On editors

A Reading Note

In which a good writer meets a poor editor:

Even the most inexperienced writers of fiction know that if they are to be published at all, their manuscript must pass through the hands of professionals known as “editors,” employed by publishing companies to read the books under consideration and recommend changes they think appropriate. (This paragraph you are now reading will not be the paragraph I originally wrote, since it will have to undergo the inquisition of an editor; in fact, when an earlier version of this essay was published in Saturday Night magazine, this sentence was cutout completely.)

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 208

Inquisition, indeed.

Some might say that the patron saint of editors should be the Greek robber Procrustes, who placed his visitors on an iron bed and stretched them or cut off the overhanging parts until they fitted exactly to his liking.

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 209


The editor must be a sort of platonic idea of a reader; he must embody “readerness”; he must be a Reader with a capital R.

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 210

Begging the question, of course, as to whether such a Reader could ever exist.

Without editors we are likely to have rambling, incoherent, repetitive, even offensive texts, full of characters whose eyes are green one day and black the next (like Madame Bovary); full of historical errors, like stout Cortez discovering the Pacific (as in Keat’s sonnet); full of badly strung-together episodes (as in Don Quixote); with a badly cobbled-together ending (as in Hamlet) or beginning (as in The Old Curiosity Shop). But with editors—with the constant and now unavoidable presence of editors without whose nihil obstat hardly a book can get published—we may perhaps be missing something fabulously new, something as incandescent as a phoenix and unique, something impossible to describe because it has not been born but which, if it were, would admit no secret sharers in its creation.

Manguel, A Reader on Reading, page 213

To this point, and in defense of editors everywhere, I will add only this: that perhaps the most important skill for an editor to master is recognizing when you’re not needed. In addition to being an editor, I am also a cook; but I know damn well that a perfect summer strawberry need no further preparation than to be cut from the vine.

Related books

A Reader on Reading

Alberto Manguel

A series of essays from the author of A History of Reading that explores the reader’s perspective.