Editors are the midwives of the publishing world. Authors rely on them to strengthen and promote their manuscripts; readers need them to make certain that their limited and valuable reading time is well spent; and publishers depend on their expertise to ensure that their aims are being achieved.
Books benefit from editors in more ways than we know. Developmental and line editors have been rumored to turn lead into gold and a good copy editor is a must for even the most experienced writer. The suggestions made by editors to authors are intended to make books better—and this aim can never be a bad one.
Though most editors labor in anonymity, the work they do does not go unnoticed. As the ultimate handmaidens of the publishing world, the value of editors is relative to their ability to see that the products of the writing process achieve the aims of the publisher, the needs of the reader, and the vision of the author. Even though the author is the star of publishing show, many authors would not shine as bright were it not for the dedication and hard-work of their editors.
However, in spite of the historically large and important role they have played in the publishing world, there is a growing perception that we no longer need editors. For example, many literary agents feign that they have assumed the traditional responsibilities of editors, and have thus left editors with nothing more than ceremonial duties.
Appropriately, Richard Curtis, the New York literary agent and author advocate, once asked Betty Marks, one of his agent colleagues, whether she thought editors were necessary. “Of course they are,” quipped Marks. “Who else can take agents to lunch?”
Marks’s quip provides but a taste of the general feeling today toward editors. It is one marked by a belief that the age of editors—great and otherwise—has passed, and that what remains is but a shadow of an illustrious past. The editor, namely, the bearer of a particular set of qualities, is slowly disappearing. And this, if anything, is the more charitable description.
The less charitable one is that just like the author, who died many times and in many different ways over the course of twentieth-century theory, the editor too is dead—and also in many different ways.
For my own part, I still believe in the death of the author, which I primarily see as a consequence of the birth of the text, and the significance of the editor, which I experience every day in my own professional practice.
Nevertheless, editors strike me as having fallen by the same sword that killed the author (though I do not know of anyone that has advanced this position).
Regarding discussions of the death of the author, no one is claiming that books just write themselves—and that people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe never existed.
Rather, what is generally being asserted is the notion that it does not really mean a whole lot to say that the “author” is responsible for the book, particularly from a critical point of view. As such, the author is not important to textual criticism and aesthetics; instead, what is important is the text.
On the one hand, a classical concept of text allows us to conceive of text as an autonomous object capable of being evaluated in terms of its formal unity, and as integrating various historical, literary, and sociological influences and sources into a new unity.
On the other hand, a contemporary concept of text pushes us to reveal the codes that integrate the text into a whole of signification, and suggests that we view text as a function of linguistic and ideological discourse.
Both directions provide pathways for criticism and aesthetics without what Roland Barthes called the “modern figure” of the “author” produced in the context of the “prestige of the individual.”
What then of the “editor”? Is the fate of the editor the same as the fate of the author? Particularly, in light of twentieth-century critical theory—and twenty-first century corporate publishing practice?