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Monday, 25 June 2012

Why writers are witches

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about subjective responses to books. As an editor, your role is to be as objective as possible. Often that’s easy. If a manuscript is in early draft stage, there are likely to be issues that are common to many novels, problems that can be measured against techniques and concepts that allow you to say, pretty much categorically, yes this is working or no, it’s not.

Contrary to what an author I spoke to recently thought, these aren’t arbitrary rules set down by people in publishing to make the author’s job harder; to make the already impenetrable-seeming walls of the industry even thicker. Rather, they’re techniques based on centuries of literary theory and reader responses. If you write in this way, then a reader will feel this, when what you ideally want them to be feeling is this. In many respects, it’s common sense.

But what happens when, as an editor, you find that you disagree – and with other editors, with people whose opinions you respect and admire? I’ve just read a book that received rave reviews in the trade and, even accounting for the percentage that are bound to be marketing spiel, there are a lot of readers out there who genuinely think that this is a really good book. Not only is it being bought, it’s being nominated for prizes.

You can see where I’m going with this (and before I’m accused of contrariness, I had no idea about the rave reviews until after I’d read it and told my colleague what I thought). I found the main character passive, the structure uncontrolled, with frequent backtracking and reflection often resulting in scenes that lacked dramatic punch – that weren’t, in fact, scenes at all. And, for a book that’s set up as a psychological thriller, there was a hole where the tension should have been: no sense of mystery, and no ongoing threat for the main character, nothing really at stake. Despite what the jacket said, my heartbeat stayed resolutely slow.

Does that mean I’m off the mark, that my editorial instincts are flawed? Statistically, it’s got to be more likely than that the several thousand people who disagree with me are all barking up the wrong bookshelf. There are a lot more of them then there are of me.

But hang on, we’re not talking about a first draft book here. This is something that’s been through a rigorous editing process and, indeed, that’s finely-crafted in terms of its prose. There’s nothing wrong with the description and the writing in places is rather beautiful. And even though I wasn’t convinced by some of the structural choices, I kept reading. So the author’s obviously doing something right.

Books have a magic that goes beyond questions of their art and craft, and that’s the ability to speak to different readers in different ways. And there are always going to be times when books that aren’t technically perfect capture readers’ imaginations.  Maybe it’s something to do with a mood, or an atmosphere, something in the ether that somehow the book taps into. Maybe the author has dealt with a subject that’s close to many readers’ hearts in an unusual, disarming way. Maybe readers are responding to a new world with wonder and curiosity. Who knows? If only it were possible to predict when this was going to happen, we’d all be squillionaires.

Editorially, your job is to make sure that all the technical aspects of a book are as strong as they can be, and I firmly believe that this is a worthwhile, crucial part of the process. That essential spell is so much more likely to work its magic if there aren’t queries distracting a reader – and you do find that these issues of editorial disagreement occur much more frequently with books that are further down the line, editorially; where there is less room for objective criticism.

All you can do as an editor is keep an open mind alongside your critical one. Aim to make the book as objectively good as it can be, but don’t forget that you’re tinkering with a kind of witchcraft. And the secret ingredient isn’t always going to be something you can circle with a red pen.