A French literary critic once said that a great editor is an artist whose medium is the work of other men. Despite its inherent sexism, there is wisdom in that statement. Certainly Maxwell Perkins, considered by many the greatest book editor ever, left a monumental legacy in his thirty-seven years at the publisher Scribner’s, helping shape literature and guiding writers from Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dawn Powell to Ernest Hemingway. 

Editors at book publishing houses play a variety of roles. Lamented Perkins, “What are we supposed to be—ghostwriters, bankers, psychiatrists, income tax experts, magicians?” We could add cheerleaders and nursemaids to that list. After Thomas Wolfe declared that he was quitting writing because of rotten reviews, Perkins wrote him, “If I really believed you would be able to stand by your decision, your letter would be a blow to me.” Writers today would be amazed to hear that editor Perkins even spent time negotiating down Wolfe’s dental bills.

Bibliophilic me treasures my tattered first edition collection of Perkins’ editorial letters, (Editor to Author, The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins), sadly out of print but full of gems for writers.

How publishers choose

In a rejection letter to an unknown author, Perkins explains that book publishers must make money to stay afloat. But even as they strategize and carefully decide what to publish—and despite commercial motives—their role in society is significant:

“There are certain rules of quality and relevance, which can only be determined by some sort of selection, and this the publisher, representing humanity, attempts—with many mistakes—to make. Or, to put it differently, artists, saints and the other more sentient representatives of the human race are, as it were, on the frontiers of time—pioneers and guides to the future. And the publisher, in the capacity mentioned, must make some sort of estimate of the importance and validity of their report, and there is nothing he can base this on but the ability to judge that God has given him.”

LESSON 1: Like authors, publishers are gamblers, hoping for the best.

Live life

In one letter, Perkins recalls a conversation with author John Galsworthy:

“He said these writers who become writers right from the start are invariably disappointments. It is much better for a man to have been something else than a writer, so that he has viewed the world from a fixed position.” 

LESSON 2: Skip your MFA, get life experience, then write about it.

Artistic temperaments

O. Henry Award-winner Nancy Hale may have held the record for the most short stories in the magazine The New Yorker in a single year (twelve), but she still lacked confidence in her writing. Knowing she was anxious and worried about the novel she was writing for Scribner’s, Perkins wrote a number of reassuring letters to her:

“…if you get discouraged, it is not a bad sign but a good one. If you think you are not doing it well, you are thinking the way real novelists do. I never knew one who did not feel greatly discouraged at times, and some get desperate, and I have always found that to be a good symptom.”

In another letter, he wrote: 

“I know that you have a rich and sensitive mind and memory. I would be much more concerned if you did not have to go through periods of despair and anxiety and dissatisfaction. It is true that a good many novelists do not, but I think the best ones truly do, and I do not see how it could be otherwise. It is awfully hard work, writing of the kind you do.”

LESSON 3: Work through your doubts.

Gather up feelings and impressions

Author James Jones wrote to tell Perkins how when he looked at his old manuscripts “a host of hazy memories come back clear and sharp.” Perkins offered up his own suggested methodology on how writers might collect material:

“They should get a loose-leaf note-book and put into it preferably stiff cards, and they should make notes all the time about everything that interests or catches their attention. Then, each thing should have a separate page, and at the top of the page should be some key word like, say, ‘Fear.’ Then, just let the cards accumulate for quite a period, and then group them together under the key words. I think if a writer did that for ten years, all those memories would come back to him, as you say, and he would have an immense fund to draw upon.”

LESSON 4: “One can write about nothing unless it is, in some sense, out of one’s life, that is, out of oneself.”

This happens, then this happens, then this…

In correspondence with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Perkins was concerned that her novel Cross Creek was too episodic:

“I don’t think the book should be episodic in the sense of being just a series of episodes in chronological order or some order, but it could, and even must, be organized about episodes which should be developed to stand out as the big events in a novel do.”

I love his way of illustrating this! “The book should be a narrative, varied somewhat by description, and by reflection—to use a figure, it should be a single piece of string, with knots in it, the knots being the episodes, but each connected with the others by the incidents, etc.”

LESSON 5: The narrative should be flowing yet cohesive.

Help readers picture your character

Perkins had few quibbles with the manuscript of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but he did find the character of Gatsby “somewhat vague.” And when Perkins’ boss, Mr. Scribner, read the novel, he thought that Jay Gatsby was much older than the character was supposed to be. In his editorial letter to Fitzgerald, Perkins writes:

“Everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e., more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase ‘old sport’—not verbal, but physical ones perhaps.”

LESSON 6: Even mysterious characters need to be grounded in the reader’s reality.

How to be a great writer

Perkins wrote to Ernest Hemingway about the beloved author Ring Lardner:

“If he had written much more, he would have been a great writer perhaps.”

LESSON 7: “Write more.”


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