• Rowan Fortune

Editing and Totality

The complete novel and the role of an editor.

The great balancing act of (especially) creative editing (as distinguished from, say, copyediting) is between economy and precision of prose, on the one hand, and retaining and enhancing the aesthetics and naturalism of the piece on the other. To illustrate what I mean, a neutral third-person voice regrettably peppered by tired clichés should probably have them exercised, but a piece of dialogue in that selfsame story, delivered by a character who would be expected to use such clichés, should perhaps even have some such phrases added. To use or not to use clichés, the deciding factor is not some hard and fast rule.


Editing is not something as simple as fine tuning a story to a single set of rules. There are different approaches, different aesthetic frames, to every story. And for an editor endeavouring not to encroach too far on the author’s work (this line is itself quite fuzzy) there is a need to be mindful of that framing. It is the job of the editor to enhance the work in its totality, towards bringing about the whole aesthetic experience the author is attempting to achieve. But what does it mean to consider the totality of a piece of written fiction?

Ford Maddox Ford—or so I once heard—allowed his characters to make his own authorial mistakes. His idea of fiction was wrapped up in depicting the internal workings of people, and especially the unreliability of their relationships to reality. If he had a character say something from memory, he would draw only on his own. If his memory proved wrong, and the character rendered a fact about the world falsely, it was a kind of verisimilitude he would retain. People err. So Ford’s characters were allowed to err with him. Amusingly, I am not sure if this is even true; I cannot recall where I heard this about Ford, or find a reference to back it up.


What is relevant for my point here is that—providing I am not misremembering about Ford’s technique—part of the totality of Ford’s fiction were these errors. To lose said errors would be to reduce the whole. The philosopher John Dewey, who touched a great deal on aesthetics, is not generally quotable. His own style was often a bit of an obscure mess. However, there is a quote from him on this topic I find not only highly quotable and uncharacteristically clear, but elucidating on the subject of stories and editing.

If one examines the reason why certain works of art offend us, one is likely to find that the cause is that there is no personally felt emotion guiding the selecting the assembling of the materials presented. We derive the impression that the artist, say the author of a novel, is trying to regulate by conscious intent the nature of the emotion aroused. We are irritated by a feeling that he is manipulating materials to secure an effect decided upon in advance. The facets of the work, the variety so indispensable to it, are held together by some external force. The movement of the parts and the conclusion disclose no logical necessity. The author, not the subject matter, is the arbiter.


By offense here, it is clear that Dewey means not a moral offence, but a likely offense to the taste of an audience. Dewey is trying to understand why some aesthetic experiences work, while others do not. He appeals to a partly subjective criteria, but also acknowledges that this is informed by a propensity to look for, in the experiences associated with art, a complete and cohesive experience. Writing or editing to rules, by imposing on a work of written art criteria that is external to it, has the inherent danger of fragmenting the writing.


Hegel liked to express this idea of totalities even in relation to whole philosophies. He was a philosopher with a complicated relationship to the American pragmatism from which Dewey derived his thinking, and the similarities likely express a continuity of thought (as much as with Hegel and Marx).


Every philosophy is complete in itself and, like a genuine work of art, contains the totality. Just as the works of Apelles and Sophocles, if Raphael and Shakespeare had known them, should not have appeared to them as mere preliminary exercises for their own work, but rather as a kindred force of the spirit, so, too reason cannot find in its own earlier forms mere useful preliminary exercises for itself.


Indeed, his idea that ‘the True is the whole’ from the Phenomenology of Spirit, shows Hegel’s propensity to always relate back to such a notion of totality. Even when it comes to the very nature of reality and how we engage with it. I find that ‘the True is the whole’ is a good dictum for all of my editing work.


The point is never to come to a manuscript with one pregiven set of ideas about what it should be. As an editor there is a period of discovery with every new project; a getting to know. Only when a work is understood in its generalities, can I augment it to better convey, to borrow from Dewey, the ‘emotion guiding the selecting the assembling of the materials presented.’ That is the job of a creative editor, just as it is the job of an author (such as Ford) to convey the world according to principles that guide a cohesive experience, using the materials and subjects of the story itself.

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