Gustave Flaubert once said that prose is like hair; it shines with combing.
This manuscript is having a bad hair day.
There’s hope of course; there’s almost always hope. Indeed, as I sat in the Laundromat, waiting for a dryer to open up, I read the batch of pages with my usual, weird kind of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, the glass was half-empty: I saw all the tangles, knots, bald spots. On the other, I saw the cup overflowing: so much possibility, if maybe we changed this, reworked that, cut one part, added another part. I saw a way.
A garbage truck rattled past the Laundromat, its side painted with the phrase “Demolition with Discretion.” I wondered how many authors might think that sums up the editorial relationship. Authors always go on about the writer’s mission to resist editorial guidance at every turn. Trust me: if publishers did nothing but slap covers on first drafts, readers would be horrified. Sympathy for writers would evaporate.
Last week I tried to acquire two books for Little, Brown and failed both times, once because Doubleday barely outbid me, the other because I was outmaneuvered by Hyperion, a publishing house known for quick offers that expire at the end of the day. By the time I was truly ready to roll (less than 24 hours after receiving the proposal), the agent had buckled in the game of literary chicken, and the book went to the Mouse House (Hyperion’s owned by Disney) for a bargain price. I had to salute my competitor for playing it so well. That my salute included a middle finger must just be further evidence of that cognitive dissonance thing I was talking about.
After throwing my clothes in the dryer, I put down the manuscript and picked up a recent New York Times Book Review. Sitting there with rubbery legs (the product of my regular Sunday morning soccer game), I read about a new book dealing with cancer researcher Judah Folkman. Several years ago, when the doctors told me they had found two rapidly growing tumors in my eye sockets, it was hard not to see the diagnosis as ironic, as if some author I had once annoyed by suggesting he drop a paragraph or two had cursed me. Not only would he prove once and for all that tampering with an original text (in this case, a cell’s genetic code) could be destructive, but he’d have the tumors in question smother me into darkness, left unable to read, unable to edit.
Half-empty, half-full. I once did an incredibly heavy edit on a book about the United States and one of its Cold War rivals. I was convinced the book needed even more than I could offer: several new chapters, for starters. My boss disagreed, predicting (correctly) that the reviewers would all be Cold War junkies who only cared if the book had new information, which it did. Until those reviews ran, however, I was certain that they would all begin with something like, “This book is an atrocious mess. Geoff Shandler should be fired.” Public mention is, for a book editor, like sunlight to a vampire. We don’t want our names on the jackets. We don’t want to go on television. If we’ve been noticed, we’ve failed. An editor is the shy girl in the back of the classroom. A writer is the shy girl with dyed green hair in the back of the classroom.
As I read the book review, I remembered that while lying inside the devices that would irradiate me, slipped down shafts of MRIs and CT machines and the like, I felt less like I was being slid into a coffin and more as if I were the lead inside a pencil. There, listening to the crunch and crotchety hum of magnets and rays, I could clearly see the problem with these tumors: They needed editing. That I was now sitting in a Brooklyn Laundromat, reading book reviews and rough drafts with two good brown eyes was testament, I suppose, to some higher red pencil.
Even when I have a week like the last one, when I fail to seduce, I am amazed they pay me for what I do. But checking my wallet for a quarter, I see that I have yet to cash my last two paychecks. Put it on the Monday to-do list. And on this manuscript, I’ll have to talk to the writer. Go ahead and be the captain at the tiller, I’ll tell her. Just let me be the wind. It sounds like a bad pickup line. And in a way, it is.