Because I don’t write fiction, I tend not to read much about craft. Francine Prose‘s fine 2006 book on the subject, Reading Like a Writer, is one exception, as are the three fascinating collections of Paris Review interviews. More recently, I’ve surprised myself at how much I’ve enjoyed flipping through The Writer’s Notebook, a collection of essays based on seminars given at the annual Tin House Summer Writing Workshop from Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Dorothy Allison, Jim Shepard, and others. One of the first pieces I gravitated toward was Susan Bell‘s essay on the revisions of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby, which quickly but thoughtfully addresses the rigors involved in rethinking one’s writing—as well as the close, delicate relationship between a writer and editor while making fixes.
Fitzgerald’s editor was Maxwell Perkins, a consummate diplomat. As Bell writes, shortly after Perkins received the manuscript of the novel, “the editor diagnosed its kinks, the wrote a letter of lavish praise and unabashed criticism.” After writing that the book and Fitzgerald’s talents are “most extraordinary,” Perkins brings the bad news, which is pretty serious:
Gatsby is somewhat vague. The Reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.
That Fitzgerald took this critique of one of the story’s main support beams with such appreciation speaks to his confidence in the story. As he wrote back to Perkins, the “vagueness I can repair by making more pointed—this doesn’t sound good but wait and see. It’ll make him clear.” As Bell explains, Fitzgerald didn’t need much prodding and querying; Perkins, she writes, “didn’t mark up Fitzgerald’s text word for word, didn’t roll up his shirtsleeves, dig in, and reposition the prose.”
The downside of being an editor with a strong eye for structure, apparently, was a certain ineptitude at catching factual errors. As the late Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli explains, Perkins could exasperate his colleagues. Charles Scribner Jr., for his part, seemed barely tolerant: “Perkins was totally useless when it came to copy editing or correcting a text,” he wrote. “Such details meant very little to him. Consequently, the early editions of books such as Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were textually corrupt to a nauseating degree.”
For instance, numerous small corrections, neglected by Perkins, were requested for the text by others: Fitzgerald’s friend Ring Lardner noticed a handful of errors that were flagged too late to be integrated into the first edition. At issue was stuff like what train left from what station. But it was a time when reviews sold books and reviewers could be fussy. As Lardner wrote, “these things are trivial, but some of the critics pick on trivial errors for lack of anything else to pick on.”