Is modern fiction just not up to scratch?

By Paul Moss
The World Tonight


The shortlist of titles for the Guardian First Book award has been announced. But even before deliberations reached this stage, the prize has become the source of a debate about the direction the publishing world is taking.

Book competitions have a habit of spawning rows: who should really have won, who should never have been a finalist and so on. But this year's Guardian first book award managed to set off a fierce debate, even before the shortlist had been announced, and it was all down to a tweet from one of the judges.

"I've discovered some wonderful books," wrote Claire Armitstead, "but am frustrated by the standard of editing."

She had no idea of the reaction it would provoke. Armitstead is the Guardian's literary editor, and a seasoned umpire of book prizes. But even she was taken aback to find that senior figures from across the publishing world were discussing her allegation, some none-too-happy to see the industry criticised in this forthright way.

But Armitstead stood by her suggestion that too many novels and non-fiction books have been going to print without being properly edited.

"There were an awful lot of incredibly talented and energetic writers, who were not being reined in the way you would expect," she says, "and that is the job of an editor."

"Writers set out wanting to tell their story in their way. Sometimes they don't think about what it's going to be like actually reading it. The editor's job is to point out where they're going off track… what I felt is that editors are not intervening."

Literary editors are an interesting breed. They tend either to work directly for publishing houses, or sometimes are hired in to cast a meticulous eye over an author's manuscript.

image captionLet's see what Maxwell thinks

They should, of course, spot any spelling mistakes, or glaring errors of grammar. But a good editor may also suggest major textual alterations - storylines and structures can be drastically rearranged, simply on the strength of an editor's suggestion.

Indeed, there was a time when editors were considered as literary figures in their own right. In the US, Maxwell Perkins won great acclaim for his work with F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Drafts of Ernest Hemingway's novels show annotations by Perkins, suggesting significant changes.

Meanwhile in the UK, William Golding acknowledged his classic, Lord of the Flies, would not have been the same without the contribution of his editor, Charles Monteith.

All these authors had long, sometimes lifelong, working relationships with their editors. But in the modern publishing world, that is sometimes hard to sustain.

"In recent times, literary agents move their authors around from publisher to publisher," says John Sutherland, emeritus professor of English at University College, London, "and that is to get the best deal."

Copper, coal... books

Sutherland argues that this literary merry-go-round means editors do not have time to build up a rapport with their writers, before they move on to the next publishing house.

"Editing is a long, laborious business," he warns, and with such a rapid changeover "that's not going to work".

The claims by Armitstead and Sutherland are just the latest stage of a long-running battle that has pitched literary traditionalists against the publishing industry's new breed.

Old-school commentators fear publishing houses now treat books as a commodity, a product to be bought, developed and sold like any other. It is not just the editing that is slapdash, they say, but the whole process that takes a book from conception to the bookshop shelf.

Publishers in turn point to the unprecedented number of books that now come out each year, and claim that by some measures, people in the UK are reading more books than ever. Their supposedly hard-headed business, they say, has actually prompted a cultural renaissance.

At least one current editor does not buy the suggestion that book manuscripts are failing to be scrutinised properly. Katie Espiner, a fiction editor at Harper Collins, says editing is "at the core of everything that you do. Without the books, you don't have a business".

Paragraphs and metaphors

But Espiner does confirm one criticism that is made of editors these days, that they are now responsible for far more tasks than they were before.

"You're involved with the sales department, the marketing department, the publicity department. Your job is to shout about how fantastic this book is."

And that is precisely the problem, according to Terence Blacker, who once worked in publishing himself, but is now a full-time writer. Blacker insists that his first novels owe a huge debt to the concentrated work of an editor, a woman who he says taught him some of the fundamentals of plot and character.

He worries that today's young novelists are far less likely to receive this kind of help. For a start, the editors may not have so much time, because of those other tasks they have to undertake. But Blacker believes that many simply do not care so much about the rhetorical flourishes that make a book the pleasurable read it should be.

"It's pretty impossible for an editor to work on paragraphs and metaphors," he says. "More than ever before, publishing is a market-led business.

And Blacker fears a more insidious consequence of this approach.

"Any book that is complicated, that doesn't immediately tick any sales boxes, is less likely to be taken on by a publisher. And that can be culturally damaging."

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