Editing the early days of 2019


(Festivity, dressing up and misrule in Twelfth Night: British Library)

‘Well it’s wonderful to be alive’, William Maxwell wrote to Eudora Welty, 6 January 1954. ‘Wonderful to be a writer. Wonderful to grow roses. Wonderful to care. Isn’t it?’[1]

Epiphany, twelfth day, the Librarian reluctantly dismantling Christmas decorations, wreaths, paper chains, cut-outs of cats carrying Christmas puddings, the holly and the ivy. Even the fat Santa must go into storage along with the tree ornaments.

‘And after dinner to the Dukes house’, Samuel Pepys wrote, ‘and there saw Twelfth night acted well, though it be but a silly play and not relating at all to the name or day.’[2]

Grose, Melicent Symons, 1844-1924; Samuel Pepys (1673-1703)

(Melicent Symons Grose, Samuel Pepys
Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

At 09:15, dozens of people are running in the park; all ages and sizes, accompanied by ragged but persistent applause and monitored by a score of stewards in high-visibility vests dotted around the course. At 06:45, it was still dark and there were only two runners, one of them the Librarian, who sped past me at intervals into the surrounding gloom while I loitered furtively – and no doubt suspiciously – by the park entrance, hearing though not yet seeing the gulls gathered at the top of the long slope.

So the year takes off, to a recurrent background music of improvement: dry month, new me, new you, new body, new us, new them, new beginning, remake, reset, reflux. Dry January: the very phrase is like a bell / To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Not quite John Keats in toto. We can, though, sing along to his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

Severn, Joseph, 1793-1879; John Keats

(Joseph Severn, John Keats: National Portrait Gallery)

Yes, to contemplate a dry month in the face of so many frantic urgings to drink seems a little perverse. All over the country – at least I hope so – people of reasonable intelligence and awareness are staring at the television screen wondering why, rather than pissing billions of pounds of our money up the wall in preparation for ‘the eventuality of a no-deal Brexit’, the people charged with running the country don’t simply make damned sure that such an eventuality doesn’t occur in the first place.

Averting my eyes from the latest of these dispiriting reports, I catch sight of a piece in the Times Literary Supplement, headed, ‘What is the point of editors?’ Oh, great. But it turns out that Katherine Ashenburg is predominantly concerned here with the differences in attitudes towards the editorial processes typical of Latin America, Europe and the United States ‘(American editors probably edit most exhaustively, with British ones being more light-handed. The Canadians, as so often with Canadians, fall somewhere in between.) Europeans have traditionally resisted much editing, and Latin Americans perhaps most of all’ (TLS, 4 January 2019, 17).

Ah, to edit: ‘to prepare for publication’ is fine: but then my dictionary starts frothing at the mouth a little: to garble, cook up, censor, bowdlerise, having in mind, no doubt, Thomas Bowdler, who snipped out bits from Shakespeare’s plays and who, I’m not cheered to see, shares a birthday with me. Unlike Messrs Chambers and Oxford, the editors that come first to my mind are the likes of Wyndham Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Margaret Anderson and Ford Madox Ford, editor of two important journals himself, whose story teems with other editors. He maintained friendly relations at various times with R. A. Scott-James, Edward Garnett, Harold Monro, Burton Rascoe, A. R. Orage, Harriet Monroe, Ernest Rhys and Paul Palmer, among others. Douglas Goldring, who became Ford’s sub editor at the English Review and later wrote two books about him, was introduced to Ford by Anderson Graham, yet another editor—of Country Life[3]— while, in the winter of 1928, the novelist Katherine Anne Porter, another friend of Ford’s for a time, was working as copy editor for The Macaulay Company, publisher of Ford’s No Enemy: A Tale of Reconstruction the following year.[4]


Being personally more concerned in an editorial sense with academic essays or creative non-fiction circling, if not centring on, Ford and his contemporaries, I’m rarely tempted to employ the advice that Colette (then literary editor at Le Matin) offered to the young Georges Simenon: ‘She told him that he was on the right track but he should drop “the literature”. “Pas de littérature!” she said. “Supprimez toute la littérature et ça ira!”’[5]



[1] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 58.

[2] Pepys, entry of 6 January 1663, quoted in Bonnie Blackburn and Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 25. T. W. Craik reviews the matter of Shakespeare’s title in the Arden edition of Twelfth Night (London: Routledge, 1995), xxxiii-xxxiv, concluding that it was most likely chosen for its ‘general festive associations.’

[3] Douglas Goldring, Odd Man Out: The Autobiography of a “Propaganda Novelist” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1935), 92.

[4] Nancylee Novell Jonza, The Underground Stream: The Life and Art of Caroline Gordon (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1995), 61.

[5] Patrick Marnham, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company 1994), 112.


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