I was interested to read a recent review of Nadine Gordimer’s latest novel, No Time Like the Present. Hannah McGill in Scotland on Sunday said that Gordimer’s writing often tips into ‘straight-up incomprehensibility’. And there was the speculation that her copy-editor may have been too intimidated to point out ‘horrible bits of phrasing’.
There is probably truth in this. Gone are the days of the Diana Athills of the editing world. These days, the commissioning editor will have too much time taken up with budgets, covers, publicity, contracts, and rights issues to spend an adequate number of hours on the MS. These individuals have the necessary chutzpah to tackle an author on the hiccups in their manuscript, but beyond making a few ‘big picture’ comments they clearly are very often not doing enough. The freelance copy editor may well not have the quality of relationship with the author to tackle them so boldly. (Incidentally, in the States, many more commissioning editors still edit their manuscripts, and that way the quality – and relationship – is better preserved.)
Books are being published with an increasingly short lead time. Both the commissioning editors and freelance copy editors are invariably horribly pressed for time, and the freelancer will be encouraged to work hell-for-leather for a flat fee. It is no wonder that standards have slipped.
It is fairly well-known that Lord of the Flies started out as a religious fable, and a much longer novel. It was turned down by numerous publishers before a Faber editor got his pruning shears out. In the case of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I have often asked myself whether the editor was smoking weed when he/she should have been doing the weeding. (Do we need to have such a long inventory of every piece of IKEA furniture the Girl buys for her flat?) And one can only speculate why the first Harry Potter was so short when the later volumes were as big as phone directories. (Did an editor prune vigorously before Ms Rowling became famous, giving up – and doffing their cap – later on?)
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy