Maxwell Perkins: The Author’s Editor

Maxwell PerkinsWe live in a world of instant gratification. We can watch our choice of television shows whenever we feel like it, cue up the specific songs stuck in our heads, and order nearly anything on Amazon and receive it within two days. This instant world has had interesting effects on writing and editing. As soon as I finish this blog post, for example, I hit publish, and it will magically be ready for the world to see. There’s a word for this: disintermediation. It means skipping the middle man, or in the world of publishing, going straight from writing to the distributor and skipping the editorial steps completely.

Such massive changes in the creation and delivery of information makes me wonder what Maxwell Perkins would think. For those of you unfamiliar with Perkins (1884–1947), he is considered—according to Matthew Bruccoli—America’s most famous literary editor. While working at Charles Scribner’s Sons, he went against the grain of popular opinion and revolutionized American literature by discovering the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway. 

Perkins’s relationships with his authors varied, though it was always one of support. For Wolfe, he was very hands-on; he cut text and helped organize the writing, acting as a manuscript editor. For Hemingway, he was more of an adviser. Novelist Vance Bourjaily claimed Perkins had an “infallible sense of structure.” Perkins recognized good writing when he saw it and knew how to improve it further. He understood the art of writing and the patience and discipline it took.

Writers and publishers who skip the editorial steps are missing some of the magic the printed word can have. When done well, editing isn’t just suggesting a new paragraph order or fixing rogue commas. It is a relationship—one built on pushing the author’s work into the spotlight and keeping the editor in anonymity.

Editors, if we take only one thing away from Maxwell Perkins, it should be this: “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing. A writer’s best work comes entirely from himself.”

Authors, I believe he would urge you—as he urged Thomas Wolfe—to remember this: “There could be nothing so important as a book could be.”

To learn more about Maxwell Perkins, check out A. Scott Berg’s book Maxwell Perkins: Editor of Genius. It’s on Amazon, so you can get a copy pretty quickly, after all.

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