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Thinking Out Loud

In Praise of Great Editors

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 03, 2015


(*and all of the people who quietly work to make others better)


In Praise of EditorsThe editor's vocation, at its best, is remarkable for bringing good writers and their ideas to the reading public and for making good writers and their work better. Eudora Welty, in the preface to her The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty after appreciatively doffing her cap to her family and friends, dedicated the remainder of the preface to praising the editors and others who believed in her, encouraged her, helped her become a better writer and opened doors for her professionally.

Welty tells us how John Woodburn, an editor with the publishing house then (in the late 1930s) known as Doubleday, Doran, made a scouting trip through the American South. Tipped off by editors at The Southern Review that he ought to visit with Eudora Welty, Woodburn met the young writer. When he departed from her house, he carried with him to New York a small bundle of her stories. After reading the stories, Woodburn told Diarmuid Russell, who was starting up a new literary agency, that he should consider representing Welty. Russell did, and the relationship between Russell and Welty grew over the years as the agent sought not only to bring Welty's work to the attention of good magazines and publishing houses, but to help her find clearer direction in her fiction.

Knowing that short stories could only take the young writer so far (publishing houses were hesitant to produce collections of stories even then), in addition to making sure her stories found a home in leading national magazines, Russell took on the role of midwife to Welty's first novel. After reading the short story, "The Delta Cousins," Russell returned the story to Welty with the observation that the story could be the second chapter of a novel that she needed to write. Welty said that it was only then that she saw "where the story had come from and where it was going, and wrote my first novel, Delta Wedding. [Eudora Welty, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), ix-xi.]

Editors have taken even more active roles. Edward Aswell, Thomas Wolfe's editor, not only shepherded Wolfe as an author, but took in hand his vast rambling unpublished manuscript titled, The October Fair, from which he carefully extracted Wolfe's classic (posthumous) novel, You Can't Go Home Again. Of course, we now know much more about the role Harper Lee's editor, Tay Hohoff, played in directing Lee to radically refashion her novel, Go Set a Watchman, with its childhood flashbacks, into To Kill a Mockingbird.

One aspect of the editor's vocation deserves particular praise. Good editors discover and nurture the next generation of talented writers. This aspect of the editorial vocation should be lifted up for two reasons: first, because the very role of editors is under considerable stress these days; and, second, because it is this aspect of the editor's calling that can teach us so much about spotting and encouraging and opening doors for talented people, especially young people, in other vocations in addition to writing.

With the financial pressures that conspire against many publishing houses and magazines today, there is a very real danger that editors, such as those who mentored Eudora Welty and others of her generation, are becoming an endangered species. This is a great pity, and a great loss to those who care about good writing, both fiction and nonfiction.

Terry Muck, Lesley A. Taylor, and the late Sarah Polster, were my editors before they became trusted friends. From them I learned how to write better and for different audiences. The editorial vocation has, however, been best exemplified for me by Jon Pott, who recently retired from William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, where he had served as an editor for nearly 50 years. Jon especially exemplifies why the editor's vocation deserves to be praised. While Jon is, himself, a fine scholar who might have written his own books, instead he dedicated his creative energy and intelligence to making other peoples' work better. He was an excellent talent scout, and he possessed the great editor's gift for perceiving in a potential author the books they could contribute and how those books could be written well.

When we first met, after a long conversation about various research projects in which I was then engaged, Jon asked me to consider writing a book for Eerdmans, something along the lines of Richard Selzer's Letters to a Young Doctor, but targeted to beginning pastors. I did not immediately say yes. This was not a project I had imagined doing, and I was not sure I was qualified to write such a book. Gradually I came around to Jon's view that Letters to New Pastors was a book I could and should write. Throughout that project and the one that followed, Called to Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life, Jon's advice made the books better. That is what good editors do. But Jon also made the books imaginable in the first place. He saw these books in me. Even more important, he saw writing and research projects in hundreds of others.

Great editors are talent scouts and often selfless developers of the gifts of others. May their tribe increase behind the publishing world!

A few months ago, as a group of us worked together to find a new executive director for the Louisville Institute, one member of the committee helped us bring our search into clearer focus when he said something like this (and I am paraphrasing): The leader we are looking for is like a great editor. We aren't looking for the sort of scholar whose only goal is to produce books on a shelf with his or her own name on their spines, as important as this may be to scholarship. We are looking for the sort of person who wants to point with pride to bookcases full of other peoples' books, resources full of new and important ideas that will really make a difference. The director's name may not appear on or in any of those books, but the research and thought would not exist without his or her leadership.

We can all find ways to incorporate this aspect of the great editor's vocation into our lives. All it takes is the willingness to be on the lookout for talented people, to be willing to encourage and nurture and mentor them, and to help open doors so that their talent benefits us all for years to come.

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