Photographs by Chris Shonting
Gary Fisketjon is an editor at large and vice president of Knopf. When he worked at Vintage Books from 1980 to 1986, he created the Vintage Contemporaries series. Among the writers he has edited are Raymond Carver, Bret Easton Ellis, Patricia Highsmith, Cormac McCarthy, Jay McInerney, and Tobias Wolff. This interview is about the role of an editor, as he sees it.
Vice: Most editors and writers I have known have a set of standard observations they make—like their pith instructions. One I know doesn’t like sentences that use “there was” or “we would.” Another doesn’t like exegesis or elevated language. Do you have a set of general things that you don’t like in writing, that you often see, that you can immediately correct?
Gary Fisketjon: My first principle, perhaps, is that editors shouldn’t have a set of rules, dislikes, preferences, and so forth, and instead should try to let the author they’ve committed to set the standards, so to speak, and then point out where those standards aren’t met. While “there was” isn’t on anybody’s list of great phrasing, and I myself am constantly astounded by how often the insidious word “way” will worm its (well) way into narrative, and good dialogue is rarely helped by such adjectival crutches as in “he said bitterly/helpfully/insipidly/etc.,” these are mere details to be worked on. The main thing is not to impose some preferred style onto the author’s style, since that’s the only thing that matters.
Do you edit at the office?
The office is the worst place to edit, in my view, given all the distractions that spread throughout the day. At home, wherever that might be, is far better, and of course this means the “whenever” part of the equation usually entails nights, weekends, early morning, what have you. As often as possible I like to hole up for editing at my place in Tennessee, which at first seemed like a great luxury and now seems essential. Peace and quiet make that particular work go better and faster, though for most of my career I could find it only in the evening into the middle of the night and on the weekend.
Is most of your work actual editing, or talking to writers about their work?
While I always try to keep in touch with writers as they’re working away, and occasionally will field questions about a work in progress, generally they turn in manuscripts once they’ve taken everything as far as they can. Then I get to the actual editing, a very slow process, and I much prefer the line-by-line work I do to “conceptual editing,” whatever that might be, or yakking about stuff. My hope is to put every thought I have, however picayune it might seem, right there on the manuscript and let the author make whatever decisions he or she wants to. If someone can’t read my handwriting or make sense of what I’m getting at, I’m happy to translate or explain; but I don’t care to hear about what decisions were reached, because I’ve already had my say and the book always and exclusively belongs to the writer.
Do you work by pointing out problems or by making changes?
Both, but primarily the latter, though I never see myself as “making changes.” Only the author can do that, so rather than try, for example, to explain why a sentence doesn’t work, I’ll provide an alternative version that I hope will demonstrate more clearly what the problem is. The best solution is always the writer’s, never or very rarely (anybody can get lucky) the editor’s. What an editor does or should do is commit him- or herself entirely to the book and do everything possible to assist the writer in making it the best book it possibly can be, and then do everything else that might give both book and author the best chance of success in a world that mostly delivers anything but...
Still, in my view, it all starts with the editing, which is when I see most clearly what distinguishes this particular book. Everything else follows from that, because what publishers are selling is the book itself and not some idea that someone has of it. And while the various stages in the publication process are all interesting, my favorite is the editing: getting into the DNA of the book by reading it so closely, figuring out where it works best and where it might be improved, but mostly to understand what makes it so good. In my comments, what I hope to do is akin to giving the author a fresh look at something that has been labored on so long that certain things have become invisible. Countless thousands of decisions factor into the writing of any book, and it defies mathematical odds that each and every one was the best decision; but after someone has rewritten sentences and chapters or whatever God knows how many times, freshness is hard to come by, and with any luck an editor can help bring that back. A weird corollary can occur when the book is finally set in type, as opposed to whatever computer typeface was used on earlier drafts: suddenly a writer will say, Well, that looks funny, or doesn’t read right, or whatever. This is another means—though merely visually—of getting a fresh or different look at something one has looked at so many times before.
What’s a common mistake editors make?
I don’t know, since editors don’t share their editing with other editors. But obviously there’s a long list of faults that one should avoid: laziness, not reading something more carefully than anyone else of sound mind ever would or should, losing sight of what makes this particular writer distinctive, not serving as that writer’s best and most steadfast advocate within the house, failing to give one’s colleagues every reason to feel enthusiastic about the book, and so on. Really, the list is endless. And even if an editor does everything in his or her power as best he or she can, chances are his or her expectations for the book won’t be met—at which point it helps to be full of sympathy for the writer, who put incalculably more time and effort—and all the creativity—into the book.
I had this idea, that maybe between a writer and an editor it is similar to a love affair, where two people make their own rules and define their own deal, and the more they can keep the outside world out of that, the better off they are. What do you think of that? Do you see what I am saying?
I’ve never put it in those terms, but I do think you’re on to something. First, it’s a private matter into which no one else is intruding. Second, presumably both author and editor love and value the book itself, so that gives them something of utmost importance in common. Third, the back-and-forth between them is very involving and intimate, so they certainly get to know each other pretty damn well. Finally, they both are hoping for a successful conclusion and an ongoing future, as opposed to bad faith, bad blood, bad luck, and the end of everything.
When you get a manuscript, what do you do? Do you first just read it, or do you begin editing from the start?
Well, ideally the latter, since the best editing is done just as a reader reads—blindly, not knowing what happens or how. But of course that is rarely possible, as you first have to read a book in order to know whether you want to buy it. In the case of established authors whose books have been contracted for before they’re written, this method can work. The trick otherwise is to lose your memory of having read it already, so as to approach it page-by-page like a normal reader. In the awful cases of reading and editing and re-reading over and over again, it’s hard not to get all jumbled up with those memories instead of seeing clearly what’s actually there; you know too much, is maybe how to put it. Naturally, if one had a poor memory, this wouldn’t be a problem. But I can recall exactly where a passage sits on a page, even if I have a hard time finding which chapter that page might be in; also naturally, memories don’t necessarily come in sequential order, which really puts you in the soup. The fact is: Books have to work one page after another after another—not only in retrospect, after you’ve read the whole thing and can reconstruct what happened.
My guess is you’ve made fundamental changes to some things, and to others, done nothing at all. Is that true? Are you comfortable talking about that?
I never even think about it and would never dream of talking about it, since the relationship is private. But I can say that the process is always largely the same, since it takes me an hour to edit five pages no matter who the author and what the book is. Again, editors don’t make changes, though they should have something—or a great many things—to say in the course of reading a book as carefully as possible. It’s also worth pointing out that I have no personal or secondhand experience of seeing a book fundamentally altered by an editor. An editor might give the writer some ideas that lead him or her to change and improve things, but that’s as far as it goes.
Is there a temperament of a good editor?
I’ve known all sorts, but I should think the best would prove to be patient, understanding, careful, honest, and forthright rather than falsely flattering or disingenuous, celebratory, certainly, and sympathetic as well about all the trying circumstances all writers face nearly all the time. We’re all in this together, but only because writers have enabled us to be part of it.