In Praise of Editors
I was very sad to hear of the death of Gerald Russello, editor of The University Bookman at the Russell Kirk Center.
Editors get a lot of stick - not least from writers. They bugger up our copy. They give us crappy headlines. They reject our most beloved children - er, I mean, ideas.
To be fair, a lot of editors really are bad: draining the humour and excitement out of articles, rewarding blatant opportunism and paying young people a pittance to expose their souls. One of the reasons Substack has taken off, indeed, is that writers enjoy the chance to bypass the annoying editorial process.
But a good editor is invaluable. I was a nobody - a tiddler in a lake - when editors like Gerald, Claire Lehmann from Quillette, and Freddy, Matt and Dominic from the Spectator gave me chances. They knew my byline, in and of itself, would only attract my mum, my dad and my dog but they also knew that all careers have beginnings. Lots of writers have been saying that Gerald gave them early breaks.
A good editor will give time to strange but interesting ideas. When I emailed Gerald to ask if his traditionalist-leaning review of books would host an essay assessing the work of a little-known British Marxist he would have been quite justified in saying “er, no” but he humoured me and I think it turned out well.
That does not mean editors should accept all ideas, of course. Indeed, I’m sure rejecting them is a skill in itself. When I pitched reviewing Martin Amis’s new novel to Gerald, he passed. I was a bit offended. Then I tried to read the Amis book and found it uninspiring enough that I did not make it beyond the free sample. What a review that would have been.
Of course, a good editor quietly blesses your prose as well. I remember hearing a story - I think it was about Gore Vidal but I cannot find the source - of a famous writer who discovered that someone had tampered with one of his essays. He grimly anticipated its publication, waiting to find out how this twerp had butchered his sacred prose, but found that he had done such an elegant job that he was not able to tell what had been altered.
I am fortunate enough to have been published a few times. Doubtless, writers who have just as much talent as I do, if not more, have not had my good luck. A pox on editors who are obsessed with clicks, cliques and cocktail parties. But to the good ones, thank you - and especially to Gerald Russello, who I wish that I had had the chance to work with more.