The Fantasy Editor

Tim Groenland on the history and shifting role of the literary editor.

By Tim GroenlandApril 20, 2019

The Fantasy Editor

IN ONE OF the essays in Peter Ginna’s illuminating 2017 collection of essays, What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, editor Betsy Lerner writes that every author she has ever met harbors what she terms “the Maxwell Perkins fantasy.” This fantasy, based on Perkins’s legendary publishing exploits at Scribner’s in the early decades of the 20th century, comes in the form of the dream of “the editor who will pluck you from obscurity” and, through a combination of editorial brilliance, marketing savvy, and empathetic support, ensure that the writer is read “decades from now.” If this fantasy could be represented visually it might look like the wise, fedora-wearing Colin Firth in the 2016 Perkins biopic Genius, who, in a key scene, lets the head of Jude Law’s Thomas Wolfe rest on his paternalistic shoulder as author and editor together contemplate the New York skyline.

This may be a fantasy, but it is based in documented reality. As his biographer A. Scott Berg has shown, Perkins’s textual heroics in turning Thomas Wolfe’s vast manuscripts into era-defining novels were only part of his achievement. To judge by Perkins’s example, a great editor might not only suggest intelligent changes to your manuscript (writing plot outlines, assembling disparate sections of narrative, adding line edits), but could also push you toward a more memorable title (see: Trimalchio in West Egg versus The Great Gatsby). He or she might even, as Perkins did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, do your house-hunting while you travel around Europe, extending their fine judgment beyond the page to organize your chaotic personal life and second-guess your creative whims (for a contemporary example, see perhaps: Jonathan Franzen’s editor persuading him not to adopt an Iraqi war orphan). By and large, however, critics tend to pay little attention not only to the enduring fantasy of editorial genius and what it tells us about the social dimensions of literature, but also to the reality that every book we encounter has been edited in ways that determine fundamental aspects of our reading experience.

Editing, as Ginna describes it, is a complex process encompassing a wide range of tasks that are nevertheless reducible to three stages. First, an editor acquires a manuscript, an activity that might involve scouting for new writers, wooing an author, negotiating with agents, bidding, and, crucially, convincing their publishing house of its worth (often using, as Laura B. McGrath has recently shown, the complex and invariably conservative mechanism of comparative titles). Then comes the textual editing, a manuscript-focused process ranging from the conceptual or “macro” level of developmental suggestions to the “micro” level of line editing. Finally, the editor will need to manage the processes involved in bringing the book to publication. This will, in a large publishing house, be a complex collaborative activity structured in many respects by the decisions made at acquisition stage. Even if the editor does not change a word of the author’s text, they are responsible for acting as its principal cheerleader, and their judgment and enthusiasm determine a multitude of decisions that go into the production and publication of a book.

Despite its importance, though, this aspect of literary production remains inherently resistant to study. Indeed, across multiple fields, as Susan Greenberg notes in her new book A Poetics of Editing, “there is little sustained analysis of the subject as a professional practice in its own right.” Much of this problem exists by design: as she points out, “invisibility” tends to be the editor’s watchword. The late editor Diana Athill, in her classic publishing memoir Stet, offered the typical (and common-sense) opinion that if a manuscript needed work, then “by the time it reached publication it must read as though none had been done on it.” In most cases, it is in the interests of each of the main players in the literary field — author, agent, editor, publisher, reader, and frequently critic — to keep the spotlight on the creative activities of the author rather than those of the editor, a fact that goes some way toward explaining the relatively small and fragmented field of scholarly studies on editing.

While we can trace the work of certain renowned editors like Perkins through biographies, studies of individual authors, collections of letters, memoirs, and archives, the scholar of more contemporary literary editing is dependent upon the availability of archival materials as well as the willingness of authors, editors, and publishers to pull back the curtain on aspects of literary production usually kept private. As readers and critics, we know plenty about the authors of the books on our shelves and syllabi, but less about the editors with whom they have, in many cases, worked with over the course of several decades — to take some notable examples, Robert Gottlieb’s work with Toni Morrison, Nan Graham’s with Don DeLillo, Nan A. Talese’s with Margaret Atwood. In literary studies, then, to use Greenberg’s phrase, “[e]diting is everywhere and therefore nowhere.”


There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. In recent decades, the most notorious is the revelation of Gordon Lish’s severe editing of the stories in Carver’s first two collections. D. T. Max’s description of Lish’s editorial manuscripts for The New York Times in 1998 brought the “Carver controversy” to public attention. The publication of the fascinating collection Beginners (overseen by Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher), the 2009 text based on Carver’s original manuscripts for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, allowed for comparison between the pre- and post-Lish stories.

Beginners also provided more context for the letters that showed Carver protesting against the changes (initially, at least), claiming that “my very sanity is on the line here”; he subsequently (and vividly) described Lish’s work as “surgical amputation and transplant.” The intensity of the discussion over the men’s relationship was prompted not just by the sense of ethical violation perpetrated by the editor, but by the question of whether Carver’s stories were improved or damaged by Lish’s changes. Were Carver’s generous and humane stories desecrated by Lish’s “baleful” influence (as Stephen King claimed), or did Lish in fact succeed in curbing his author’s sentimental tendencies in the service of lasting literary art?

When I began to study the Carver/Lish relationship, I hoped that a less partisan approach might pay dividends. Instead of picking sides in favor of the pre- and post-Lish versions, what might a close study of the archive reveal about the way the editorial relationship works — and could this exceptional example tell us anything about the editorial rule? We owe our knowledge of this editing process, after all, to Lish’s willingness to breach the unwritten codes of literary etiquette by making his own work visible. Lish might be seen as that rare example of an exhibitionist editor, uninterested in invisibility as a strategy, and his decision to preserve his editorial files in the knowledge that the Carver material might prove, to use his word, “combustible,” has contributed to his fame as an archetype of the merciless editor. Lish’s flouting of the codes of author- and editorship demonstrates, paradoxically, the pervasive power of those codes.

While most accounts have focused on Lish’s editing of What We Talk About, the manuscripts in Lish’s collection at the Lilly Library at Indiana University show that he had just as powerful an influence on some of Carver’s early stories. Some of these had a lengthy gestation period, and some of the pieces Lish was editing in an informal capacity as early as the turn of the 1970s would only reach a wide audience a decade later. The stories in Carver’s first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), have not been published in unedited form (their textual history is more tangled, and the circumstances of their publication less controversial) and little critical attention has been paid to their genesis. However, the stories and their accompanying correspondence show the fault lines upon which the men’s relationship would later fracture.

Indeed, one clear lesson to be drawn is that an editor’s advocacy of an author early in their career is a crucial determinant not only of their positioning within the literary marketplace, but of the author’s own relationship to that position. Reading Lish’s edits to Carver’s early work alongside his creation of several of the “paratexts” such as Carver’s blurb copy and promotional materials, it becomes clear that many of the descriptions that would stick to Carver throughout his career, such as “austere,” “spare,” and “unflinching,” were present from an early stage. Lish worked hard to determine the parameters of Carver’s literary brand from the beginning, and the overwhelming consensus of Carver as a “minimalist” that emerged in the early 1980s followed from this earlier positioning.

This was a consensus that Carver was famously uneasy with, and his discomfort can be traced back to as early as 1970, when Lish edited the story “Neighbors” (which would, in 1976, after a second intensive line edit, be published as the lead story in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?). In his first edit, Lish removed the story’s length by roughly two-thirds. On the whole, his edits resulted in more showing and a lot less telling. As he did elsewhere in Carver’s work, Lish removed details of the characters’ lives, references to the outside world, and narrative descriptions of the characters’ emotional states, with the result that the tone of the story became palpably more terse, hermetic, and menacing. Carver’s gratitude for the assistance was mingled with uncertainty at the story’s stylistic evolution: “it looks & feels,” he wrote, “a little thin now.”

“Neighbors” was included in a 1973 anthology of work by young writers, where it was accompanied by an essay in which Carver describes the genesis of the story in ambiguous terms. Claiming that the story “came together very quickly,” he wrote that:

The real work on the story, and perhaps the art of the story, came later. Originally the manuscript was about twice as long, but I kept paring it on subsequent revisions, and then pared it down some more, until it achieved its present length and dimensions.

He goes on to note the story’s “essential sense of mystery and strangeness” and to worry publicly about its stylistic achievement: while the story is “more or less, an artistic success,” he writes, “my only fear is that it is too thin, too elliptical and subtle, too inhuman.” Here we see an early example of a pattern that would later recur in a more dramatic manner: Carver publishes a story that has been heavily edited by Lish and takes credit for the story’s stylistic economy (“the real work,” or the “art”) while simultaneously questioning, in print, the virtue of such economy. Carver engages in an oblique meditation on the minimalistic methods with which he is beginning to be identified, a continuation (and a more eloquent elaboration) of reservations already expressed to Lish in private. He does so in a form that, with the benefit of hindsight, reads as a veiled challenge to the editor whose work he both questions and fails to acknowledge publicly.

The ambiguity over the details and extent of an editor’s role, suggests Greenberg, can tend to give editing “a liminal, sometimes shameful air,” and this dynamic is certainly in play throughout Carver’s publishing history. William Maxwell, who served as fiction editor of The New Yorker for 40 years, has said of editing: “[W]hat you hope is that if the writer reads the story ten years after it is published he will not be aware that anybody has ever touched it.” This notion, like Athill’s description of the sleight of hand required of any editor, suggests that a kind of cognitive dissonance is inherent in the editorial exchange, one that becomes particularly fraught when the minimalist author in question is being celebrated for his ability to ruthlessly “carve” his prose to the bone.

Mark McGurl’s description of a “dialectic of shame and pride” structuring the Program Era environment that produced minimalism (or as he terms it, “lower-middle-class modernism”) is given a different, more individual cast here, with the “shame” of editorial intervention lingering beyond the point of pride marked by publication. The processes of literary production may be, in many ways, social ones — the acquisition of “craft” through shared knowledge and practice, the development of the story through the communal energies of the university classroom and the editorial office — but the attribution of a work of fiction on the literary marketplace will inevitably be singular. Carver’s conflicted attitude to this dynamic recurs throughout his interviews, essays, and correspondence. In the months after Lish’s intensive edit of What We Talk About, for example, he wrote in an essay that the most important aspect of fiction was “the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes.” In interviews throughout the 1980s, he praises Lish effusively while taking every opportunity to distance himself from the “minimal” aesthetic of his most celebrated collection.

The end of Carver’s relationship with Lish saw the author move decisively away from the minimalist model (although Lish did, contrary to popular belief, have some input into the stories in Cathedral). After 1981, Carver’s published stories stayed closer to his drafts, more accurately reflecting his tendencies toward a Chekhovian realism willing to risk sentimentality in its pursuit of communicative resonance. Examining these later stories, however, as well as the many interviews in which he is continually forced into evasive action on the subject of his “minimalist” history, it becomes clear that the editorial processes of previous decades had left a lasting mark.

As Carver consolidated his newfound sobriety during the early 1980s, he became more willing to defend his words, but remained haunted by the editorial processes that had helped him to his breakthrough. Carver’s biographer Carol Sklenicka has described his relationship with Lish as “a kind of Faustian secret.” Gallagher has observed that his sense of gratitude toward Lish coexisted with the sense of having been “separate[d] from his work in a painful, compromising way.” These processes appear to have left the author with a kind of anxiety of editorial influence, with the danger of being (to quote Gallagher) “subsumed by Lish’s imagination” lingering throughout his final decade. Reading some of Carver’s later work, such as “Blackbird Pie” — which centers on the contested authorship of a letter that the narrator refuses to believe is in his wife’s handwriting — and “Cathedral” — a story that ends with the image of two men holding the same pen — we see his stories returning to the dynamics of mediation and evoking a troubling editorial presence.

Despite Maxwell’s hopes for authorial forgetfulness, writers tend to remember how their work has been edited. Toni Morrison, for example, has written of her lasting regret at allowing her editor Robert Gottlieb to persuade her to change the final lines of Beloved by replacing a vernacular and (unspecified) “racially resonant” word with one that would not risk causing readers “mystification.” Morrison is concerned, in her description of this process, with the subtle pressures of audience and the pervasive “architecture of race” in literary discourse, but her reflections also show that the earlier manuscripts of a novel do not, for its author, necessarily fade into oblivion: to have found the right word and lost it, she writes, is “in retrospect infuriating.” The slow and painful editorial exchange might be worthwhile, but it leaves long-lasting scars.


David Foster Wallace is often positioned as Carver’s polar opposite, the maximalist yang to Carver’s austere yin — an assumption that, while it ignores certain similarities (the role of addiction in both authors’ work, for example, as well as their shared search for sincerity in the face of postmodern irony), reflects obvious stylistic differences. Using the crudest measure of output, it could be noted that the entirety of Carver’s Collected Stories (2009) would comfortably fit inside the 1,079-page Infinite Jest. Indeed, Wallace devoted much of his early career energy to defining himself against the dominant minimalist model of 1980s fiction. While Wallace admired Carver, he frequently took aim at what he saw as the narrowness of vision shown by Carver’s imitators, against whom he defined his own writing: his first published critical essay, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” (1988), identifies “Catatonic Realism, a.k.a. Ultraminimalism, a.k.a. Bad Carver” as one of the models he seeks to move beyond.

In its own way, though, the maximalism that Wallace helped return to US fiction was also heavily reliant on editorial support, first from Gerry Howard and subsequently from Michael Pietsch. The second stage of Wallace’s career could be said to have begun with Pietsch’s acquisition of the manuscript for Infinite Jest in 1992. The author was, by this stage in his career, aware of his own difficulties in accepting criticism (describing himself to Pietsch as “a difficult editee” and “the world’s worst cutter”), having come to regret his youthful stubbornness in ignoring many of Howard’s suggestions on his first novel. When he delivered the full manuscript, Wallace plaintively wrote that he would need “an enormous amount of help, because everything in it is connected to everything else, at least in my head.” Over the course of approximately two years and three stages of sometimes incredible intricacy, Pietsch took on what has come to be seen as a near-legendary editorial task: managing his author’s intense productivity, anxiety, and determination to pursue an “aclimactic” ending by continually urging Wallace to keep the reader’s experience in mind.

The archival record of their collaboration shows how dense and dialogic this process was. One of Pietsch’s letters to Wallace from 1994, for example, contains 45 separate requests for specific alterations, with requests for clarification alongside diplomatic suggestions toward cuts or changes in the placement of scenes. Many of Wallace’s responses came with multiple sub-headings and often tended toward the playfully defensive: even when he agreed to cuts, these frequently involved compression and rearrangement of material, with entire chapters sometimes moving to footnotes. In the process, the manuscript lost 600, 500, 400, or 250 pages, depending on which of Wallace’s not-always-entirely-reliable interviews and letters you read. (Among a contingent of Wallace’s readers, there exists a longing for the eventual publication of a jumbo-sized and presumably multi-volume unexpurgated Jest, but the material in the archive seems smaller than even Wallace’s lowest estimate, and Pietsch is unaware of any surviving material elsewhere.)

In his interviews and essays, Wallace continually urged a communicative, dialogic model as the goal of successful writing, conceptualizing fiction as “a living transaction between humans.” While this transaction has usually been understood as an abstract one between author and eventual reader, the editing of Infinite Jest represents perhaps the most vivid real-world model for the intensively collaborative dynamic that Wallace desired for his fiction’s reception. In the case of maximalist fiction, then, the editor’s role appears closer to the traditional self-effacing presence that Perkins imagined himself to be: this is the editor as silent partner, “midwife” (another frequent editorial metaphor, as Greenberg points out) or as (to recall Perkins’s own words) “a little dwarf on the shoulder of a great general advising him what to do and what not to do, without anyone’s noticing.” (Incidentally, when I interviewed Pietsch, he referred to Berg’s biography of Perkins as a formative influence, describing it as “the best book I’ve ever read about editing.”) The editor here becomes a co-manager of excess rather than a merciless surgeon.

We also see, however, the change in the publishing environment for literary fiction, as the relatively unsupervised role of the postwar editor gives way to what Dan Sinykin has termed the “Conglomerate Era” of publishing as corporate takeovers transform the structures of the literary marketplace. During his time at Knopf, Lish was given a relatively free rein, and he recalls feeling no pressing responsibility to generate sales in his pursuit of distinctive writing. Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief and president of Knopf during much of Lish’s time at the firm, describes the acquisitions process during his tenure in what might seem to today’s editor as blissfully straightforward terms: “[W]hen an editor wanted to acquire a book, he or she just told me and I said yes or no, and decided how much money we could pay.”

By the mid-’90s, this had perceptibly changed. Evan Brier describes how the late-20th-century editor increasingly came to inhabit the “border between middle-management employee and artist’s advocate.” Editors at large publishing houses grew to accustom themselves to structured sales presentations, launch meetings, spread-sheeted profit and loss projections, and Nielsen-informed calculations of risk and reward. This balance between textual and corporate forces is not only key to the success of Pietsch (who has, in the intervening years, risen to his current position of CEO of Hachette) but is one that any contemporary editor needs to maintain. With Infinite Jest, Pietsch successfully negotiated between the commercial imperative to recoup Little, Brown’s investment by producing a marketable book (one that would, among other things, fit into a single volume) and, on the other hand, Wallace’s propensity for experimentation and textual abundance. He not only urged his author toward a less forbidding maximalism but overcame the problem of how best to present that maximalism in the marketplace. Pietsch’s success in marketing the book as a challenge to intellectually ambitious readers and peers (as he has described it, “getting other writers to recognize that this was the guy to beat”) would be crucial in securing the book’s success.

Wallace’s letters to Pietsch in subsequent years show a mixture of gratitude and deference for his editor’s attention and judgment, with the author occasionally signing off as “Your Devoted Editee.” The success of their collaboration would play a key role in establishing the subsequent direction not only of Wallace’s reputation, but also of Pietsch’s own career. When Chad Harbach and his agent were auctioning the manuscript of The Art of Fielding (later published in 2011), Harbach was so eager to work with Pietsch that he was prepared to accept a lower advance in exchange for the opportunity to work with the editor of Infinite Jest. This acquisition presents a striking example of the convergence of symbolic and actual capital in the editor’s role: Pietsch could offer a lower advance than his rivals here, since Harbach was willing to forgo some of the actual capital offered by other publishers in favor of the cultural and symbolic capital available from “the editor of David Foster Wallace.”


In a recent reflection on line editing, Nick Ripatrazone highlights the importance of “a single, critical, editor-as-reader, who evolves and grows with the writer”: editing, he writes, is “a gift” that is “enjoyed by some writers, but not most.” Editorial assistance, that is to say, is not equally distributed throughout the publishing industry. One recent illustration of this might be the neglect — and subsequent slow recognition and rediscovery — of the virtuosic fiction of Helen DeWitt. In a 2016 interview, DeWitt reflected on her decades of publishing woes, describing the collapse of book deals, the unreliability of agents, and the perennial scourge of “publishing wankers,” before optimistically opining that “plenty of writers that we admire struggled along somehow without the help of Michael Pietsch.” The statement could be read as alternately defiant and wistful: despite the author’s denials, interviewer Christian Lorentzen interpreted this as an indication that DeWitt was seeking a “savior” who might be capable of finding an audience appropriate to her intellectually ambitious fiction.

Is it a stretch to suggest, then, that today’s ambitious writer has replaced the “Perkins fantasy” with the “Pietsch fantasy”? It is clear that writers know the value of a good editor more than anyone: the examples of Carver and Wallace show that it matters a great deal who acquires your book, how they edit it, and how they bring it to market. Look closely, and the mediating role of the editor — so often invisible, so easily ignored — is difficult to separate from the development, form, and reception of these works. Greenberg calls for the fragmented state of studies on editorial activity to be addressed in a more focused way: “[T]he time for ‘editing studies,’” she proclaims, “has arrived.” A more concerted attempt to map the editor’s invisible territory might be long overdue.


Tim Groenland teaches in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of The Art of Editing: Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace(Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

LARB Contributor

Tim Groenland teaches in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of The Art of Editing: Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).


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