My Book World
As distinguished editor and later editor-in-chief and vice president for the famed Scribner’s and Sons, Maxwell E. Perkins was probably more of a priest than five out of ten clergy. Though a skeptical secularist, he was nonetheless a great humanitarian with regard to writers and his writers in particular. Unlike today, when writers can only access editors of the big publishing houses by way of an agent (transoms nailed shut for some time now), he would sit down with the majority of people who just showed up at the Scribner offices with manuscript in hand. He would read the MS right away and almost as fast, if he accepted it, would outline what the writer needed to do to shape the story into a workable novel. Author Berg cites writer after writer—from Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe to others not as successful—who claim that without Perkins his or her book would not have been possible; indeed, entire careers would not have been possible. Smart people who knew their material would see what he was after right away and get the corrections (sometimes months later) back to him, and he would reward them both with his genuine affection and with more material concerns. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in particular, did not manage his money well. He and his wife lived lavishly when they had money and Scott would show up at Perkins’s door when they didn’t. Max would lend Scott money from Scribner’s. He would even provide loans from his personal funds. He was quite professorial in that he would take home a brief case full of MSS on the weekend and not only read them all but write perhaps a thirty-page letter to the author about what needed to be done. Essentially, though this book develops the family and friends of Max Perkins, it is mostly about the writers whom he edited. They became what we would call today extended family members: uncles to his children, he a father to his young writers like Tom Wolfe, brother-in-arms with hosts of writers, including females whom he championed in a manner that other editors did not (although he was also accused of being a misogynist). Though the book is certainly not a how-to, the reader might be able to pick up any number tips from Perkins’s brand of editing:
—Perkins takes fourteen of Hemingway’s stories and arranges them “to space the strongest pieces at the beginning, middle, and end, varying the rest of the contents by alternating stories of different qualities back to back” (109).
—Perkins, for Tom Wolfe, writes out a twelve-point prescription for revisions, suggestions such as, “Cut out references to previous books and to success,” “Intersperse jealousy and madness scenes with more scenes of dialogue with woman,” or “Fill in memory of childhood scenes much more fully with additional stories and dialogue” (237).
—About developing plot, Perkins says, “A deft man may toss his hat across the office and hang it on a hook if he just naturally does it, but he will always miss if he does it consciously. That is a ridiculous and extreme analogy, but there is something in it” (447).
Though this book came out in 1978 it still seems fresh, mostly because its subject’s life continues to shine as sort of beacon for all writers.