Slowness and the young author

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

I recently caught up with Orville Schell, a great Sinologist, former dean of Berkeley’s Journalism School (where he asked me to teach) and author of, wait for it, fourteen books! (To me, of course, Orville is above all one of my three mentors.)

Since then, I’ve been pondering what Orville told me about book editors and book editing, and indeed the entire fascinating change inside an author’s mind that occurs between the initial delivery of the manuscript and the printing of the final product.

The reason, of course, is that I am currently in exactly this phase. It has been almost two months since I sent my manuscript to Riverhead, the publisher. The book industry runs in a parallel time dimension, so I knew this would take a while. So I’m absolutely (and in a very positive way) fascinated by how my own mind is filtering the long (110,000-word) text that I just sent off. And of course I’m eager to hear how my editor will react.

Some editors, Orville said, don’t edit at all. That’s a good thing only if they are terrible editors. The best editors, says Orville, see the manuscript as a long and detailed outline, a sketch of what is to come, the genotype of the phenotype that will result. That’s because so often–at least in Orville’s experience–the real book emerges during this waiting period, as the author’s mind, with help from his editor, digests its own product, tests it, does violence to it, stirs it up, cleans it up and finally emits … a thing of beauty.

This, therefore, is one of the big differences between blogging, magazine-writing and book-writing: Time.

The blogger disdains time. The magazine-writer by turns battles, fears and overcomes time. Only the book writer learns to love, savor and appreciate time. (I happen to be all three, of course.)

Time can do good things to a text, especially if the author’s immodest hope is that it become timeless.

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