Tom Engelhardt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Taking Back the Word: Conversation with Tom Engelhardt, Editor and Writer, April 23, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Being an Editor

So these are the circumstances which brought you to the publishing world?

Actually, not quite. Even before that, I was in a roiling mass of China scholars, Asian scholar activists, who were all starting to write, and they started handing me their stuff. I didn't even know what an editor was. They clearly sensed something in me that I didn't know was there. I started editing the stuff, and the next thing I knew they started getting published. That's how I became an editor.

That's very good.

I know. It was really happenstance. It was the happenstance of the sixties.

Let's talk a little about the work of editing. How would you characterize the work of an editor? What are the prerequisites? What do you have to be able to do to do it well? What are the skills required? What sort of a temperament does it take? A lot of questions.

It depends on what kind of editing. One of the things I believe about editing, and it's going to sound strange, is that editing is all about property rights. That is, how you edit depends on who conceptually owns the space within which words appear. For magazines and newspapers, a corporation owns the space within which words appear. So you can have a set of rules, and I could tell you for a newspaper, "These are the rules; this is how I do it," because they own it; the writer doesn't own it. So you can say, "Cut this in half." We've all gone through this writing pieces, you know, "it's too long." Conceptually, for books, the space between the covers is owned by the writer. It's less and less true in publishing, but at least conceptually it's true. What that means is, as an editor there are no rules, because you're editing for that one person.

I'm a very unspiritual person, basically, but the one spiritual thought I have is that, first of all, counter-intuitively, the best editing can be done on the best writing. People usually think editors take terrible stuff and make it good. You cannot. You can only make something better.

The very first editing job I had was in a textbook house. They took us into a room -- here's my image for it anyway -- there would be a dead body on the table. There would be a group of us; I would rewrite it, and somebody would rewrite what I was doing to hit the correct grade level. They would say to us, "Make it look like it can get up and walk away." And you can do that; but it would never actually walk. The best editing is done on the most beautiful writing.

When somebody is a good writer, no matter how they've gotten tangled up in words, they always lay down a path for the editor. The editor's job is to find the path the writer lays down, to set foot on it, and then you just start walking, with a machete. At some level, once you've solved certain basic problems, found out where that path is and what needs to be done, it's very simple. That's the feeling I have when I edit.

So it's like clearing the brush, but along a path that somebody else has defined, even though they may not know it.

They may not know. What you're trying to do is to help somebody. This is what makes editing completely different from criticism. You're trying to help somebody in an ongoing situation do what they would have done if they hadn't gotten tangled up over here. With writers, I'll often disagree with them and we'll have an argument, but I would distinguish between that and editing. We might have a political argument about something, but my basic job, however close I may be to an author, is to leave my own thoughts and enter the skin of someone else. It's very much like a therapist, in a way, except I'm not entering a human skin or a human brain, I'm entering a skin of words on a page. I try to untangle things for that person the way they would have done themselves.

The truth is, I can be quite a brutal editor. I had a Japanese-American author who wrote me a thank-you. He had been in World War II -- I won't tell you the whole story, but he wrote and said, "The manuscript looked like Okinawa after the battle, but I do want to thank you." So I can be quite brutal, in a sense. But if you're doing for that person what they really wanted to have done, they always know it. No one is ever angry at you. They always feel that you've done it for them. You haven't imposed yourself on them. I don't know if that makes sense.

It makes perfect sense. Do authors tend to make similar kinds of mistakes, or is each path so unique that your experience and what you do is different for each one?

There is a wonderful thing about manuscripts that makes my job an ever-green or ever-renewing thing. Every manuscript is different. That's the thing about books; it's not with magazines or newspapers, because you're in a pattern. I've edited for thirty-odd years, you run across the same small and large mistakes many times over. But I always feel I'm in a new situation; it's the thrill of it.

This sounds much more like a craft than it would be if you were in an industrial setting like a magazine or a newspapers.

It's more like a craft, that's right, because there isn't as much of a preset pattern for it. There's a word I often think about because it's such a negative in our society, which is "used." You say a "used" car -- something previously owned and not particularly good, or "I've been used, I've been exploited." But the most beautiful feeling about editing for an editor is that feeling of being used and subsumed. If an author deals with my stuff the way I love, when I get a manuscript back I don't know that I've been there. I'll offer many, many suggestions, and I'll feel completely free because the author (theoretically, and usually the authors I work with do) will take that manuscript to another level, and whatever I've done will be subsumed. I won't be able to go through it and say, "Oh gosh, I remember doing that and that and that." I'll be gone, in a way. And that's quite beautiful, to disappear into someone else's book. It's like taking a deep dive into something very strange. It's quite wonderful.

You have a book which is a novel, called The Last Days of Publishing, book coverand in it, the main character, which may or may not be you, offers some interesting tidbits about editing and says at one point the following:

"To edit means to draw close, but here's the perverse twist: It also means to be alone, for every obstacle removed brings you closer to manuscript's end. To be a good editor, you have to know when to leap from a manuscript and so from another's life. To do your job, to be subsumed, sooner or later book and author must make their way as if you never existed."

Yes. The wonderful thing about writing this novel was I was able to create an editor. The truth is, publishing has been very little written about, and that was interesting in itself. But I was able to create an editor, kind of an alter ego, though a very different editor from me. He edits in a completely different way, and I was able to share certain thoughts with this almost-living being. For me, he came to life. He was my opposite, in the sense that I'm a very interventionary editor. I'll leap in with my good scrawling hand and both feet, and if you want, I'll edit your life too. I may not do it very well, but I'll try. My character, Rick Koppes, is a listener. He elicits things from people, and he's not interventionary at all. I know editors like this. He's almost at the other end of the spectrum from me, although he's quite effective with the people he works with. But it was great fun sharing certain thoughts with him. And it is true that both of us have had that experience of being subsumed and then, except maybe in an acknowledgements page, you're gone, you jump ship.

One of the things for me is that I deeply believe -- I always have, and this is something disappearing in publishing -- that the book is the author's. I give the author my suggestions, and I'll make a Xerox of my editing, in case the author has questions. My handwriting sometimes is hard to read, so often an author will call and we'll talk over a page, but never, when the new version of the draft comes back, I never look back to see, well, did they do what I wanted them to do? I will literally never look back. I'll start again, and I may say some of the same things, because it just comes up. In the end, though, I believe an author makes his or her decisions and then they leave. And maybe when they're all done, they leave you too. That is, they've done a book with you, and they go somewhere else. I believe authors should be able to do anything they damn well please.

Why did you write a novel, as opposed to nonfiction, about the world of publishing? In the book, this editor is placed in a particular time in the history of publishing.

I'm not sure I can completely answer that. I did it because I did it. It's a little like climbing Everest or something. I started writing at a moment when I felt I was losing faith in the word and the book, something that's been renewed for various reasons now, but I had the feeling ... it's an odd reaction to decide you're going to write a book because you're losing faith in the book. I was sending books out into the world, and it's a world in which, as I like to say, the culture wallpaper is now screaming. Books are such utterly modest objects, and there's an incredible effort to make them into immodest things, because everything else out there is yelling and screaming at the top of its lungs.

At the same time, book companies have all been subsumed not in such a pleasant way in giant corporations, and are sitting somewhere in the sub-basements of those giant entities, Viacom or Time Warner, or whomever. I felt that I had lived through a cultural moment, one that since very little is ever written about publishing, largely hasn't been memorialized. I had the urge to memorialize it. Maybe I just had always wanted to write a novel, but it seemed the right way to try to catch a world that I had experienced, that I had lived through. I had lived through that period. I had been there while the cannibals sat at the table and gobbled down publishing, more or less. I had been serving at the table, and I watched it happen.

Your character comes from the craftsman's [perspective] in the craft of writing, where the odd, unique book gets married to an editor and then is produced. [But this world] is being destroyed by commercialism -- the mergers, the big deals, Pantheon editor -- still with my California plants (shipped east) a year after arrival in my office (1977)  photo by Kathleen Mecomberthe packaging of not only the book, but the packaging of the [publishing process itself].

Incredible pressures now come down on editors. One of the things I can say, and it's been a great luxury of my publishing life, is that if you took all the books I've done over thirty years, with one or two exceptions, and put them on a bookshelf, at some level they would have an affinity for each other. It's John Dower's Embracing Defeat, and Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, and [Art Spiegelman's] Maus, and Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire -- they all represent what I originally came into publishing to do, which was to bring voices from elsewhere, even when the elsewhere was here, closer to the mainstream -- challenging, iconoclastic voices. I feel there's a coherence to my own publishing life that no editor in the mainstream can have any more, it's just not possible.

When I first came into publishing I came into a big corporation. I was in a little house, Pantheon Books, in a big corporation. The eating had already started, and I was part of the RCA "family" on arrival -- RCA then owned Random House which owned Pantheon -- but it still felt a bit like a cottage industry. I can remember the first time we had a deep, ethical discussion about "Did you put a quote on the front of a book?" We had a great quote from Lewis Thomas to go onto an obscure book, but the question was, was it too tacky to do? I myself would paste anything on anything these days. Now, you just need these endless arrows pointing, because there's so much happening out there. It's so noisy out there.

Is most of what you edited nonfiction?

Most was nonfiction. I edited fiction only when a nonfiction author -- say, John Berger, whom I edited for years -- did a book of fiction. Actually, I did a little bit of fiction. Ariel Dorfman, I did a novel of his; I did a Todd Gitlin novel. But I'm not as comfortable or as sure of myself editing fiction. I wouldn't call myself a perfect fiction editor. Actually, where I mostly edit fiction is for friends. I did a lot of fiction for friends; I feel comfortable doing that.

You said the books that you edited had an affinity. Let's explore that a little more. Did they have an affinity in subject matter, or rather in the radical perspective that you take? Were they "askew," like you described yourself earlier?

They all had that quality. I've done this over many years, so they weren't all political. I'm in quite a political world now, a much more specifically political publishing world, or a set of publishing projects, but they weren't all that way. But they all had a quality of looking at the world from an unexpected, sometimes an almost unacceptable, or an unknown angle; reframing things, you might say. They all reframe the world in some fashion ... most of them, anyway.

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