Robert Gottlieb on the Art of Editing

The author-editor relationship is an intimate one, and Robert Gottlieb, editor of many well-loved books and of The New Yorker for five years, knows this more than most. One of the best insights into this relationship comes courtesy of an interview with Gottlieb in The Paris Review where the ‘questions’ are actually anecdotes provided by some of the writers with whom he has worked over the years.

With comments from the likes of Joseph Heller, Doris Lessing, Michael Crichton and Robert Caro, the one thing that particularly struck me in the interview is how Gottlieb continuously describes how to be a good editor, one must also be a good reader, writer and author.

He’s humble about the craft, too:

The fact is, this glorification of editors, of which I have been an extreme example, is not a wholesome thing. The editor’s relationship to a book should be an invisible one. The last thing anyone reading Jane Eyre would want to know, for example, is that I had convinced Charlotte BrontĂ« that the first Mrs. Rochester should go up in flames. The most famous case of editorial intervention in English literature has always bothered me—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bulwer-Lytton advised him to change the end of Great Expectations: I don’t want to know that! As a critic, of course, as a literary historian, I’m interested, but as a reader, I find it very disconcerting. Nobody should know what I told Joe Heller and how grateful he is, if he is. It’s unkind to the reader and just out of place.

A quote I missed on first reading the interview (but saw highlighted on his Wikipedia entry) is this brief comment regarding his approach to editing:

You have to surrender to a book. If you do, when something in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have surrendered to a book, the more jarring its errors appear.

Many (all?) of The Paris Review’s The Art of
 interviews are online and worth spending some time with. Gabrielle from The Contextual Life provides a highlight of some of the best interviews, dating back to Ernest Hemingway’s 1950s interview.

via @RebeccaSkloot



One response to “Robert Gottlieb on the Art of Editing”

  1. Bob Gottlieb once told me, “Steve, never take an editor’s suggestions like a writing assignment. Feel your way through them. It’s your story and you’re the only one who know how to tell it.”

    The man is not only a genius, but has a kind and generous heart. I wish he’d been my editor.