Robert Gottlieb, eminent editor, states in his memoir Avid Reader “. . . readers shouldn’t be made aware of editorial interventions . . . they have a right to feel that what they’re reading comes direct from the author to them.” He’s talking about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (and of course violates his dictum by its very statement).

Nobody, I imagine, thinks Gottlieb’s argument here is directed at declining to have the editor’s name appear on the title page — Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe with help by Maxwell Perkins — that’d just be stupid. But do we really have a “right to feel” that Harper Lee came up with the idea of ditching most of her manuscript and mining To Kill a Mockingbird out of it? For many years that just wasn’t a question in people’s minds of course, as the famously reticent Ms Lee wasn’t talking. When the news was broken at the time of publication of Go Set a Watchman (the mine from which the excavation took place), lots of readers expressed dismay at being forced to know this, and having to accept a different side of the hero. But a right?

Do we think any worse of Lee, or Raymond Carver, or Thomas Wolfe because we know that they got editorial help, than we do (or at least in my case, did up till now) of Heller? The book we have is the book we have, and the path by which it got there is almost irrelevant to all but the scholarly reader. Changes and deletions are made in manuscript and proof, often massively, but many of these are made by the author, some by the author at the suggestion of another reader, and some by a publisher’s editor. So? The book we know is the book we care about.

Poets notoriously revise their verse. An old (wo)man will want to express things differently than a youngster. My German teacher insisted we only read the early version of Goethe’s Willkommen und Abschied. Goethe obviously didn’t agree, but I’m with Mr Hammer in prefering the youthful expression. Luckily of course with poems by tinkerers who rewrite throughout their lives, we (usually) have both versions and can make a judgment. As Eliot Weinberger writes in the preface to 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, “Great poetry lives in a state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go”. There seems no reason why the right to make new translations should rest with readers only.

If you want to get back behind editorial changes (either by author or editor) in a novel you need to find the original manuscript, though of course scholarly careers have been founded on exactly what “original” might mean in this context. In the end, for almost all of us, the novel we read is the only novel there is. How many non-specialist readers pay any attention to the textual variants when reading a scholarly edition?

Not all editorial work (actually probably very little editorial work) involves actual rewriting and stylistic massage. Psychological support may be the most important gift from editor to author. The neatest trick of editorial intervention Gottlieb describes is his recognizing that the rather wooden characters in the manuscript of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain could be turned from disadvantage to advantage not by trying to liven them up, but almost the opposite: by looking at the book as a fictionalized documentary rather than as a documentary novel. Doubtless Mr Crichton feels grateful.

Gottlieb’s memoir is reviewed in The New York Review of Books.

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