On Editing Literary Fiction in Particular (or, Keeping the Pulse)

While many editing tasks seem to be semi-straightforward, dealing with literary fiction is definitely its own animal. Even in genre fiction there are better known standards for structure and style, and while the occasional genre piece may transcend into literary fiction, and some literary fiction may fall into genre categories—it is difficult or impossible to define a rubric for what succeeds as literary fiction. That being said, there are some things that remain true.

Literary fiction is only successful if it catches the pulse of a culture, with the emphasis on ‘a culture’. A truly masterful work can speak to across cultures, (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was translated into 147 different languages).  But whether it be western culture, eastern culture, skate punk culture, or geek culture, it must ring true the members. It must have something that they need. Again, this is true for all writing, but if the story doesn’t perform its job: i.e., transmit cultural knowledge and/or help an individual bind with and receive ‘tools’ that can be used to make some sort of order out of the chaos of existence, it’s success will rely on the tricks of the industry; mimicry, hyper-marketing, deep discounts, and artificial buzz. A well developed and appropriate piece of literary fiction that is well-aimed at a receptive market, at the right time, should do well more often than not.

Expectations and Conclusion

The job of an editor may require certain arrogance, and lot of exhausting work, both creative and emotional, but is possibly one of the most rewarding professions that one could be lucky enough to experience. The expectations are high, and often the only person who knows how much work has been done is the actual editor. By necessity the job exists in the background, it is the author and the work which is celebrated. The editor’s reputation will exist and be known among their peers, but they will not be in the limelight. It takes a certain sort of person to be able to handle criticism with little in the way of public or artistic recognition. So while editors may be an arrogant sort, good ones amalgamate it with humility, and with any luck, hopefully that will help some of us sleep better at night.

To finish, one last quote from Mr. Schuster:

“Editing can, and should be, not only a life-enhancing profession but also a liberal education in itself, for it gives you the privilege of working with the most creative people of your time: authors and educators, world-movers and world-shakers. For taking a lifetime course for which you would be willing to pay tuition, you are paid, not merely with dollars, but with intellectual and spiritual satisfactions immeasurable.”


Lee, Marshall. Bookmaking

D. Williams, Alan. What is an Editor?

L. Schuster, M. Open Letter to a Would be Editor.

Vonnegut, Kurt, Bluebeard

Deemer, Charles, Screenwriting


About isaacmayo

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