Is Your Editor Holding You Back? A History Lesson



Recently I watched the 2016 film “Genius,” which is based on A. Scott Berg’s biography of Maxwell Perkins, called Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. (Berg is a Pulitzer Prize winner and his Perkins biography won the National Book Award).  You can check it out here. The film and book explore the often rocky process of turning creative fiction into a marketable product.Max Perkins, Editor of Genius

Maxwell Perkins, editor

Maxwell Perkins via Wikipedia

Perkins, for those who don’t know the name, was the legendary editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons during the first half of the 20th century. He was the editor who brought F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Tom Wolfe to literary prominence, and advanced the careers of many others, such as Erskine Caldwell and Ring Lardner.

The film focuses on Maxwell’s tumultuous professional relationship with Wolfe, who was considered brilliant, but slightly out of control.  The young man lived large and wrote prodigiously.  Apparently he hated having to cut anything from his manuscripts (sound familiar?).

Wolfe’s first novel was titled “O Lost.”  In order to get it to market, Perkins had to wrestle with the author to cut between 66,000-90,000 words (reports vary).  Perkins also cajoled the writer into coming up with a catchier title; hence Look Homeward, Angel was born.

It was a success.

Wolfe’s second novel was even more verbose.  There’s a great scene in the movie when the author timidly brings in several baskets filled with manuscript pages—all for the same book!  Apparently Wolfe considered it a multi-volume saga, but over the course of more than two years, Perkins convinced him to cut it down to one manageable tome. The result, Of Time and the River, became a bestseller – and it was published in the midst of the Great Depression.

Tom Wolfe worked with editor Maxwell Perkins

Tom Wolfe via Pinterest

Despite his fruitful partnership with Perkins, Wolfe felt insecure that his success was the result of Perkins’ editing and not his own literary talent.  He left Scribner for another publisher, but sadly, before he could put out any more long-form fiction, the author died of a brain disease just shy of his thirty-eighth birthday.  The New York Times hailed Wolfe’s “vibrant, full-toned voice” and said “the stamp of genius is upon him … though it was an undisciplined and unpredictable genius.”  Many of his contemporaries, including William Faulkner, felt he was one of the best writers among them.

Two more novels were published after his death, each of them nearly 700 pages long.  They were not as commercially successful as his first two; however they assured his place in the pantheon of American literary giants.

We’ll never know how Wolfe’s last two books would have fared under Perkins’ deft red pen.  At another point in the movie, the editor, played by Colin Firth, reveals his concern, and that of all editors, that they aren’t improving a work, but simply changing it.  He muses that perhaps books like Wolfe’s would be even better received if left intact.

Years after Wolfe’s death, the original manuscript of his first book (the one that became Look Homeward, Angel) was indeed reconstructed.  Perkins’ edits were removed, the original prose and title (“O Lost”) reinstated and the much longer book was finally published in 2000.O Lost by Thomas Wolfe

Back in the mid 1920’s, when Wolfe was trying to break into publishing, the portal to success was narrow.  His work had been rejected everywhere else until it found its way into Maxwell Perkins’ hands. On his deathbed, Wolfe wrote a letter to Perkins acknowledging the debt he owed him; without Perkins, Wolfe’s genius might never have seen the light of day—at least in his lifetime.

Today, writers aren’t hampered by such bottlenecks.  If we eschew traditional publishing, we can write without restriction and leave it up to the public as to whether our work passes muster.  Today, readers can compare O Lost and Look Homeward, Angel and decide for themselves which version they like better.  Did Max Perkins hold Tom Wolfe back?  You make the call.

As writers, we have to decide if we trust someone else enough to tell us how good (or flawed) our work is. Maybe that person is a beta reader … or maybe a professional editor. And we have to decide if their judgment holds greater weight than our own.

Sometimes the decision is easy. The editor points out problems with plot or character that we didn’t see because we were too close to the work.  We recognize the value of the changes, and they are easy to incorporate into our next draft.

But sometimes, it comes down to their opinion versus ours.  We must ask ourselves, would our work fare better as is, or with the changes (sometimes major) that they’re suggesting? If we are in control of our work, those are the most difficult editing choices we will ever make.

If Tom Wolfe were writing today, what route would he have chosen? In the long run, would it have been the right one?

I’d love to hear your take on the editing process.  Have you ever felt you made a mistake by going with your editor’s input rather than stick with your own?




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