Red Pens and Invisible Ink

Editors do their work behind the scenes, but they can have as much to do with a novel’s success (or failure) as the author does.

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In 2008 I published a short piece in Cabinet magazine on the fate of writer Thomas Browne’s skull, stolen from his coffin 158 years after his death. It caught the attention of an editor at a small press called Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, who contacted me and asked if I would develop it into what became my first book. He particularly praised the final line of the Cabinet piece, saying that line showed him I was a strong writer. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that the line in question had not been written by me but added by my editor at Cabinet, Sina Najafi.

Who can properly claim credit for such a line, written by the editor but appearing under the name of the writer? Where is the editor’s hand evident—if at all—in the writer’s work? Ramey asks these questions in The Insect Dialogues, a book-length conversation with another writer, Marc Estrin, on the role and responsibility of the editor.

In early 2000, Estrin submitted a 900-page manuscript to Ramey, then an editor at Penguin Putnam; Ramey agreed to publish it only on the condition that they cut 300 pages and significantly revise it. The result, Insect Dreams: The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa, went on to garner critical acclaim (though moderate sales) and initiated a professional relationship and friendship between the two. Ramey eventually left Penguin Putnam and co-founded Unbridled Books; there he published five more of Estrin’s books through 2009. (Ramey also published my second book, though we haven’t worked together in over five years.)

Since then, though, Estrin has founded his own press, Fomite Press, and in 2016 decided to publish his original, unadulterated manuscript, now titled Kafka’s Roach: The Life and Times of Gregor Samsa. While Ramey gave Estrin his blessing, he feared such a move might be seen as a repudiation of his original editing, and so a third book was born: The Insect Dialogues, a transcription of a three-month email exchange in which the two discuss the history of this book in particular and, through it, much larger questions of publishing, editing, and authorial authority.

So within these pages there’s a hint of recrimination, at times even bitterness. What’s clear is that Estrin, despite his gratitude for a publishing break, never seems to have considered Insect Dreams entirely his. He refers to it as “my book in Fred’s edit,” or “Fred’s Gregor,” the novel that’s been “fredited,” all the while keeping hold of the manuscript he calls “the original Gregor.” Ramey in turn sees Estrin’s decision to publish his original manuscript as, at least in part, a repudiation both of Ramey’s editorial work and the larger question of editing altogether. “At the end of the day,” he worries, “Kafka’s Roach will become and always be the real novel; Insect Dreams will be the artificial, tainted construct.” Comparisons are made to other large, difficult works: Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, Doctor Faustus. Why did those succeed and Insect Dreams fail? Would it have succeeded if the larger, more ambitious novel saw the light of day? Who’s at fault for the lukewarm reception to Estrin’s masterpiece?

* * *

The differences between the two books are immediately apparent. Here’s how Insect Dreams (or “Fred’s Gregor”) opens:

Wunderkammer Hoffnung—Amadeus Hoffnung’s Cabinet of Wonders—had begun as the hobby of a diminutive, shy adolescent: his childhood rock and insect collections, his autographs of singers from the Vienna State Opera, the paintings made by his oddly talented cat, and what was clearly the largest ball of string ever imagined by his otherwise mocking cohorts. The idea that his collection could become a business was far from the thoughts of this lonely child until one day in 1907 when his parents bought a Victrola, the very model pictured on “His Master’s Voice.”

The first paragraph sets the tone for the book to come: a kind of maximalist fabulism, with strains of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. It promises a high-wire juggling act of fantastic invention, and, like a wonder cabinet itself, something new everywhere you look.

Kafka’s Roach (“the original Gregor”), on the other hand, starts with epigrams from Kafka and Wittgenstein, and after a short preamble, begins:

From May of 1943 until July, 1945, Gregor, or G, as he preferred to be known, lived in a refurbished chicken coop behind my bungalow up on the mesa at Los Alamos. Both of us being bachelors, and neither of us involved in the technical demands of the project, we spent many long evenings talking, musing, and finally, plotting G’s path to transcendence.

The most noticeable difference is the narrator himself: John Aschenbach, professor emeritus of history at Harvard, the former colleague of Gregor’s who tells his story. Structured as a fictional biography of a failed, complicated genius “as told by a friend,” it promises a tone more in line with Thomases Mann and Bernhard, more dense in its allusions to continental philosophy, more willing to wear its erudition on its sleeve, and more demanding of a reader’s background.

Which kind of book is better? Perhaps that’s beside the point. For what emerges in The Insect Dialogues is how many other factors are at play in the world of literature and publishing that go beyond simple literary merit. And rather than attempt to adjudicate between the two or hash out grudges, The Insect Dialogues focuses on a different task: disabusing us of the notion of the singularly authored work of genius by bringing to light the otherwise hidden job of editing.

As Ramey points out, putting the two books side by side makes it clear that “editing is often not gentle,” but if there’s an inherent (perhaps essential) violence in editing, it’s largely hidden from the reader. “If ‘famous editor’ isn’t an oxymoron it should be,” Ramey quips at one point, but don’t mistake this for bitterness. As he writes elsewhere, “One of my greatest contentions about editors—at least editors of my generation—is that they have an affinity for anonymity. Traditionally, I think, editors have not been forthcoming about any impact they’ve had on a novel.”

This effacement of the real work of the editor contributes to the confusion, no doubt, and makes it much harder to assess the quality of the work of any one editor. There are, of course, a few famous stories of editors’ impact on great works: Pound’s editing of Eliot’s The Waste Land, Mary Shelley’s husband’s work on Frankenstein, and, more recently, Gordon Lish’s heavy hand on Raymond Carver’s work. Carver would later write to Lish, “If I have any standing or reputation or credibility in the world, I owe it to you.” (Stephen King, speaking for the writers, disagreed, calling Lish’s edits on “If It Please You” a “total rewrite, and … a cheat.”) So The Insect Dialogues has the effect of pulling back the curtain on the work of rewriting and unveiling the collaboration and dispute that transforms a first draft into a published work.

In many ways, The Insect Dialogues feels like the book that The Lifespan of a Fact failed to be. In that book, essayist John D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal carried out a lengthy debate over the fact-checking process of one of D’Agata’s essays for the Believer, with Fingal pointing out where D’Agata’s writing veered from the factual record and D’Agata responding that, as an essayist rather than a journalist, he was in his rights to massage the truth for poetic effect. But while The Lifespan of a Fact promised to be a serious conversation from two individuals with differing publishing vantage points, the book runs aground as the two bicker over minutiae and appear needlessly belligerent. (D’Agata and Fingal reconstructed their debate well after the original fact-checking experience and later admitted that they’d exaggerated their positions for the sake of drama.)

The Insect Dialogues relies on a similar format—a conversation from two individuals on opposite sides of the editorial fence—but isn’t staged and isn’t nearly as senselessly frustrating. Unlike D’Agata and Fingal, they are not arguing over a relatively knowable object (like a verifiable fact) but rather a central abstraction that gets to the heart of writing and editing: Who is “the reader,” and who is in the best position to understand and accommodate that reader’s desires and interests?

Ramey, for one, puts the role of the editor as knowing the author’s work slightly better than the author himself does: “Editing fiction,” he explains to Estrin, “is—however you get there—working toward an integral whole that affects the reader as the author intends.” Most editors, I think, would agree to some version of this sentiment, and yet I also think Estrin is right in noting a degree of paternalism here: Doesn’t the author know her own intentions even better than the editor? And isn’t such a formulation a stalking horse for the market? While an editor may maintain that his interests are solely in the author’s intentions, isn’t his job really to ensure the work is as commercially viable as possible? Where does the reader end and the market begin?

Part of the issue, as Ramey makes clear at one point, was simply timing: Insect Dreams was published in 2002, which in retrospect marked a low point in small-press, literary publishing. Barnes and Noble and Borders—and the early years of—had run the majority of independent booksellers (and many independent presses) out of business. But while this Da Vinci Code era seemed like it was going to become the default for publishing going forward, readers and writers eventually pushed back against this homogenization. By the middle of the decade, book blogging, and eventually social media, helped resurrect an engaged, diverse reading public that was willing to support small presses and independent booksellers, leading to a renaissance of sorts. And while no one’s making a fortune in independent publishing, there’s now a vibrant and dynamic literary community that couldn’t have existed 15 years ago, and it has seen the breakout success of small-press superstars like Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Throughout The Insect Dialogues, Ramey narrates this history, charting the fall and rise of independent publishing from his perspective on various sides of the debate. For this reason alone, the book feels like necessary reading for any writer starting out, as it makes clear how much of one’s success is at the hands of the market and fate and how much of this information is kept from the writer. This is of course intentional: The editor’s job is not only to walk the tightrope between art and commerce but also to shelter the writer from the bean counters. No other role in the entire publishing ecosystem straddles these worlds so consciously, and it is this dual allegiance that makes the editor’s work both essential and suspect.

Considering that Estrin and Ramey have known each other for over 15 years, it’s not surprising that The Insect Dialogues contains various allusions to events, mutual friends, and a shared past that sometimes elude the reader and can be confusing. But these moments are a reminder that lying behind all of this is a friendship, one whose contours exceed the confines of the book and one that in turn invokes another friendship lurking behind the entire proceedings: that of Franz Kafka and Max Brod.

Kafka named his friend literary executor, asking Brod to burn all of his writing after his death. That Brod disobeyed his friend’s direct request is the only reason we have most of Kafka’s work, so chock one up for the editors overruling the wishes of the authors. But Brod’s own editorial intrusions have caused issues over the years; initially, Brod was mostly concerned with gaining an audience for Kafka’s work, and in the case of The Castle he altered the chapter structure, regularized the point of view, and deleted chapters, all to make an obviously unfinished work appear to be a completed text. Early readers weren’t seeing Kafka’s writing itself so much as they were seeing a work that had been Brodited.

Successfully Brodited: His compromised versions of his friend’s work not only found an audience but established Kafka such a reputation that scholars were eager to unearth and publish the original Kafka. One way to judge the success of Brod’s efforts—the efforts of the editor, in direct contradiction to the wishes of the author—is the degree to which readers and scholars continue to clamor for the unedited Kafka manuscripts. Another is the fact that, 75 years after Kafka’s death, another novelist would create a 900-page ode to his most famous character.

The Insect Dialogues by Marc Estrin and Fred Ramey. Leaping Man.

Read the rest of the pieces in the Slate Book Review.