Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Searching for Max Perkins: Are Writers Groups the New Editors?

By Elizabeth Langosy for Talking Writing

I have a smattering of books that address the relationship between writers and their editors. In nearly every case, the editor was Scribner’s legendary Maxwell Perkins.

Browsing through Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence and Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, it’s clear that Max, in addition to serving as editor extraordinaire, was literary advisor (Max to Scott: If the Cosmop would give you $30 or $40,000 for the serial, I think the only strong argument that could be advanced against taking it would be the quality of the magazine.), book club leader (Ernest to Max: There were too many bayonets in it somehow. If you are writing a book that isn’t romantic and has that as one of its greatest assets it is a shame to get awfully romantic about bayonets.), bank account (Scott to Max: I see by the memo that I have had a $3,243.00 advance... Could I have $500.00 more?), and friend (Ernest to Max: Wish you could come down... We could make a whole succession of new good old days...).

My single experience of working with a book editor was highly professional—no insider gossip or savvy career advice. Long story short: My husband and I wrote a detective novel, had it placed by our agent as the first in a new series of mysteries, worked with the series editor for six months to get it in final shape, then had it rejected by the publisher at the last minute because he wanted the first five years of the new series to feature previously published authors (which we were not). Our agent shifted his focus from book to film writers, detective novels fell out of fashion, and I went back to penning short stories. All this happened 25 years ago. I really have no idea what sort of support one can expect from the average book editor of 2010.

Where, then, does a writer like me find both encouragement for my efforts and hard-nosed critiques of my work? While developing the list of Max Perkins’s value to Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and the other authors he nurtured, I realized that I could well be listing everything I value in the members of my writers group. Well, maybe I haven’t hit them up for $500, but they have come through for me in the difficult periods in my life. Could my writers group be my Max Perkins?

Max journeyed to Key West (in his suit, tie, and jaunty cap) to fish with Ernest Hemingway. My writers group travels from New Hampshire and various Boston-area towns for potluck dinners, story critiques, and mutual commiseration. A writers group as small and long-lived as mine is a sacred trust. You know everything about each other, and that knowledge is both helpful and traumatic when you’re called upon to be brutally honest about a creative effort.

As with the members of my writers group, Max Perkins was an excellent editor and softened his criticisms with praise. In most cases, his suggestions appear to have been well-taken (Ernest to Max: We’ve eliminated Belloc, changed Hergesheimer’s name, made Henry James Henry, made Roger Prescott into Roger Prentiss, and unfitted the bulls for a reproductive function).

My writers group alerts me to useless minor characters, unintended changes in point of view, and places where getting too close to “what really happened” actually weakens the story. Their suggestions for word changes and additional illuminating sentences can be so superlative that I can’t think of any alternatives and use them verbatim. Then I’m racked with guilt and doubt. Does this mean the story is no longer my own? Even if only one suggested sentence in an entire story has been used verbatim, I can torture myself by imagining that critics in the distant future will point out that specific sentence as an (undeserved) example of my writing excellence.

When I began editing the long (60-page) short story I recently completed, I realized that I had another model of productive editing, different from both the long-distance communiqu├ęs of Max and company and the intense meetings of my writers group. During my long (now ended) tenure at Harvard University, I worked closely with a colleague on the final editing of reports and proposals. We sat side by side for days on end, reviewing documents one line at a time. One of our primary goals was to ensure that each sentence was both accurate and understandable even to someone who knew nothing about the proposed or reported project. When problems were identified, we made a highly effective team in brainstorming solutions.

I asked this colleague, Judy, if she would help me edit my story using the same method that worked so well for the dozens of reports and proposals we finalized over the years. The experience ended up being phenomenal. Due to our differing schedules and the length of the story, we weren’t able to work side by side on the entire piece as I originally had hoped, but we did have one long afternoon session that was both very productive and more fun than diligent work is supposed to be.

Judy also read through the entire story and was especially astute at identifying previously overlooked places where a reader might question the accuracy of a word or concept. Her very first comment was on the names I’d chosen for my main characters (Judy to Elizabeth: I don’t really like the names–Chloe is too out of the ordinary and her parents probably wouldn’t have come up with that 40-50 years ago. Ishmael is too distracting...). I located a website that tracks government statistics on the use of names and found that she was right. The two names were not only generally uncommon (particularly Ishmael) but were given to few, if any, babies born in the 1950’s and 60’s. Because I didn’t want others to get bogged down by questioning the names, I changed them to ones that I verified were popular during that time period.

I have never been as pleased with the final version of one of my short stories as I am with this one. I’m sure this is due in large part to my recent retirement and my ability to now work on my writing all day, every day, for weeks on end if I choose to. But I also believe that my composite Max Perkins served me well.

How do you undertake the editing process? Who do you turn to? Do publishing houses still have a Max Perkins on staff or is this role filled in a different way today?


  1. This is a great post and speaks to so much that is wrong with my world today. Not only do I need to find a writer's group, but a couple of men's books I've been reading tell me I need to cultivate more male friendships.

    Long story short, many of us mid-age writers, juggling kids, being good husbands, slogging through day jobs, and trying to find time to write (and blog), don't have much time to spend in the big wide world -- with writer's groups or men's groups, or just plain old one-on-one lunches with friends.

    Time, time, time, time, time...wonder if I will ever get my act together!

  2. David, it would have taken me forever to complete such a substantial revision of my story if I'd still been working at my day job. In addition to losing editors like Max Perkins, writers have lost the time needed to productively focus on creative work. This is due partly, I think, to the reduction in well-paying venues over the years, particularly for short fiction. If we can't get paid enough for our writing to support ourselves (and, for many of us, our families), we can't quit our day jobs.

    It's worth squeezing in time to meet with other writers or with creative friends, even if it's during a lunch hour. The frustrating thing when you're working full-time is having to hold a lunch meeting to an hour, especially if people are traveling from across town to get together. But it's very valuable.

  3. I'm not so sure the days of the Max Perkins editors have passed entirely, as I know many published authors who adore their editors and have developed both professional and personal relationships with them throughout their careers. Both author and editor exchange and execute suggestions that make the work better.

    It's the editor's role that has changed over the decades since Max and his stable of writers sat at the helm of the publishing world. These days it's up to the author to polish the manuscript to salable condition before it reaches the publishing house. If the piece is accepted, an editor there will give the author final suggestions, the author will make revisions, and then a copy editor will give the piece a final proofread before it goes to print. It's getting the publisher to give your work a serious look in the first place that's the rub--which is why the author (or a hired professional of his/her choosing) must do the bulk of the editorial work to begin with.

    As for writers' groups, I strongly believe in them, yet it's difficult to find a critique group that isn't rife with overblown egos. If you've found one whose proven, well-informed members care about your work more than they care about their own and are sincerely dedicated to helping one another become better writers, consider yourself blessed. If that's the case, MAKE THE TIME to attend every meeting. And if they've proven you can trust them to steer you in a positive direction (i.e., toward a salable piece of writing) then set your own ego aside and listen carefully to their suggestions, just as Elizabeth did with her friend Judy's assessment.

    A fine post, Elizabeth. Thanks!

  4. Elizabeth, you remind me again of what gift a good writing group can be, and what a particular kind of friendship evolves from it. It's rare to find other sympathetic writers who you trust enough to reveal the way your mind works and the emotional blocks you face at every turn.

    And it's so rare in adult life to have a safe space to fail spectacularly. I think in rare editorial relationships, with a kindred soul like Max Perkins, writers also felt that kind of safety. But it may feel even safer with peers. If we find our kindred souls, they'll let us know it's OK to fail, and that we should try again, and regardless it was worth the effort. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Paula and Martha, thanks so much for your comments.

    It's great to hear that many published authors have supportive, warmhearted relationships with their editors, although I wish that unpublished works and writers were also nurtured as in the past. I think of John Kennedy Toole, for example, and wonder if things would have been different if he had had a Max Perkins in his life. We'll never know for sure.

    In any case, Martha, you are so right that we need a safe place to fail as well as to celebrate achievement. I'm very lucky to have my writers group by my side.

  6. Hi Elizabeth
    At long last I am reading your post, and seconding David's dilemma of stuffing the whole package of work/family/money and writing, and editing, into a constructive whole; definitely a feeble work in progress in my case. But your article is great, both about the junction of friendship and writing, and about the backbone the presence of a writing group can add to that frequently subjective, wobbly process of writing. Eventually they may be replaced by adoring readers, but the fact that there is a any kind of group of writers who have faith in you, and the wayward stages of many soon-to-be-great-works, is uplifting. Writer's groups honor not only good writing, but what can be the psychologically infested process of getting words on the page. As you point out, the great editors, with their skills and their intimacy, walked the walk of Virgil and Dante: the thorny trek through the writing mind and its defense mechanisms, sans REI. It may be the closest some of us get to a religious community. Laurie Weisz


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