Short books of strong opinions have the virtue of causing raised eyebrows instead of drooping eyelids. This is one of them, not to be mistaken for a polite disquisition on what book editors do. Author Thomas McCormack is more interested in things editors do not do--having insufficient craft or cleverness to do them.
In the course of skewering editors for sins of omission, McCormack also punctures college English teachers for missing the point in lit crit, lambastes publishers for not overseeing the editing process and pokes at novelists when they become book reviewers.
His book is also not to be mistaken as a text for fiction editing, although McCormack does lecture on--and provides notes for--what good editors could do. The prerequisite for a would-be practitioner is sensibility and "the degree to which his responses replicate those of the appropriate readership." A person who adores Margaret Atwood novels, for instance, probably has the wrong sensibility for editing Danielle Steel.
The first lesson is the same as the prescription for a doctor: "Do no harm." And the rest of the course consists of ways an intelligent editor can counsel, coach or even cajole a novelist into producing a better finished product.
McCormack alludes to what most editors do: acquire manuscripts, assist publication and hold authors' hands. They do not do much editing, meaning they rarely work with authors on manuscripts.
The audiences for McCormack's opinions are writers and readers. Refusing to agree that inspiration is everything, he explains the stages of developing a novel; he clarifies the use of technique as opposed to formula; he breaks down the functions of character; he examines confusions of theme--although disliking the word theme --and he plunges into various thickets of structural troubles: "The critical difference between instinct and craft is this: Instinct tells you that something is wrong, but it won't necessarily tell you what is wrong."
Writers will actually learn things here, before they rain another 1,200 pages on a word-deluged world. Readers will enjoy the rare chance to peek behind the scenery and see what supports the set. Somewhere south of John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" and far north of the next one-day workshop on "How to Be Published With Profit," McCormack plows a fresh field of skills, between aesthetics and commerce, that can use his brand of cultivation.
He also grows weeds, alas. If agricultural metaphor may strain, his medical and biological metaphors appear far too often in the book, including "somacluster" to define "the body-parts of the novel." McCormack has a penchant for other neologisms, as eye-irritating as "prelibation," "gustant," "salivant" and "initium." What he seems to be trying to do is avoid hackneyed terms for such difficult-to-define areas as effect, taste and appetite. His apologies for coining new terms does not make them read any more easily.
Finally, his organization is oddly uneven. The first half of "The Fiction Editor" is a primer on practice. The last half contains "notes," some of the pithiest, wittiest, self-revealing oddments of all. But many of the notes are pertinent to what went before; they ornament, even clarify, arguments made earlier. An editor would want to ask why he needed a big hinge in the center of his book. An editor probably did: In his confessional coda, McCormack admits having had two colleagues go over his manuscript. They did the work he says is rarely done. Then, like all writers, he tended to override them.
When book publishers become authors they risk all the public humiliation usually reserved for writers, from bad reviews to that ultimate insult--no reviews at all. Gone are the clouts of being omniscient, reclusive or just plain certain. McCormack, the chairman and editorial director at St. Martin's Press, enjoys various sorts of fame for his acute commercial instincts, for his love of serious literature and for his laconic personality--occasionally interrupted by wry bursts of wit and volcanic eruptions of temper. Only passion for authors and readers could have moved him out of the director's suite and into the sniper's range. His courage earns applause. His advice deserves attention. And his passion should be requited; this is worth reading and heeding.