess: a good deal of fiction nowadays is largely "conceptual," with every word and phrase and detail constructed to advance some pre-conceived effect. Having another person tromp around, say, Infinite Jest
with a blue pen, knocking over all the carefully-arranged furniture and glassware, would be horrifying to the author. ("No, no, no, it has
to be called the Organization of North American Nations, because then its initials are 'ONAN.' Get it? You don't get it...") What can an editor do with that? Give up. On the other hand, novels sitting more firmly in the realist vein are always improved by the removal of a detail here, contracting a sentence there, etc. Editing can actually advance, rather than merely 'clean up', the author's vision. Okay, obviously this distinction is bogus, and for all I know, Infinite Jest
had an editor, although I doubt it. Still, Morrison seems right, and many novels could
use better editing—why don't they get it?