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OUTPOST EDITING, BACKWOODS PUBLISHING / Shannon Ravenel I'VE BEEN STARING at these four words now for too long, doing so with rising panic. My initial plan, put into play over a month ago, had been to tell you about my own experiences—I've had a long string ofjobs in all sorts of publishing, both outpost and establishment. They would, I thought, provide witty, personal illustration of general trends in American publishing since the late 1950s. I set down my experiences—with some pleasure and at some length, for I found myself enjoying reminiscences of my own quite fascinating life history. I typed merrily and interrupted myself often with fond chuckles. Utterly satisfied with what I had done, I sat my husband down to listen to this and asked him to time it. He checked his watch, closed his eyes, put his head back on the sofa cushion (he said this was the best way for him to concentrate), and gave me the go-ahead signal. A long time later, but before Td finished, he stopped me. "Shannon," he said, "you krrow, you're not the Jackie Onassis of the Midwest. Tm not sure everyone wants to know how short your mini skirt was the day you were hired on at Houghton Mifflin." I asked him if he hadn't seen any universal themes arising from my personal publishing history. "No," he said. "Was I supposed to?" I hardly need to say that these reactions sent me back to the drawing board. I was there, drawing hard, for the time remaining, and I think I have reached some important conclusions. One is that my personal publishing history IS fascinating, but, in fact, is NOT American publishing of the last quarter-century in microcosm. It's personal history, and if I were a short-story writer trying to characterize myself convincingly, Td create just such a nicely idiosyncratic background. But I'm not a short-story writer. I'm an editor. And the two lines of work aren't usually successfully combined in the same individual. In my long, checkered career in books, I have taught in a number of writing workshops. There is always somebody who asks, on a slow day when the assigned reader hasn't shown up, what it is that I think makes a writer. They ask this thinking they'll get a vague, equivocating, long-winded non-answer to doze off to, but I fool them. I don't hesitate for even a second because I know exactly what it is that makes a writer—it's the compulsion to write. And a good Stanley 32 · The Missouri Review Elkin quote backs me up in this opinion. An interviewer ventured to remark, "Your books arise from an interest, and then . . ." Stanley cut her right off: "The books come from a compulsion to write . . . the compulsion arises from the talent . . . since we all like to show off, that is what the compulsion is really all about. It permits us to show off. It permits me to show off in my own individual way. If I were a singer I would be compelled—would have a compulsion—to sing. But only if I did it well . . . compulsion is really a basket term for need, a need to display oneself and preen. That's all." If writers have a compulsion to write, then what is an editor's compulsion? That's obvious. Editors have a compulsion to read. Good editors also have a compulsion to make judgments about what they read. The best editors are compelled to try to improve what they read. How do they come by the basic compulsion to read? That's where the generalizing stops and the idiosyncracies take over. In my case it was myopia. By the time I was eight, I was so nearsighted, the glasses I wore so thick, and the ditches they dug on the sides of my nose so red that my parents, at the direction of the eye experts, rationed my reading. I wasn't allowed to read in bed, or after eight o'clock at night, or for more than an hour at a time. Those rules drove...


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