Tag Archives: robert-gottlieb

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 Brontë 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