‘Sympathy for the writer, and rigor on behalf of the reader’

I’ve never met Ben George in person, and yet I feel like I know him. Over the course of his editing a couple of my stories – helping to improve them in deep, significant ways – we had lots of phone conversations about art and parenthood. He has that rare ability to see deeply into a story, and to recognize its possibilities in the context of what’s there – a way of improving a piece by identifying and amplifying what’s best in its nature, rather than by merely identifying weaknesses. I look forward to the day when he’ll get his hands on my work again.

Ben George, editor of Ecotone

Ben is a graduate of the University of Idaho’s MFA program. He was an editor at Tin House before leaving for Ecotone, a journal that’s established a high bar for excellence in its short history. Lookout, its book-publishing partner, recently published Edith Pearlman’s “Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories,” to great acclaim.

Ben graciously agreed to answer these questions by e-mail.

How do you edit a story or piece of writing – how do you go about discovering how it might be improved? How do you manage the trick of suggesting significant changes, while making sure the author retains the sense of creative control?

I’ve heard writers say that much of what they learn while working on a novel does them no good when it comes time to write the next novel, because each novel presents its own unique obstacles, its own demands for how it needs to be written, thereby cruelly rendering useless some of the things that were learned on the last book. To some extent, the same might be said about editing. The “how” question is tough, then, because to be a good editor, meaning to hope to be of any use to the writer, you need to approach each piece of writing fresh. I’m overfond of the verb suss in this context—you suss out the particular intentions and pleasures of a story or essay. (I do this with the poems we publish as well, but I make suggestions less often on poetry.) It’s like very gratifying detective work. You’re trying to get to the heart of the mystery about this story and how it’s been conceived and made by the writer. Until you know that, you can have no real sense of whether and where it might be improved upon. Usually the first time through a story I’m just having a conversation with it, making little notes to myself about what I think it’s doing and why.

My model of editing is built on the belief, which I think most of us share, that no writer ever fully achieves his vision for a piece of writing. So every beautiful story—even “Sonny’s Blues,” even “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”—is in some respects a glorious failure. We think of Shelley’s notion that the artist’s mind is a fading coal when he’s writing. It possesses only “transitory brightness” because, as Shelley puts it, “When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.” At the same time, I always imagine that there might be some Platonic ideal of the story, some way it wants to exist in an ideal form if it could attain it. It never will, of course. But my goal is to help the writer get the story as close to this ideal as possible. The trick is to vanquish ego, and to make sure you’re trying to reach the story’s ideal form, and not your ideal form for it as the editor. That can be difficult. You can’t get rid of your biases entirely—proclivities and preferences that you have as a reader, and perhaps as a writer yourself—but you try to bring to the editing process just your taste and your awareness of whatever the story’s designs on you are.

The business of suggesting significant changes to a story is both hard and not hard. It’s not hard on the one hand because if I have accepted a story for publication, I never insist upon any of the changes I’ve suggested, whether they are larger concerns or down at the level of the line. The decisions are the writer’s to make, so in my editing process the writer does retain complete creative control. On the other hand, it can be hard because the writer is letting you into the delicate ego shop, the place where the work gets created, where insecurities sometimes abound. Even if the piece isn’t autobiographical, there’s a good deal of the writer’s soul in it. As Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi!”

So you do well as an editor to tread lightly, to justify the writer’s trust in you. You do that in part by trying to read the story more closely than any sane person ever would. The hope is that you show the writer how seriously you’ve considered her art and how deeply you’ve thought about the story. In my experience most writers are very hard workers. They’re artisans. And since the story is shortly to be presented to numerous readers, they would like for it to be superior. If you’ve been successful as an editor and they can see that your suggestions are to the good, they’re usually only too happy to accept them. Besides, I think a fair portion of the editing I do allows writers to re-engage with their stories and essays in ways that are rewarding to them. What I mean is that while I don’t hesitate to suggest cuts if I think compressing or trimming a certain passage will serve a piece overall, just as often I’m asking the writer for more, for amplification, for clarification. Unless there’s a danger of insulting the reader through over-explanation, writers usually enjoy honing their stories in an “adding” fashion. I ask “why” and “how” a lot. Sometimes too much—but that’s better than not enough. Most writers are familiar with John Gardner’s conception of the story as dream. Unless you’re writing metafiction, and interrupting and interrogating the reader’s experience of the story is part of your goal, you don’t want to do anything that jars the reader from the dream of the story and reminds him that he’s reading. If there are places where the editor can help the writer address that danger, the writer is usually eager to do so.

In the end it’s always up to me to earn the trust of the writer. If I haven’t done that, then I think the writer should invoke what Nabokov once referred to as a “thunderous stet.” I never want a writer to make a change that he isn’t comfortable with.

What are the essential qualities of a good editor? And what sorts of editorial mistakes have you made that you’ve learned from?

A combination of sympathy for the writer and rigor on behalf of the reader may be the defining quality of a good editor. Can you balance those as an editor? That’s the question. Be the most sympathetic reader imaginable for the writer, trying at every turn to honor her intentions, yet always politely insisting that the work live up to its own highest standard.  

This is a responsibility I take seriously, because I’m trying in effect to be an Everyreader. I’m trying to consider simultaneously my own reactions to and feelings about a piece of writing as well as what these reactions and feelings will be for another reader out there. So I’m working imaginatively on behalf of the writer, giving him a perspective that is outside his own brain.

The mistakes I make are too numerous and ongoing to catalog effectively. One kind of mistake is obvious. You turn down a piece of writing that gets published elsewhere and later goes on to be celebrated. I rejected a story while an editor at Tin House that was later included in Best American Short Stories. I did so with a lengthy note, etc., but I turned it down nonetheless. At Ecotone we turned down an essay a couple of years ago that I just learned will be reprinted in Best American Essays later this year. Ultimately this doesn’t bother me a whole lot. My taste is all I have to go on, and so I have to trust it. And this is just an encouraging sign for writers. It shows that if you have a good piece of writing, no editor is the final arbiter. I believe that fine work will always be recognized and published, and will find its readers. Literary art as a whole will never suffer due to my short-sightedness, which is a relief, as is the fact that every editor inadvertently passes on strong work from time to time. The Atlantic’s fiction editor, C. Michael Curtis, admits to turning down Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” now one of the most anthologized stories in recent American literature. The New Yorker unaccountably turned down a masterpiece by Yiyun Li called “Prison,” which Tin House published, and then the story won an O. Henry. And so on.

Other kinds of mistakes are harder to detect, and probably have to do with occasions where I was too blunt with a writer or pushed too hard, and wasn’t successful in doing what I suggest above that an editor should do, namely, efface himself in the service of art. On the one hand I want readers to be disabused of the notion of the artist birthing from her inner self a piece of writing whole and finished. It just doesn’t work that way very often. Many of our greatest works of literature have been edited into existence. Look at The Waste Land. Eliot is an unqualified genius, but the poem wouldn’t exist without Pound. (And thank God it’s not called He Do the Police in Different Voices, which was Eliot’s original title for it, and that it starts with one of the most memorable lines in all of poetry—“April is the cruelest month”—which initially didn’t occur until the second page.) Look, too, at Maxwell Perkins’s influence on Fitzgerald’s writing of The Great Gatsby (the famous ending passage we all think of about beating on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past—that was originally somewhere in the middle of the book, I think; and in the first draft Perkins saw, Gatsby was a far cry from how he was later developed). Or at how much Perkins helped Thomas Wolfe pare down his tomes.

But on the other hand the reader doesn’t want to be reminded of this effort while reading. It infects the experience of the art. When he was interviewed by the Paris Review, the editor Robert Gottlieb—who published Catch-22 and a lot of other famous books, as well as edited the New Yorker for several years—mentioned how much he hated as a reader knowing that Great Expectations had an alternate ending that was bleaker, and reading this other ending, and knowing that Dickens had solicited the advice of a friend on what to do. Once a work of art has officially entered the world, we do seem to want to think of it as whole and inviolable.

To get back to the idea of mistakes, I think that above all you just have to accept as an editor that you will make mistakes, that it’s inevitable. You really have to get over the fear of looking foolish to the writer, which can be difficult, especially if you’re working with the writer for the first time and it happens to be someone whose work you really admire. But if I can’t understand the effect a writer is after, I have to just say, Hey, how do want this part to work? And then she tells me and I say, Oh, okay, well, here’s how it came across to me and might come across to another careful reader, and if you want to get this effect you’re going for, maybe we could do that by trying such and such. If the process goes well, it becomes a silent collaboration in its final stages.

Ecotone has had a steep rise – publishing really strong work right out of the gate, getting a lot of recognition, and now venturing into book publishing with Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision. In a world full of places to read literature, how have you set yourself apart?

If we have set ourselves apart, it is probably first through the unique mission of Ecotone. The title of the magazine is a word that means a transition zone between adjacent ecological communities. It’s usually a testing ground, with greater-than-usual species diversity, a place of danger or opportunity. For us it’s a metaphor. It’s about bringing what are generally thought of as disparate kinds of writing together. It’s a chance to bridge the gap between science and culture, to show that they needn’t be enemies. I like to say that we’re the only literary magazine where you could possibly find a full-length play by Denis Johnson sharing space with an interview with National Geographic’s environment editor about innovative ways to solve global warming (carbon-scrubbing machines). I think that’s tremendously exciting, and I hope readers do, too. Our “Sex and Death” issue had an essay about the giant ichneumon wasp and the afterlife (an essay that beat out pieces from the New York Times Magazine, the Smithsonian, and Orion for the John Burroughs Award, given for the most outstanding natural history essay published in a given year) sitting nearby a picaresque story by the inimitable George Singleton.

As for a steep rise, I don’t know. That’s a generous formulation. I would like it if it were accurate. If it’s true, it’s honestly just about trying to work harder than anybody else, trying to put out the most beautiful magazine, both in content and appearance, that you could possibly put out under your constraints, budgetary and otherwise. What I mean is that Orhan Pamuk isn’t going to publish his work in Ecotone. As Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks said about the Southern Review when they founded it, the magazine would insist on “the highest possible standards of excellence,” but they conceded that the phrase highest possible was a “tricky thing,” because “what is ‘possible’ for any magazine is what is actually available, from issue to issue, for its pages.” And then there are also the vagaries of an editor’s taste. A magazine will always be dependent upon both this and what Penn Warren and Brooks called “the uncertain mercy of the morning mail delivery.” But while we can’t publish Pamuk, we can publish other things that are I hope equally interesting. We just have to work harder to do that.

You said it when you said there’s a world full of literature to read. So to publish anything at all is almost hubris. I have a job, of course, and a family to support. So I had better put out a magazine and books. But I really feel a responsibility to the reader. I take it seriously that if I’m asking for his time, then I need to be offering something nourishing, something worthy of the time I’ve asked for. Because, yes, the reader can read Balzac or Stendhal or Didion or DeLillo. So why exactly should she spend her time reading my magazine? It’s not as though we’re offering something timely, like reportage on the Libyan conflict.

It’s about that indefinable thing called taste. I try to be discerning, to choose and then to edit work that by my own lights (which, true, are the only lights I have) will—I believe, I hope—bring the reader the pleasure they brought me.

At what point did you realize you wanted to be an editor? What about it do you find satisfying?

In answer to your first question, probably during graduate school, when I was editing a literary magazine called Fugue at the University of Idaho. I enjoyed doing that all along the way, and my last issue in particular—when we published four new poems by W. S. Merwin (the current U.S. Poet Laureate), along with an interview with him and a dozen or more tributes by other writers in honor of his book Migration, which selected about fifty years’ worth of his poems—gave me a sense of the excitement that could be involved with being an editor.

I can’t answer your second question in anything other than a high-flown fashion. As I indicated earlier, it’s exciting to be a collaborator in the creative process, behind the curtain, as it were—to know that you’re aiding the writer in making a piece of art as beautiful and pleasure-giving as it can be. The high-flown part is that I do it because I hope to be at the frontier of new literature, and to have an unseen hand, however small, in the shaping of its history. You mentioned Edith Pearlman. Here is an exquisite writer of stories—one of the absolute best and wisest now working, in my opinion—but so many readers weren’t familiar with her. From the time I came to Wilmington it was my goal to do a grand volume of New & Selected stories for her as the debut of the book imprint that Emily Smith and I were going to launch. I gave a lot of myself to helping Edith get Binocular Vision ready for publication, from winnowing and arranging the stories with her to editing them a final time. When the book came out earlier this year, it hit the cover of the New York Times Book Review and was an Editors’ Choice for the paper. If anybody’s still reading in a hundred years, and the person wants to look back in 2111 and see which books the NY Times thought were worth paying attention to in the third week of January of 2011, that person will see Edith’s book on the cover. What’s more, we just learned that Edith will be awarded the 2011 PEN/Malamud Award, for lifetime contribution to the story form, joining the likes of Bellow, Updike, Welty, Munro, et al. This is all due to Edith’s glorious writing, but writers need paladins, and for me to be permitted a hand in bringing Edith’s deserving work to wider notice is a gift for which words fail me.

Readers may not understand how crucial little magazines have always been. Pick your favorite story, poem, or essay of the last hundred years, and it is likely to have had its first public genesis in a literary magazine. There was a magazine called Others that almost no one has heard of. It was started by a poet and critic named Alfred Kreymborg and existed for just a handful of years, mostly during the First World War, before folding due to—what else?—financial difficulties. Of course it published plenty of work by people we don’t read anymore, but in that short span Kreymborg also published poems by Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg, Man Ray, William Carlos Williams, Conrad Aiken, and others. In December of 1917 (almost a hundred years ago now!), Kreymborg published Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Can you imagine opening that issue and reading that poem and having your mind blown? You would have to understand you were experiencing something singular, something that would never be replicated. I can’t talk further about the excitement of that without using profanity. And to be the editor who gave readers their first access to that poem? Forget about it. I quote sections from that poem from time to time just to give myself the shivers.

Or think about “Sonny’s Blues,” which I mentioned earlier, a story by James Baldwin that should be required reading for everyone in America. That story first appeared in the Partisan Review in 1957. Again, if you know that story, imagine being one of the first people in the world to read it, and imagine being the editor privileged enough to bring it to people. You’re touching something that is as close to eternal as we get in this mortal life.

You edited The Book of Dads, a collection of essays about fatherhood published in 2009. What inspired you to do that? What larger impressions about fatherhood did you come away with?

I suppose the quickest answer is that I wanted a book like this for myself after my daughter was born, a group of essays on being a father by some of our leading writers, but it didn’t seem to exist. In fact, when I entered the word fatherhood in Amazon’s search engine, it returned the question Did you mean ‘motherhood’? That is literally true. I wish I had a screen shot of it. They changed it eventually, but up until a couple of years ago, that still happened.

I don’t know if I necessarily was looking for larger impressions. I was more looking to be fortified, by hearing about the experiences of others, for this new phase of my life I had chosen to embrace but for which I was nevertheless unprepared. Of course, it wasn’t only reading the experiences of others that I wanted. More specifically, it was hearing especially from writers I admired, who had already been quite articulate about other aspects of living.

If there is any larger impression, it is that fathers today seem to worry more and be anxious more, at least publicly, about whether they’re being good fathers and about whether they’re avoiding doing damage to their children. There’s a hyper self-awareness. It remains to be seen whether fathers are truly more involved in their children’s lives and in domestic tasks, or whether that’s just a bill of goods that we’ve sold ourselves in the last couple of decades. One of the things that emerged when I was putting the book together was how involved my own father had been in the upbringing of my brothers and me in a way I hadn’t known about. For a while he was working first shift and my mother was working second shift, and he would come home and feed three young boys (my mother had made the dinner) and bathe us and read to us and put us to bed. Knowing what’s involved in caring for just one child, that strikes me as at least mildly heroic. It was just something that he never felt the need to congratulate himself for, and so I didn’t really know about it. That does make me wonder about the veracity of our myth of the American father evolving from distant provider to a father who is involved and “emotionally available,” as we like to say. I suspect there have always been different sorts of fathers.

But the book gave me what I most wanted, which was emotional ballast and the gift of sharing in the stories of other fathers. And it definitely affirmed the level of sacrifice necessary to do things the right way.

Which writers have had the biggest influence on you?

An impossible question to answer, because one will always overstate the influence of one writer while forgetting to mention another writer, and because I’m also not sure we ever know. Sometimes the writers by whom we most want to be influenced or by whom we flatter ourselves that we’re influenced are not in fact our greatest influences. Everything—even, or perhaps especially, bad writing—influences you to a degree.

Equivocation aside, I’d say Chekhov for the depth of soul and wisdom in his stories, Pearlman for her wit and deep understanding of any character at any age and for her singular and unapproachable (by any other writer I can think of) compression, DeLillo for his sentences, Didion for her unassailable intelligence and insight into the culture, the triumvirate of Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Richard Ford for their unerring storytelling instincts, both in short stories and, in the case of Ford, novels. And then basically the list would be never-ending. William Maxwell, James Baldwin, W. S. Merwin, Ben Fountain, and where do you stop? I just want writing that makes me ecstatic in one way or another, whatever its means of achieving that state.

In a larger sense, what does literature do for us? Why do we need to make it and read it?

You couldn’t give me a softball for the last question, eh? Something like “So what’s next for Ecotone?”

Well, these are among the most important and persistent questions of all for those of us who love to read and, alternately, to write. But they’re ultimately unanswerable in any meaningful way, aren’t they? It would take at least an essay, probably a book, and I’m not foolish enough to think I can shed any light on something that minds which are galaxies more resourceful than mine have spilled a lot of ink pondering.

I can answer the first question only in a roundabout way, by saying what literature does for me. Its pleasures are so marvelously varied and, for me, unattainable in any other format. Much of it comes down simply to sentences, and how very much they can contain and how different they can be. You can get something droll and clever on the one hand. Or you can get something rousing and lyrical, rhythmic and haunting, saturated with feeling. To give you an example of the former, I recently started reading Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, which is essentially a popular history of the last five hundred years of culture. He has a couple of lines in there about the Council of Trent, which was the Catholic Church’s belated attempt at internal reform after failing to quell Luther’s Protestant Reformation. He writes, “The bishops were certainly deliberate: they took eighteen years, in three bouts of discussion, to reach a consensus. It was a providential schedule: old resisters could be gradually argued into their graves.” If that kind of sage understatement doesn’t bring you great pleasure, I doubt I could enjoy conversation with you. DeLillo is so good at the other kinds of sentences. There’s a line in Great Jones Street (which, by the way, opens with the terrific sentence “Fame requires every kind of excess”) from the narrator, Bucky Wunderlick, a rock-and-roll star, where he says, “I set the radio dial between local stations and picked up some dust from a delta-blues guitar far off in the night,” and as the reader you’re just instantly transported. It’s almost hard to go on to the next sentence. It’s like being in an art gallery with friends, where everyone is ready to move on to the next thing, but you’re standing there still smitten with some painting you don’t want to leave. “Picked up some dust”—that’s so subtle, but you could write a few pages about all of its associations, just as you could about the dial being “between stations” or about the guitar being “far off in the night.” It’s the ultimate concentration of the writer’s power in precise, but unexpected, words and phrases that are loaded with feeling and therefore meaning. DeLillo can somehow do it in sentence after sentence. It makes sense, in a way, since he’s said that this is how the writer works, “sentence by sentence into the breach.”

As for the second question, I guess I would say that from almost the youngest age imaginable we exhibit the desire to represent the world to ourselves through some form of expression. When it involves language, we seem to have an innate urge for metaphor. I recall a lunch with my daughter from a few years back, when she was two. She had a square slice of cheese she was nibbling at, and when she’d taken a few bites here and there, she held it up to me and said, “Look, a boat!” And then she continued on it that vein, taking a few more bites and proclaiming some new thing that the piece of cheese now resembled, a cake or a goat. She’ll never remember that day, but I will. The lesson it taught me is how we must yearn from early on for the world to make sense to us, to compare like things with unalike things and somehow order our experience.

Writing does that. Painting does that. Music is an expression of something we feel very deeply within ourselves, a celebration or a lament for what it means to be alive. Almost twenty thousand years ago, people were painting bison on cave walls at Lascaux. Like everyone else, I suppose I’m curious about the “why” question. But for me it doesn’t matter so much why they did it, but that they did it—and that what they did is there for us to witness and marvel at. Looking at those paintings, reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: these are things that connect us to the collective unconscious in profound and mysterious and deeply gratifying ways. That’s why we do them, I think. Making our own art is just a natural outgrowth, our chance to leave behind some record of what it was like to be alive in our own age, and to share those expressions with our fellow man.

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To read past interviews in this series, here’s the portal.

 

 

3 Comments

  • Melissa says:

    So much of what’s said here is tremendously interesting and insightful and cool. Particularly the way he approaches pieces as an editor- everything he says feels like an articulate synthesis of bits and pieces I’ve heard other editors say, and here it is again, in a way that makes me want to be more deliberate and conscious of how I approach other people’s work. Another great interview.

  • Michael says:

    A smart, thorough, and interesting interview. Nothing to say other than “Thank you!” and that I really loved this.

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    So many deeply thoughtful answers here. George must be an incredible editor.

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