Writing About Writing About Writing: Another Diversion

It’s fair to say that life is pretty weird for everyone right now but mine has an extra dollop of weird glop because I’ve been made redundant from the day job and have to find a job (not a unique experience for sure) – job hunting in Covid times is weird, plus I’ve been working for the same company for over twenty years so looking outside that comfort zone is also weird. Suffice to say it’s thrown other plans awry, plans that were already somewhat awry due to Covid. This too shall pass.

Anyhow – I am progressing with WAWAW reading, having completed a re-read of Word Work yesterday and started The Writer’s Book of Doubt today. One written by a Boomer, the other by a Millenial and I’m in the middle in Gen X so I don’t quite feel either talking to me on a soul level, but anyway a review when I’ve completed the Book of Doubt. The previous WAWAW is here, where I talk a little about these books.

But in between times here’s some WAWAW adjacent reading. I read two books about famous editors:

First up was Editor of Genius – a biography of Max Perkins. He was the editor of F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and others. This was a well-written and constructed biography that gave you a very good insight into the man and his relationships, with his wife, his platonic affair with another woman, and, especially, his writers. If you’re interested in the 20’s to 40’s and American writers of the period then this will be right up your street. I really enjoyed it – but I must say that the world of publishing that this describes, and the type of editor that Perkins was, are long gone. There are a lot of common features with the next man I read a biography about (Saxe Commins – see below.) They both suffered through having to work with writers with big egos and personal problems. They both had a massive hand in drafting and, of course, editing their geniuses and they both suffered ill health through overwork.

Perkins sounds as though he was, in part, insufferable and yet it seems that many people held him in great affection. A complex figure for sure. This was a fascinating study.

The other biography was of Saxe Commins. Commins was Faulkner’s editor, as well as T S Elliott among others. This is a book written by his wife after his death and she is not a biographer. A much less polished and more haphazardly structured book it nevertheless painted a vivid picture of the man. It just took a while for me to get on with the chaotic style. Told through reminiscences and letters, with the occasional journal entries in Commins’s own hand I feel like I would have preferred Commins’s company than Perkins’s. The most compelling of the relationships detailed in the book was with Eugene O’Neill and his marriage to the (portrayed as) pyschotic Carlotta who went against her husband’s wishes to publish a play that he’d asked not to be published until twenty years after his death.

Both Perkins and Commins had much closer relationships with their authors than I believe is desirable, or even possible, today. But how much did they contribute to the Nobel Prize winners’ success? Perkins was pathological about how much the editor must fade into the background, Commins was also self-effacing but the work they did was obviously hugely influential on Twentieth Century literature.

You won’t get much in the way of editing tips in these books (although there are some) but if you’re a bibliophile and have read the famous authors who were these great editor’s friends and clients you may enjoy these books.

Drop a comment with your favourite writing book or tip here or email me via the Contact page. If you’re a publisher or Indie Author and would like me to review your writing book drop me a line!

Published by suttope

Pete W Sutton is a writer and editor. His two short story collections – A Tiding of Magpies and The Museum for Forgetting – were shortlisted for Best Collection in the British Fantasy Awards in 2017 & 2022 respectively. His novel – Seven Deadly Swords – was published by Grimbold Books. He has edited several short story anthologies and is the editor for the British Fantasy Society Horizons fiction magazine.

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