The Red Pen, Or Whose Book is It?

Here’s an interesting article at Slate by Colin Dickey: Red Pens and Invisible Ink

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.

As you see, this article is all about the hidden work of the editor; it poses the question of whose work is that book, anyway? There’s a long discussion about a particular novel called Insect Dreams, later republished by the author in its pre-edited form as Kafka’s Roach, which includes this bit:

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.”

Well, of course Ramey sees it as a repudiation of his editorial work. It IS a repudiation of his editorial work.

You know what this reminds me of? The Stand by Stephen King. I read the original (edited, cut by 150,000 words) version long ago, and then when King re-published the uncut version, I read that. I greatly preferred the edited version. I thought basically every one of the 500 or so pages that had been cut should have been cut; I thought the plotlines added back into the book ultimately detracted from the story. Anybody else read both? What did you think?

I had the same basic experience when I finally read the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo. I didn’t notice for the longest time that the edition I fell in love with as a child was abridged; as soon as I realized I rushed out and read the unabridged version. … And it wasn’t as good. I liked some of the original material, but it just wasn’t in general an asset to the overall story.

So, I don’t know. I don’t particularly plan to read either Insect Dreams or Kafka’s Roach, but it wouldn’t surprise me unduly to find that the former is a tighter, smoother, generally superior story.

I will add that the most-edited book of mine is The Mountain of Kept Memory, which as you may recall lost a major protagonist, had Gulien shift from a secondary to a primary character to take over that part of the plot, and had the plot substantially adjusted. And yes, the overall story wound up tighter as a result. Not shorter (it got significantly longer, actually). But tighter. And none of that work is visible to the reader.

Must be odd, being an editor and having your work just vanish from view like that.

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6 thoughts on “The Red Pen, Or Whose Book is It?”

  1. Allan Shampine

    Yes! I was thinking of the same example. I did read the Stand in both versions, and I had EXACTLY the same reaction you did. I thought the editor had done a great job.

    Incidentally, I’ve read (and cannot vouch for the truth of) stories that after a certain point Stephen King got so famous people would just take his manuscripts more or less as written, and that was a problem that he addressed by imposing requirements on himself to periodically delete at least a certain portion of each manuscript.

  2. Allan Shampine

    Incidentally, I can certainly imagine a new writer being in the uncomfortable position of dealing with an editor that has a very different vision of a book, and acquiescing because of the desire to get published. In the journal article racket I have certainly dealt with editors that I did not agree with, and as an editor myself I have dealt with authors with differing viewpoints on proposed edits.

  3. Allan Shampine

    I think the biggest difficulties come when the editor and author want different things from the article/book/story. That gets into a gray area where it isn’t better or worse, it’s just different. The editor may be trying to fill a hole in the publication or publisher’s portfolio, and trying to wedge the work into that hole. The author has to decide whether they’re willing to accommodate that or not. Tough decision, sometimes.

  4. Interesting observations, Allan. I also have no trouble imagining debut authors wanting so much to be traditionally published that they is willing to revise in directions they really aren’t comfortable with. I can add that once or twice I’ve revised in ways that I wasn’t just super-enthusiastic about in order to suit an editor. But so far I’ve never been in the position of really seriously objecting to an editor’s requests.

  5. Lise, I often wish a book were longer, even a really long book … but I just didn’t like the specific new (old?) material added back into The Stand. Still, I do think it’s fine when an author chooses to release a substantially different edition and lets each edition find its own audience.

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