Sunday, February 15, 2009

Saint Updike

In the "Talk of the Town" section of this week's New Yorker, Roger Angell remembers John Updike, the staff writer. It's one of two snooze-worthy pieces on Updike. 

In Angell's piece, we learn that Updike was "an editor's dream" because he was so involved in his own product. I quote:

"My end of the work was to point out an occasional inconsistent or extraneous sentence, or a passage that wanted something more. Almost under his breath over our phone connection, while we looked at the same lines, he would try out an alternative: 'Which one sounds better, do you think?' Sighing, he would take us back over the same few words again and again, then propose or listen to a switch of some sort, and try again. All writers do this, but not many with such lavishly extended consideration."

All writers do this? They do? On the phone? I've been a magazine writer for fifteen years, and I've never had an editor call me to ask about changes he was proposing to make in a sentence, or who would let me loiter on the phone for long minutes while I tried out this phrase and that in order to improve a passage that "wanted something more." Who is this guy kidding? And this is supposed to be evidence of what? Professionalism? Or narcissism run amok in both of them? But he goes on about Updike's involvement in the process:

"He wanted to see each galley, each tiny change, right down the the late-closing page proofs, which he often managed to return by overnight mail an hour or so before closing, with new sentences or passages, handwritten in the margins in a soft pencil, that were fresher and more inventive and revealing than what had been there before." 

Lordy, what a nightmare. Look. I've worked as a magazine editor. I married a magazine editor. What any real editor will tell you is that the writing should be done before the page proofs. An editor should rather expect that such a great genius of literature could manage to stumble on inventive and revealing prose in an earlier draft, especially if he's allowed to call his editor and spend hours tying up the phone line while parsing out alternative dependent clauses and questioning every proposed change in order to make his book reviews a tad more vibrant. At any other magazine, this would never fly.

I am reminded of a talk given by Charles Baxter at a recent Muse conference at which he recounted the publication of one of his short stories in the New Yorker. His enduring memory is of the conversation he had with a fiction editor there, quite possibly Angell, in which the editor demanded he remove a sentence from the story, an important sentence in which the narrator notes that the main character can't call a neighbor late at night because he knows that the guy drinks at night and won't be coherent. The editor's statement was "nobody knows that about a neighbor." Baxter said something on the order of: well, in a small town in the midwest, it's the kind of thing everybody knows about everybody else. (Having lived in a small town in the midwest, I say he's right. It's the kind of thing that you can't help but know.) The editor's response was that they wouldn't publish the story unless the line came out.

How interesting now to see that a pet writer, who essentially spent 40 years writing the same short story over and over again, was encouraged to soak up as many of the magazine's resources as he could, while other writers of equal professionalism were told to take bad edits (or else) and in fact to eat them and smile. It's a revealing little story, but it doesn't reveal Updike as much as the entitlement in which he flourished.

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