August 24th, 2006

To editors: thanks for all the fish

Back in the 80s I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.

I opened the first page of the first book in the series without much expectation, started reading, and immediately realized I was encountering a most unusual and almost endlessly entertaining and quirky mind, one that could truly be described with that overworked word, “unique.”

I’m not sure what made me look Adams up yesterday. I was tired of thinking about politics, perhaps, and the phrase “So long, and thanks for all the fish,” was roiling around in my head for some reason. I remembered that Adams had died suddenly and way too young some years ago, and I became curious to read more about him.

Despite a wide-ranging and probably frenetic mind, and varied interests, Adams’s creative output was narrow rather than wide. His lasting oeuvre, his literary contribution, was the Hitchhiker series itself. That’s not anything to be ashamed of; it’s a great accomplishment to have entertained and amused people at such an extraordinary level of wit.

As a writer and ideaphoric myself (although admittedly one of a lesser degree than Adams) I wondered how he managed to harness his freewheeling brain long enough to do the sort of sustained work necessary to create so many novels.

I got my answer in Wikipedia:

While working on the radio series (and with simultaneous projects such as The Pirate Planet) Adams developed problems keeping to writing deadlines that only got worse as he published novels. Adams was never a prolific writer and usually had to be forced by others to do any writing. This included being locked in a hotel suite with his editor for three weeks to ensure that So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish was completed. He was quoted as saying, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

Locked in a hotel suite with his editor. So he got by with a little–or perhaps a lot–of help from his friends.

That’s true of a number of authors, I believe; we just usually don’t see the workings of the behind-the-scenes handlers and shapers and coaxers and helpers. Editors, for example, are often very instrumental in forming the work, even in motivating the writer, but only the insiders know for sure.

Spouses can act as literary helpers, as well. As inspiration, of course, but also in more practical ways. Some day I may write a piece on the marriage of Tolstoi and his wife (that’s quite a segue, Neo–from Doug Adams to Tolstoi). I happen to be a minor expert on the subject of the Tolstoi marriage, having read a number of books many years ago on the subject, notably this one.

The story isn’t pretty, although it starts the way most marriages do, with love. The relevant part in terms of this essay, however, is that Tolstoi’s wife Sonya, who was responsible for overseeing the day-to-day matters of his estate, who gave birth to and raised thirteen live children as well as having several other pregnancies, was also Tolstoi’s scribe and sometime editor.

Yes, in those days before there was Word there was the written word, penned by the human hand. Every night after her other duties were done (not that they were ever done; you know what they say about women’s work, and she had more of it than most) Sonya carefully transcribed a fair handwritten copy of what her husband had penned in messy draft form.

Here is a description of Sonya’s efforts, based on a book William Shirer wrote about the Tolstoi marriage:

Sonya had the burden of copying her husband’s almost illegible scrawls into her meticulous handwriting. She copied War and Peace seven times. Shirer calculates, “Since it runs to 1,453 printed pages in my edition that means that her fair copy came to at least 3,000 manuscript pages. So she must have written down in her own careful handwriting 21,000 pages.” (Actually, Sonya’s burden was much greater than Shirer envisions. Like most English translations, Shirer’s edition is well shy of the Russian original. My Russian-language edition of War and Peace contains 1,544 pages; an equivalent English version would have more than 2,000 pages.)

I think Adams’s editor probably had it easy in comparison.

14 Responses to “To editors: thanks for all the fish”

  1. Hucklebuck Says:

    Also strongly recommend the two book series: “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” and the sequel, “The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul”. Although, frankly, the latter is a better title than book.

  2. Sergey Says:

    Yes, Sofya Andreevna was a heroical woman. But not because so many children and so much home work. Many children were a norm these days; my own grand-grandmother have eleven. And, of course, they have servants – many of them, as all wealthy Russian aristocrats. Her biggest problem was not “War and Peace” (wrong translation of the title, besides, it should read “War and Society” – Russian word “mir” means also a society, it even has different spelling to tell it from “peace” meaning), it was her husband character. Geniuses generally make bad husbands, but he was not only genius, he suffered from severe neurosis of very troublesome kind – obsessional fear of death. He also periodically fall into dismal mood, was displeased by pretty everything – from history to nature of humans. He disliked Shakespear, he disliked opera, he disliked art, he disliked culture as such – all seemed to him unnatural, wrong, morally corrupt. Institutioned religion, Chirch, state, army, education – all was false, untrue, flawed. And also he hated himself and his homefolks. True leftist, in one word.

  3. neo-neocon Says:

    Sergey–I’m with you. Although I appreciate much of Tolstoi’s work, as a man he seems to have been repellent, although not without his charms. I think it’s interesting that so many venerate him. One of these days–a post on Tolstoi.

  4. ginger Says:

    As a very ‘general’ rule of thumb, I find most of the Russian authors shall we say, difficult. Brilliance shines through, indeed, Anna Karenina has long been a favorite of mine. But such TRAGEDY! My late husband adored Dostoevsky and read his several books many times. (How’s that for an old Army grunt? ) :) Were they a product of their times or simply depressed/supressed souls standing alone? I do not know of course. But their writings I think gave birth to the generalization of the Russian peoples as a most gloomy set, immersed in a decided lack of hope and ambition. To some extent I think that view holds true to this day. I am sure there are upbeat, positive, joyful Russian authors. Unfortunately, it is these gloom and doom sort of stories that hold sway in literature classes and circles. Interesting to think of how a country’s great authors can so fully define a nation’s people.

  5. stubby Says:

    Long ago, as a wee English major, I decided that I would never read a) George Eliot or b) Russian authors. Philistine? Perhaps. But I’ve never regretted my decision. I even managed to answer an essay question about Middlemarch in a sophomore English class w/out the professor suspecting my anti-Eliot vow. Probably says more about the Prof’s test than my intellect, but still.

    I make an exception for modern Russian authors writing in English, esp. the kid who wrote the Russian Debutante’s Handbook, which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet but will. Someday. I swear.

  6. askmom Says:

    As both an editor and a writer, it’s my opinion that editing is much harder, and so very frequently underappreciated. Here’s to all the editors out there, including my own at McGraw-Hill and elsewhere.

  7. Cappy Says:

    Don’t know much about Doug Adams. Scott Adams is another story.

  8. Steve Says:

    Tolstoy is terrific, Dostoevsky even better. Dostoevsky has a character in the original that rarely comes through in translation: verbose, excitable, funny. Tolstoy is very clear and translates easily and well.

    What makes Russian literature so appealing is that, while it may contain a certain measure of “heaving bosom” romance, it also generally talks about all kinds of psychological states that are usually ignored in other literatures. (Flaubert did a bit of it in Bovary, but such a bore!)

    I wouldn’t say Russian authors are morose as much as to say that they will confront, and write about, things many others do not write about, like, the meaning of life, the futility of honor, the minor cruelties we inflict on others, the minor graces, too, the ways in which we are driven by phantoms, and many other psychological insights that only later were picked up by people like Nietzsche, Kafka, and Freud.

    I do think Truman Capote had something to do with Kill a Mockingbird, esp since Harper Lee’s book was a one-time deal. I am curious to know who helped Ralph Ellison write invisable Man, again, as a one-shot deal it’s normal to think that way.

    Many creative geniuses are creepy. What can I say. If I had to choose, however, I’d rather be a good family man than a creative genius.

    However, even a layman like me can see that the key to creating something that lasts is (a) good craftmanship, and (b) sufficiently open-ended in structure and detail that it will appeal to many different types of readers at many different times. The error creative people make who are self-consciously trying to do something timelesss is to suggest not enough and to detail too much.

  9. Margaret Aten Says:

    Melville’s wife did much the same for him.

  10. Bastiat Says:

    I’ve done more editing than writing in my time, and I would have to say they are equally as difficult, albeit in different ways. Writing for me is a problem of persistence. Editing was much more of a business enterprise that required 3 parts manipulation to every 1 part red pen work.

    Editing is an unsung occupation that does have its similarities to the unsung heroics of spouses of great talent. That deserves another 500 words… Not penned by me, of course.

  11. jgr Says:

    Questions for the ‘editing experts.’

    Would we have literature (or other forms of the written word) without the work of editors?
    Are writers, as a rule, capable of facing the real world/audience without the ‘interface’ (is that correct?) of an editor?

    I can appreciate the encouragement of a husband/wife for a writer. Many works I’ve encountered recently openly acknowledge that debt.

  12. Andrew Zalotocky Says:

    In case anyone’s interested, I’ve got a longish piece on the Hitchhiker’s Guide here.

  13. goesh Says:

    A dark and brooding bunch they are many of those Russian authors….

  14. Sergey Says:

    Historical period in which most of the great Russian literature emerged was very tragical indeed. This was a time when the whole social fabric began unravel. We had the same internal contradictions and problems as western Europe had, but we had them simultaneously – Enlightment, Reformation, industrial revolution, urbanization, strive for political freedom, social utopism and political terrorism – all pressed into life of one generation. We had no opportunity to solve these crises consequently, one by one. And we could not solve them at once – one problem aggravated another. Social contrasts were appalling, Church was subservient to the state, it did not address social issues at all. Secular, educated minority had to struggle in two fronts – against absolutist monarchy and against greavances of oppressed benighted masses. What a mess! So literature seeng itself as an agent of social change was under huge psyhological stress: it had to substitute several failed or absent social institutions – Church, political parties, mass education, philosophy, parlament and almost everything else. It could not do all this properly. And all its high spiritual zeal and gloom goes from here.
    Tolstoi was Russian Luther – or Calvin. Both were not very pleasant people, either.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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