Textual Relations

by Albert R. Vogeler


    “Partnerships of the Pen” was the title of a presentation my wife Martha and I gave for the Continued Learning Experience program at Cal State Fullerton in September 1985. We conceived of it as a dialogue on the subject of literary collaboration between spouses. To consider what we would say, we holed up a month before the scheduled date for a brainstorming session in the dunes at the Asilomar conference grounds on the Monterey Peninsula.  No books allowed: it would be a kind of rehearsal for the dialogue to come, just talking together. 

    CLE’s advance advertising flyer said that we were part of a “Distinguished Lecture Series” and would explore “the pleasures, problems and perils of working together,” with examples from recent history.  We had to come up with something that could justify the hyperbole—otherwise known as “hype.”

    Gradually our thoughts coalesced—a good sign of incipient collaboration!  We hit upon a scheme whereby we would progress through our main ideas alternately, interrupting each other and improving upon each other’s facts and opinions in a scenario designed to simulate spontaneity.  It would be a collaboration about collaboration, displaying—not merely discussing—the tensions, compromises, and new understandings entailed in working together toward a shared objective.

    All sorts of questions came to mind. What examples of successful “partnerships of the pen” could history provide?   Is collaboration in writing different for married couples than for other collaborators? Do other kinds of collaboration provide useful analogies?  We were agreed that literary collaboration did not necessarily mean co-authorship, but included every kind of mutual interaction—including discussion, research, note-taking, typing, proofreading, indexing, and editing—done in the interest of creating a publishable text.

    When the appointed day arrived, we were able to discuss these questions using contemporary and historical examples. We began to triangulate on our literary partners with a nod toward other kinds of partnerships, including Collaborators of the Crown (Ferdinand and Isabella), Couples of Comedy (Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin), Partners of the Prize (Pierre and Marie Curie), and so on.  We looked at creative literary couples who were not collaborators (Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath); writing couples who were married, but not to each other (Betty Comden and Adolph Green); and the unusual case of posthumous collaboration between a devoted couple who were not married (George Henry Lewes and George Eliot).  The paired personalities who genuinely exemplified our criteria were the Fabian Socialist writers Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the American historians Charles and Mary Beard, the popular historians Will and Ariel Durant, the authors Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, and the philosopher John Stuart Mill and the formidable Harriet Taylor.

    In exploring the process of editing--the primary form our own collaboration had taken for twenty years—we drew on our experience rather than that of others.  With rare exceptions, after a book or article is written, it must be edited.  Authors edit their own work as they write, of course, but at some point, early or late, others become involved.  Only a second mind can provide fresh perspective and argue against inertia for improvements.  Editing can sometimes be painless, but it is usually stressful,  even agonizing  The wearied author insists, “It’s good enough!” and the adamant editor reacts, “It’s not good enough!”  It can get worse if the exasperated author shouts “If you’re so good, write it yourself!” and storms out.

     The core of collaboration is the editing experience, which can be the chief cause of its collapse.  Defining a proper relationship between writer and editor is a hopeless task.  There are simply too many variables.  But we can certainly imagine undesirable extremes in a spectrum of possible editing relationships.  One the one hand, an editor who is strong-willed, verbally proficient, and sensitive to nuance may intimidate a writer and make editing the text a misery of humiliation and resentment.  On the other hand, a masterful writer may be so self-assured that an editor can make no headway in altering the text and will be rendered merely a bothersome nit-picker.  If we conceive of an editor as essentially a text therapist, he must surely never engage in textual harrassment; yet he must be firm enough to take the initiative constructively if he is to be of any use at all.

    We can come closer to appreciating the possible varieties and subtle counterpoint of the editorial process by looking at five styles or philosophies of editing. It is, inevitably, judging, even if the judgment is merely a suggested change agreeably adopted.  If the judgment is severe—dismissive rejection of whole paragraphs or pages—editing may be revealed as the exercise of power by one person over another, and therefore likely to cause hurt, anxiety, or resentment.  Yet strong criticism can be tonic, a better stimulus to awareness and forthright confrontation with the issues than any merely helpful advice. After all, William Blake knew that “DAMN braces; BLESS relaxes.”

    Editing is also persuading—salesmanship. A case must be made for changes, and the new words made to seem fitter.  Instead of focusing on the text’s inadequacies, here the editor makes proposals the better to fulfill the author’s intentions.  As the author’s instrument, the editor should be thanked for helping achieve the writer’s goals.  But persuasion is not always this successful; it may create a sense of the writer’s inadequacy and  of condescending manipulaton.

    Editing is negotiating—trading.  The editor gives up some of his demands to secure others, or at least he should be ready to do so and know that he must bargain.  He will have priorities and alternatives among his proposed changes, though he may still hold to principle in his non-negotiable demands.  Some accommodation and reciprocity between the two partners must obviously occur.

    Editing can also be treated as problem-solving.  This is a genuinely cooperative activity, each party giving up the role of creator or re-shaper of the text.  Instead, they  address together the problems in it that might weaken its effect or might mislead or distract readers.  The writer and the editor are no longer adversaries but joint problem-solvers with a common task and reward.  The text is viewed objectively, not possessively.  Its problems are treated neither as the author’s inadequacy nor the editor’s punching-bag, but as the partners’ challenge. If they happen to be married, such self-abnegation may already have become a habit.

    Finally, editing can be co-creative.  If the editor, free of power-drives, manipulation, and self-interest--a considerable achievement!--rewrites in the spirit of the author, and the author honestly seeks to help the editor in his rewriting, if their sentences and paragraphs really integrate to the satisfaction of both, then editing has merged into co-authorship.  The partners are co-creators.  Doesn’t this also have an obvious counterpart in marriage?

    Authors and editors remain in a relationship even after the editing is done.  Editors judge their authors not only by their openness to editing, but for their generosity in expressing their debt.  Editors like to be thanked, and thanked in print.  Did they edit but got no credit?  Checked every phrase but earned no praise?  Were well-intentioned but still not mentioned?  “Thanks to all who helped me” is not likely to be much appreciated; but “I am indebted to my indispensable editor, X, for generous, judicious, and unfailing advice” is warmly satisfying.  If they are married, it’s all the better.

    There is a halfway house between giving  two collaborators equal credit on the title page and giving credit to one of them somewhere else (the fate of most editors).  It is to set the second name in smaller type (“with the assistance of…”).  But in most shared literary projects, one partner is so subordinate that his or her name appears only in the acknowledgments or dedication. Ironically that person is often said to have been indispensable. “I thank my wife, without whose patience this book could not have been completed.”  That’s thanks for something, but exactly what?  It could be collaboration, but it sounds like toleration.   A famous theologian in his magnum opus thanks his children for keeping out of his study.  It is rumored that an author once wrote in his acknowledgments, “I would like to thank my wife for the index.  There is no index.”  Or perhaps he wrote, “There is no wife.”

For this article, I would like to thank my indispensable editor, Martha, for her generous, judicious, and unfailing advice.