Nonwriting The Nonbook Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-03-13 14:00:00 No comments

Nile Rodgers again:

Ultimately I try and make a record for the entire world, but I know that can't be possible. ... When I'm making a record, I have to be very aware of who I really am making it for: my artist. If the record doesn't reflect that artist and their personality and their fan base, it doesn't make sense; it's almost a non-record. It's like when you go to a restaurant and you see a children's menu. That menu presupposes that there are a whole bunch of kids that are going to like franks and beans and fried chicken and pizza and spaghetti -- you don't try and get the kids to eat caviar. 

Again, emphases mine.

I had to remember, while reading Rodgers's words, that he was speaking from the point of view of a producer/engineer and an artist, with his duties varying depending on the record in question. When you're helping someone else create as a producer, it's your job to help them reach whatever audience is out there -- in much the same way an editor selects the material that she's confident an audience can be found for, and tries to bring out the best qualities of the writer she works with.

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One of the things that struck me most when I read about Japanese literary society (this came by way of John Nathan's biography of Yukio Mishima) was how an established literary presence almost never has his work edited in anything except the most routine, mechanical way. The function of the editor is mostly that of procurer -- to make sure the author delivers a manuscript on time, and to serve as a kind of go-between for the author and the publisher. There is (or at least was) little sense that the work needs to be shaped proactively. Even more striking was when I learned how in manga, the function of the editor is very much to shape the material -- so much so that he can shelve work at a moment's notice, or arbitrarily dictate the direction of a series based on what seems popular or trendy.

I hear conflicting stories about how much editorial oversight the really big names have in today's publishing world -- e.g., does someone like Stephen King get told, "No, you have to cut this down"? Probably not, and it's not even a ego thing -- it's about having paid one's dues, and one of the ways you get rewarded for that is by not being told what to do anymore. It's assumed you know what's best for your own work.

To my mind, that makes the job harder, not easier, as you go. The more people assume you know what you're doing an get the hell out of your way to let you do it, the easier it becomes to tell yourself that you're the man instead of actually doing the work to prove it, and soon you end up with a sprained deltoid from having patted yourself so fiercely on the back.

Tibor Fischer once said, while talking about an immensely disappointing novel from Martin Amis (Yellow Dog), "He's clearly got it into his head that he can write anything and he'll be venerated like Moses with the tablets. ... The way British publishing works is that you go from not being published no matter how good you are, to being published no matter how bad you are." Based on what I've seen, you can leave off the "British" and still be dead-on. Get high up enough on the ladder, and the only way to get knocked off is to kick the ladder to the ground.

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Some do escape that trap. Clifford Simak comes to mind: the man had a marvelously sustained career, with the better books in it appearing towards the end of his life, and with never the sense that he had begin to repeat himself. He wrote some books that aren't as memorable as others, but he never once wrote a non-book.

Tags: Clifford Simak Nile Rodgers creativity editing