“Needs a good editor…”

Books are often accused these days of being “over-written”, but rarely, if ever, “under-written”. Brevity and concision, even to the point of sparseness, seem to be valued for their own sake, and, if my forays around the net are anything to go by, “could have done with an editor” is a frequent criticism – as if the author’s task were merely to say as quickly and as tersely as possible whatever it is they have to say before vanishing discreetly from the scene. Enjoying words, luxuriating in language, expanding to take in vast vistas, seem often to be looked down upon.

This criticism – “could have done with a good editor” – is frequently made of books where expansion is the very point. One could, no doubt, edit Moby-Dick down to the point where it becomes a thrilling adventure yarn and nothing more; or cut Bleak House down such that it becomes merely an intriguing Victorian mystery. But those of us who love these books even to the point where they become central to our understanding of the world may well feel that such projected operations would reduce these massive novels merely to what is incidental in them, while discarding that which is essential. For the artistic purpose of certain works requires expansion.

When Mahler and Sibelius – arguably the two greatest symphonists of their generation, unless anyone out there wants to make a case for Elgar – met, Sibelius argued in favour of tightness of structure, of concision, of formal logic; while Mahler declared that the symphony should encompass everything: it should indeed, he argued, be like the universe itself.

These two very different composers remained true to their respective ideals: the symphonies of Sibelius became increasingly concise, and his output culminated in the single movement 7th symphony, and in the symphonic poem Tapiola (the latter built upon one single theme), each about only twenty or so minutes long, and yet in its extreme concentration packing the kind of punch one might expect from works many times that length. (Some would argue that in the 30 or so years that followed Tapiola, Sibelius took the concept of concision to its ultimate and logical end by producing absolutely nothing.) Mahler, on the other hand, continued to compose symphonies that attempted to encompass “the entire universe”. And for many admirers, he succeeded in doing just that.

These Sibelian and Mahlerian extremes of the spectrum have their counterparts in literature also, I think – particularly when it comes to the novel. There are certain novels – Moby-Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov – that attempt, with a Mahlerian megalomania, to encompass the entire universe; and there are others – Emma, Madame Bovary, The Portrait of a Lady – that focus more intently on a more limited scope, and aim for a perfection of form that the Mahlerian attempt to encompass everything must, perhaps necessarily, forgo.

None of his means, of course, that there isn’t dead wood in Moby-Dick, or in Bleak House. Or in War and Peace, or in The Brothers Karamazov, or in Ulysses. Or in Mahler’s symphonies. Or even, for that matter, in King Lear. But it is, perhaps, the very nature of the beast that works such as these –works that attempt to encompass the entire universe – should contain dead wood. Ishmael, Melville’s alter-ego in Moby-Dick, says at one point that he tries all things, and achieves what he can. And, yes, it can be argued that he tries far more than he achieves, that most of his trials end up as failures. But even the failed attempts are important: even these depict the author’s heroic endeavours to approach the unapproachable. A novel such as Moby-Dick is, and has to be, a record of those failed trials as well as of those that succeeded. We are placed in the laboratory of the author’s mind, and, unless one is looking merely for an adventure yarn, we must accept the flaws, for they are integral pieces of the whole. In works such as these, removal of flaws, instead of enhancing, paradoxically diminishes the whole.

Of course, if one personally prefers the Sibelian ideal of concision and perfection of form, then that is fine: there are sufficient masterpieces at that end of the spectrum to keep one busy for an entire lifetime. But, speaking for myself, while I can and do admire many works of that type, it is those massive, over-reaching works that are closer to my heart. Flawed, yes, no doubt: but even the flaws I find I value, as the whole would become shrunken without them.

20 responses to this post.

  1. I was just this morning reading about the death of John Christopher (Samuel Youd) who wrote a trilogy of science fiction books that I loved as a child (and that you’d probably dislike). In the obit (Guardian) there’s a mention of an editor who ruthlessly chopped the novels down to size, and Christopher’s late admission that it had served them well. Though the work of a good editor is usually done in the shadows, I’m often struck by how often one seems to see more in the work than the writer him or herself and can help direct the work to where it should go (think George Martin and the Beatles). But I confess that I’m with you appreciating the flaws in those sprawling, majestic, world-emcompassing works. What editor could have told Dostoyevsky to cut out a scene with any assurance that it wouldn’t diminish the work? “Hmm…well, I’m okay with everything except for this long ‘Grand Inquisitor’ thing…it just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the novel.”


    • Hello Scott, I fear I may have overdone my anti-science fiction stance! Would it be a mitigating factor if I were to say that much of it is no more than a private joke between myself and a good friend of mine who is a science fiction fan, and who, I know, reads this blog? But be that as it may, I think I will try in future not to live up too insistently to the facetious title of this blog!

      Yes, there certainly are cases where an editor’s input has enhanced the work. He most famous example of this, perhaps, is Ezra Pound’s redaction of the poem by T. S. Eliot that we now know as “The Waste Land”. There is a marvellous book available containing facsimiles of Eliot’s original version, and Pound’s changes, all of which Eliot, with a humility and a seeming diffidence that are surely rare amongst creative artists, appeared to accept without demur.

      (I do wish, though, that Eliot had stuck to his original title: “He Do the Police in Different Voices”, taken from Our Mutual Friend, was an excellent title!)

      I wonder, though, whether the editor’s task is merely to slim things down? In far too many modern books I read or sample in the bookshops, the prose, far from being bloated and overdone, seems thin and under-nourished, with language seen merely as a carrier of the message – a means to an end, rather than something to be relished for its own sake. Is the editor’s job merely to subtract, I wonder?


  2. Posted by Jasper on February 6, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Strangely enough, I find my own musical vs literary tastes running in opposite directions as time goes on… increasingly, I’ve come to prefer Sibelius over Mahler, Webern over Schoenberg, mid-to-late Stravinsky over early Stravinsky, etc, but that I have an increasing prefererence for the ‘expansive’ novels (currently obsessed with William T. Vollmann, and my reading list for the next year includes much Pynchon also)… I used to line my shelves with much shorter fare, and (predictably) got through a lot more. Perhaps I feel the need to make the two pursuits average out, while still holding a middle line somewhere (fittingly enough, my favorite artists in the two respective fields – Brahms and Dickens – were artists who felt at ease in both short and long forms). Plus they were stuffy old Romantics, like myself, I suppose. Regarding your respect for the overreaching masterpieces of literature, I have that soft spot too – if I have to sit still long enough to slog through the transom of another author’s mind, I would much rather be given the opportunity of viewing a full landscape, with all its attendant beauties and ugliness, than to be forced to examine a single flower petal in hopes of deciphering the breadth of its meaning. That’s what I have poetry books for.


    • Count me as another “stuffy old Romantic”! Only recently, I found myself reflecting on how much I continue to love the symphonies of Brahms & of Tchaikovsky, and the Tchaikovsky ballets. And,as I type this into my iPad, I can hear on the stereo the quintet from Wagner’s “Meistersinger” – music about as Romantic as you can get. (It’s my boy who is responsible for the Wagner music playing right now – he’s a huge fan of Wagner, much this mother’s disgust!)

      Pynchon does specialise in big novels, doesn’t he? And yet, paradoxically, his best work, I thought, was the novella “The Crying of Lot 49”.


  3. There’s nothing that attracts me more to a book that if someone says it’s “over-written”. I put it all down to Anglo-Saxon puritanism.


    • Indeed, while the puritan aesthetic can, if well applied, result in works of an appealing purity of form, it has led all too often in writing that is merely thin and under-nourished, betraying little or no appreciation of the richness of which language is capable.

      It would be interesting to examine whether the religious background of writers has any bearing on the richness or otherwise of their language. Could Gerard Manley Hopkins have made such exuberant use of language had his background been Puritan rather than Jesuit? It’s a tempting thought, but then again, Milton was a bit of a Puritan in terms of his religious and political ideology, but no-one can accuse his use of language of being plain. (Self-consciously grand, yes – but not plain.)

      I think that a reaction had set in some hundred or so years ago against the opulence of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and that too many writers are still fighting a battle that has long been won. But I’m with you on this: yes, I like many of Hemingway’s stories, but deep down – or even on the surface – it’s Faulkner I love better.


  4. obooki is right. “Over-written” often just means “written” – somebody actually write the book, rather than assembled it from pre-cut parts.


    • “Over-written”, “under-written” … terms that mean different things to different people; and terms that are descriptive of degree rather than of kind. If one makes no attempt to explain what one means by such words, then they don’t really communicate very much. Of course, it is possible to load one’s prose with exotic words and turns of phrases just for the sake of it, and end up as a consequence with pisspoor writing; but the ideas that appear so prevalent that the plainer the expression the better the writing; and that the pithy is by definition superior to the prolix; do, I think, need to be challenged.


  5. ‘But those of us who love these books even to the point where they become central to our understanding of the world may well feel that such projected operations would reduce these massive novels merely to what is incidental in them, while discarding that which is essential. For the artistic purpose of certain works requires expansion.’

    Himadri, I’m so with you on this. Yes, yes – that’s exactly it; for some of us these novels are so central to how we see the world… and if we’re going to try to expand our grasp of the world, we have to do so in big, wandering spaces, full of all the blind avenues, mistakes, flaws and big baggy difficult stuff that just won’t squeeze into a controlled editing of the process.

    Yes to the flaws and to the dead wood – it’s often out of those that the productive shoots find their way to expression. And it’s so good to see the journey. The flaws are essential to the larger humanity of these big novels – humanity in all its mess and variance and failings, as well as its gloriousness. I also find that, it’s often in a writer’s flaws that we see their full humanity – and so, funnily enough, we can trust them more for having been through the mill of life, and through its pitfalls just like the rest of us. It’s all evidence of the things we share – this big, baggy, inexplicable life, and how we all, in our different failings are part of its variety – and also sameness.

    And, my goodness, how I love a good ramble through a Dickens paragraph. All that richness of language and expansion of thought around a theme. I so admire some writers’ abilities to capture something so precisely with incredible economy of language (and, of course, Dickens can do that too) – but I do love the glitter and sheer detail of his verbosity. It’s like a lose yourself moment down winding lanes in a park, with all sorts of discoveries along the way – seeing with new eyes details too easy to overlook. Details which maybe otherwise would be all too easy to edit out from our deeper notice.

    Thanks for another great post, Himadri!



    • Hello Melanie,

      Given your Dickensian leanings, I fully expected you to agree that great artistic endeavour will often result in great flaws, but that such flaws do not diminish the work. However, there is also, don’t you think, a quite distinctly different aesthetic that is equally valid? I may personally prefer the Mahlerian aesthetic to the Sibelian, or the Dickensian to the Austenite, the Dostoyevskian to the Flaubertian; but that is not, of course, to say tat Mahler, Dickens or Dostoyevsky were greater artists than Sibelius, Austen or Flaubert.

      I had intended this post to be a vindication of artistic over-reaching; of a vastness of scope that necessitates expansive writing; of works which, since neither tightness of form nor flawlessness is aimed for, can accommodate failures as integral parts of the whole. However, looking back, I think I hit the “post” button too soon. C minus, I think: could do better! 🙂


      • ‘I had intended this post to be a vindication of artistic over-reaching; of a vastness of scope that necessitates expansive writing; of works which, since neither tightness of form nor flawlessness is aimed for, can accommodate failures as integral parts of the whole.’

        Himadri – I think you’re doing yourself down with the C minus grade – because the points you outline above are exactly what I took away from your post. My reply was meant to a be a joining in with that spirit of vindication – but, due to shortness of time, it was a bit of a stream-of-consciousness, seat-of-my-pants posting, full of flaws and over-expansive meanderings! 🙂 If we’re at any cross purposes here, it’s my fault for expressing myself badly!

        Oh yes, I absolutely agree about the different aesthetics being equally, gloriously as valid. I didn’t mean to imply that one is in any way superior to the other. I’m a huge Jane Austen fan after all – and love those fine brush strokes on the tiny bit of ivory. I find that sort of writing sublime. I don’t think I could really say which approach – Dickensian or Austenite (just to take those two writers as an example of the differing aesthetics you point to) – I actually prefer. I love, and I would say need, both – and sometimes it’s a relief to turn to one after the other! Indeed, the huge can be reached in a very controlled focus. The glory is in the variety of approach and in the particular demands of the endeavours each writer is chasing. Jane Austen wouldn’t be her glorious, unique self, with her own sparkling vision, if she went all Melville on us.

        What I was trying (very badly!) to get at was exactly that really; a general chiming with your vindication of the validity of different aesthetics, the positives in the differences – and that some endeavours, by their nature, gain their very heart via those qualities that are often seen to be excess baggage. When I’ve heard that phrase “needs a good editor” aimed at Dickens, Tolstoy, Melville, etc it has sent a shudder down my spine thinking of what would be lost – the very nature of the beast tamed! Something unique diminished. However, I think my defence of the glories of expansive writing and my horror at the thought of what would be lost were all that bagginess to be edited out – ended up tipping towards looking like I was advocating one aesthetic over another! Far from it!

        I think it’s me who must do better! 🙂

      • Hello melanie, sorry I took so long to reply: I really have been very tied up these last few days.

        I’d like to return to this theme in some later post, as there is still much to be discussed here. The vast over=reaching ambition that often results in looseness of structure and in major failings is something to be defended; but also to be defended, as a quite separate issue, is extravagnce of prose style and stylistic exuberance in an era which seems, it seems to me, to prefer plainness and understaement. The two are distinct issues, and require different posts, I think!

        Anyway – I still have to write posts on the 3rd and 4th parts of Our Mutual friend, so I’d best roll up my sleeves now & get down to it!

  6. Very interesting perspective. Modern things tend towards terseness so prolixity can appear old-fashioned but I think there’s a lot to be said (and you’ve said a lot of it) for long sentences and long books. If you don’t read books with long sentences every so often, you lose the knack. Your reading muscles must get weaker or something. I picked up Persuasion quite recently and found it both too short and too long at the same time. I think a fan of Sir Walter Scott has recently said that Sir Walter Scott is unreadable and is planning to issue some modern versions of Ivanhoe and the rest. I have struggled with some of his novels, to be honest, but I loved them when I was younger and thought nothing of romping through 200 pages of Rob Roy before breakfast. I don’t think readers have lost their love of long books, though. Look at all those fantasy epics and science fiction sagas. Some of them are over 800 pages long and they’re only Book 1 of … well, dozens in some cases.


  7. A fan of Scott? Are you sure? Not a mortal enemy, trying to kill off his books for good?

    It might be useful to separate the issue of style from that of reading level.


    • I’m not entirely sure that the issue of style can be separated from reading level, as, quite clearly, some styles are more demanding than others, and require a higher level of reading ability. With the modern preference for shorter sentences, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if increasing numbers of modern readers find greater difficulty with more intricate writing styles.

      But yes, I take your other point: the idea of “re-writing” Scott to make his works alive for modern readers seems to assume that *what* he said is all-important, and not *how* he said it.


  8. Moving from modern prose styles to styles of the 18th century or earlier can be a bit of a shock, simply because we are not so used to long, intricately structured sentences. As you put it, one’s “reading muscles become weaker”. Reading Dickens lately, I was struck once again by the elegance and variety of his sentence constructions: shorter sentences do not, I think, provide so much opportunity for varied structuring of sentences.

    At this point, I must make a confession: other than “Wandering Willie’s Tale”, that marvellous ghost story embedded into Redgauntlet, I have read nothing by Scott. (And this despite having grown up in Scotland!) I know I need to remedy this, if only to gain some understanding of why he made so great an impact on European culture.

    I agree we haven’t lost our taste for long books – certainly not if those massive tomes to be found in the fantasy sections of bookshops are anything to go by. But long, intricately structured sentences – yes, I think we have. And as for those huge, over-reaching works – I think we prefer books of more modest scope these days. But I haven’t obviously, done a detailed study of this, and may well be wrong.


  9. Sure, but is your argument about difficulty? Mahler is more difficult than Sibelius? Karamazov is more difficult than Bovary? I don’t think so. Joseph is introducing a lot of red herrings.

    It’s a much simpler argument: most readers prefer easier books over harder ones. Granted. But I think you’re making a more complex point than that.


    • No, I obviously don’t mean to suggest that Flaubert is easier than Dostoyevsky, or Sibelius easier than Mahler. And you’re right – difficulty is not the issue I was primarily addressing. However, it is true, I think, that more complex and intricate writing styles are currently unfashionable simply because they are more difficult.

      The fault, I think, is mine, in that in my original post, I had clumsily conflated two quite separate issues: one is that of an intricate prose style as compared to a simpler one (modern tastes prefer the latter); and another, quite separate issue, is that of works with a vast scope as compared to works that limit their scope to more reasonable scale (though this does not imply lack of depth) and focus on form. And on this latter dichotomy, I’m not too sure where modern taste tends to lie.

      Let us focus on the latter issue, as that appears a more promising area of investigation, and less likely to provoke from me intemperate rants. But let me first have my dinner: I’ll get back to this afterwards! 🙂


  10. Posted by alan on February 7, 2012 at 10:18 pm

    Strange – I’ve perceived the opposite tendency, or perhaps it is due to publishers issuing over large volumes that only appear to contain more words. I have fond memories of when penguin books were slim and easily pocketed.
    I suppose I’ve also been influenced by the reported tendency to judge academic output by number of words rather than substantive content – one good tip I remember was to track down the magazine article from which an academic’s magnum opus was later expanded..

    In your case I suppose that you would sing:-


    black or white
    add a little bit of moonlight
    For this intercontinental romance.
    Shy word
    sexy word
    they all like that fancy word….

    (With apologies to “Sailor”)


    • I wasn’t referring merely to size: as I’m sure you know, size isn’t everything!

      Reading over the comments made so far, I acknowledge that my post above was confused: I didn’t make it clear – perhaps I wasn’t clear myself – whether I was referring to complexity of writing style; or to a breadth of scope that necessitates an expansive approach rather than concision. I need to think about this more before I return to it.

      (Well, if Moby-Dick can take a few failures, so an my blog! 😉 )


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