A 1994 interview with Robert Gottlieb, former editor in chief of Knopf; Simon & Schuster; and The New Yorker, is so much more thanks to the creativity (and connections) of Larissa MacFarquhar – a window into the golden age of publishing, a side-to-side view of the writing and reading experience, and a portrait of the editor as a mind at work.
When I finally completed my second novel, “Something Happened”, The New York Times interviewed me about having finished the book, and I talked to them about Bob’s value to me as an editor. The day the interview ran, Bob called me and said he didn’t think it was a good idea to talk about editing and the contributions of editors, since the public likes to think everything in the book comes right from the author. That’s true, and so from that time on, I haven’t.
Of course, if anybody says nice things about me in print it’s pleasant. But 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.
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