Back when people actually had valets, it was a truism that nobody could be a hero to his own. From that it must follow that no spiritual writer is holy in his editor’s eyes. Certainly, that’s the first impression I got from reading Orbis Books publisher Robert Ellsberg’s essay on editing Henri Nouwen. To Ellsberg fell the task of facing the original wounded healer when he was at his sorest:
Despite Henri’s reservations, I accepted the job at Orbis. Our program at that time was almost exclusively focused on Third World theology, and it seemed unlikely that we would work together. Nevertheless, an opportunity did arise when he agreed to write the accompanying text for a series of Stations of the Cross. Each drawing depicted a scene from the Third World, suggesting the ongoing passion of Christ in the poor. We called it “Walk with Jesus.”
For Orbis, this was a considerable coup. Henri, after all, was by now the bestselling writer in the field of spirituality. Still, the project nearly foundered before it began. As I was drawing up a contract I had to broach a delicate topic. I presumed that Henri, who worked with many large publishers, was accustomed to generous advances. Orbis was not in that league. But he was quite reassuring on this point. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Advances don’t really matter to me. You make the same amount over time through royalties.”
Taking him at his word, I provided for our usual, minimal advance. This elicited a rather frosty reply. “I must say,” he wrote, “this is the smallest advance I have ever received. If an advance reflects a publisher’s commitment to a book, I have to conclude that Orbis is not terribly committed to my work.”
I’m glad to see Ellsberg write so frankly — not because I’ve gained any new insights on Nouwen from having seen him act the diva, but because I believe editors deserve the chance to vent. Tetchy almost by definition, beset by daunting cash-flow problems, writers are not the easiest people in the world to deal with. Neither, for that matter, are readers. With a maddening frequency, their feedback boils down to: “Why are you people publishing YOUR opinions instead of MY opinions, huh?” Whether bill collectors or U.N. peacekeepers, middlemen are made to suffer.
I understand publishers’ associations do award editors the equivalents of Purple Hearts and Croix de Guerres, but far too few to acknowledge every valiant professor of the art. The average person will have no sense of an editor’s contribution to the creative process unless he reads his favorite author’s “acknowledgements” section. Which, of course, he won’t.
Since I started writing for publication, a little over two years ago, I’ve worked on a consistent basis with two editors. Reading Ellsberg’s essay forced me to reflect on just how much I owe them both. The first deserves a medal simply for slogging his way through my unsolicited contribution, a 3,300 word essay on how my obsessive fear of aging had led to an obsessive interest in the incorrupt bodies of saints. Rather than toss the thing halfway through, he wrote back asking if I would cut it by 75%. Perhaps to his surprise, I did. It was my first published piece.
A few months later, after I’d built up something of a track record with his magazine, I submitted an opinion piece on the Bishops’ Conference’s decision to introduce supercessionist language into the Catechism. The ADL had protested, and I felt a tribal obligation to toss my own kipah into the ring. Unfortunately, having spent the summer reading Frank Rich and some of National Catholic Reporter’s more irascible columnists, I wrote my piece as I imagined one of them might write it. Since I was less keyed-in to the protocols of polemics than any of my models, the piece came out shrill, spiteful, and frankly, unintelligent.
The editor called me — something he hadn’t done since he’d accepted my first submission — and explained to me why the piece, in its present form, was completely unpublishable. He was gentle — so gentle, in fact, that it was some time before I came to understand just how inappropriate the thing really was. I understood enough, though, to realize he’d done me a favor. Ellsberg quotes Dorothy Day as telling him, “Your job.. is to make sure I don’t sound like a fool.” My editor had discharged that part of his professional responsibility in spades; on that one subject, my foolishness remained our secret.
So much for him. With my current editor, Elizabeth Scalia, the consultative approach turns downright pastoral. At a certain point after I’d begun writing for Patheos, I felt terribly discouraged. Either my work had attracted some negative responses, or worse, no response at all. I wrote her of my disappointment and suggested it might be better for all concerned — me, her and Patheos — if I were simply to quit.
It was a ridiculous letter. If words could flounce or stamp their feet or fling themselves tearfully on divans, mine would have done all three. Re-reading it through what I imagine to be Elizabeth’s eyes, I estimate that she had three choices. She could have:
1) Taken the sympathetic, arm-around-the-shoulder approach that Leo Durocher took with the rookie Willie Mays;
2) Lectured me sharply, in the manner of Hattie McDaniel reminding Vivian Leigh about the realities of baby weight;
3) Rebuked me violently, as General George Smith Patton, Jr. was known to do with combat stress casualties.
In her response, Elizabeth managed to combine all three approaches — inviting comparison to Spencer Tracy’s handling of Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous. The difference was that the movie ran for two hours, and Elizabeth’s e-mail for maybe 300 words. (Also, she didn’t play the hurdy-gurdy, or die at the end.) But the combination was just as credible and just as winning; without further protest, I pulled up my socks and resumed writing.
At one point, Nouwen told Ellsberg he doubted Ellsberg possessed the “human qualities” to be an effective editor. To Ellsberg, the criticism sounded cruel, but gradually, he came to agree that the exercise of human qualities makes up a large share of an editor’s job. Any writer could have told him as much. The expression “people skils,” which implies something laboriously acquired, like Oxonian pronunciation, doesn’t begin to do justice to the natural menschiness that flows from the best editors. All we writers have to do is make ourselves appear plausibly human for a set number of words and a generalized readership. To answer their calling properly, editors have to be human for real.