What Is an Editor?

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Unlike his counterpart in journalism, the literary editor is an anonymous figure. To the average reader he is seen only in his occasional role of anthologist, and when his name appears it seldom evokes recognition unless it graces a well-known series or a major collection. To the aspiring author he is an unknown antagonist who rewards genius with rejection slips, and to the more successful writer he can be the most unrelenting and heartless of taskmasters. None of these impressions is entirely accurate, and each deals with only one aspect of a highly complex and demanding profession.

It is in the very nature of his work that the editor’s anonymity lies, and this is to be regretted because he plays a vital part in all currently published literature. He is the essential link between writer and reader, and without his influence any communication between the two would be inadequate at best.

Saxe Commins was one of the great literary editors of our century, and many authors of stature have considered him by all odds the greatest; but his name appears in none of the standard literary reference works and he remains virtually unknown outside the publishing industry. In What Is an Editor? his widow, Dorothy Commins, has remedied this oversight. She traces his career and provides many insights into the editorial process and the various demands it makes upon all of its participants. Of particular interest is her exploration of the complex relationships that exist between editor and author, and of the labor that results in a finished book. It has often been said that the writer, in producing a major work, goes through a struggle akin to that of childbirth. If this be a valid simile, it can also be said that the editor must act as midwife. But, as we soon learn from What Is an Editor?, he is called upon to play many other roles as well: nurse, counselor, disciplinarian, collaborator, mentor, scholar, muse, and above all, friend. The task is one for a remarkable human being, and such a person was Saxe Commins. His portrait, as it emerges, reveals a warm and sensitive man whose overriding concern was always that any published work should fully express its author’s intent and at the same time embody the best effort of everyone involved in its production.

Commins worked with many of the great writers of his time, and he possessed a remarkable talent for acting as catalyst in the creative process. He understood their needs and frustrations and the sense of inadequacy that frequently overcame them, and in a majority of cases he established enduring friendships that were beneficial to all concerned.

Commins had begun his own literary career as a writer, and much of his early effort could be characterized as hackwork; he served as ghost writer more than once. However, the ghost writing sharpened his instinctive ability to identify with the other person and to divine that person’s thoughts and natural mode of expression; it was a talent that served him well when he turned to editing. He knew what the writer wanted to say, and he knew the writer. Between them, they evolved the final draft. Such work sessions often consumed weeks or even months.

The average person assumes that the book he is reading is precisely as it emerged from the author’s pen or typewriter, and that it has been merely proofread and set in type. This is rarely true. The creation of any major work is a long, demanding ordeal; and many writers, when they have fought their way through such a project, are not at all sure that it represents their best work or even that it is what they really wanted it to be. Their final draft is not a final version. At this point it is necessary for editor and author to go over the entire manuscript together and polish it to the satisfaction of both. This essential labor is covered thoroughly in What Is an Editor? and it forms a most absorbing study.

Fortunately, Saxe Commins kept extensive notes; he also retained his editorial reports and his correspondence. Dorothy Commins has quoted liberally from these papers, and a major portion...

(The entire section is 1679 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Best Sellers. XXXVIII, August, 1978, p. 158.

New York Times Book Review. July 23, 1978, p. 7.

Saturday Review. V, August, 1978, p. 57.

Sewanee Review. LXXXVI, October, 1978, p. 572.

Village Voice. XXIII, June 5, 1978, p. 67.