Recently I was reading a novel by a well-known writer and came across the phrase ‘tyres hissing on the blacktop.’ That was fine, but then it was used again a few pages later. Similarly someone was described as ‘all squared away’ and soon after that someone else was also described as ‘all squared away.’ Am I a fussy nit-picker to think that an editor should have picked up these repetitions? They didn’t impinge on my enjoyment but they did just for a moment or two pull me out of the world of the novel.
It is very easy for these things to slip past an author. I hadn’t noticed in my first novel that people were forever clattering down the stairs or gazing out of windows until the copy-editor pointed it out to me. It is their job to stop these things getting into the novel. But I wonder, just as banks become too big to fail, do writers sometimes become too successful to be edited? This perhaps relates to something I wrote about a few weeks ago about length.
There are some writers who start off reasonably short and get longer and longer. J K. Rowling and P. D. James are examples. The line between richly textured and over-written is one that readers will decide for themselves and for some there can never be too much of a favourite writer. But I do sometimes read a novel and wish an editor had got there first with a red pen.
At the other extreme is the editor who is too anxious to leave their mark. Raymond Carver was so comprehensively edited by Gordon Lish that there has been debate about how far his short stories remained his own work. I don’t really care. I think they are wonderful and don’t much mind how they got to be wonderful.
But the absence of the editor is what I am most interested in here. Years ago I was gripped by The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve (which I recommend), but was suddenly pulled up short when the narrator’s aunt literally aged several years overnight. Perhaps after all it is a tribute to the editor’s art that this kind of thing so rarely slips through the net. But it’s still surprising what does. Over to you . . .