I’ve just been reading an article called “The Trouble of Rational Thought” by Miranda Popkey in The Paris Review about a writer I’d never heard of until today – Helen DeWitt. The subtitle of the article – “How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers” – caught my attention immediately, and by the time I’d finished reading the article, I’d ordered the book. (Which shows how someone writing a review or an article about your book can help sales.)
Quite aside from how intriguing the book itself sounds, the story of how it came to be published gave it an irresistible mystique. (“News of it traveled by word of mouth—and if that word reached you, it said something about the kind of reader you were: attracted to the recondite, undaunted by formal difficulty, unconventional in your tastes,” Popkey says.) Due in part to the challenges built into the structure and content of the novel, DeWitt had serious problems back in the mid-nineties trying to find an editor who was interested in what she was actually trying to do with her novel – who was willing to allow the writer to write her story, as opposed to the story the editor thought she should be writing.
It is clear that DeWitt’s novel was both unusual and ahead of its time – we’d be less surprised today to find different fonts and different languages in a published novel ostensibly in English than we might have been fifteen years ago. However, her story serves as yet another reminder that despite how important it is to have an editor (two, in fact – one for substantive editing and one for copy-editing) for your book, you also cannot just settle for any editor. The one you work with must appreciate that the book she is editing is your book, and not hers.
“My view was that the book benefits from the undivided attention of its author. And this turned out to be a scandalous… I mean it wasn’t even scandalous: it was so outrageous a point of view that it didn’t even cross anyone’s mind that one might think that: obviously what you needed was guidance.” – Helen DeWitt
As writers, we can always benefit from the knowledge and guidance of good editors. The authors of (almost?) every brilliant book I’ve ever read have acknowledged the contribution their editors have made to getting the manuscript into its final format. However, we also need to be aware that just as there are times when we need to listen, there are also times when we need to push back – even just a little, by saying “that’s not what I am trying to say,” or “That’s not how I want to say it.” And if we can’t get the editor to hear us, maybe we need to find another editor.
The story in The Paris Review led me to watch an interview with DeWitt herself, which is one of The Paris Review‘s “My First Time” series. In it, she recounts her problems with editors of The Last Samurai. Check it out:
Subsequent poking around the Internet has led me to discover that DeWitt’s problems with the publishing industry were not restricted to the experience of getting her first novel published. Her second novel, Lightning Rods, took ten years from completion to the bookshelf, and that experience also nearly drove her crazy.
I don’t know why I find DeWitt’s story reassuring, but I do.