The Chronicle Review

I Read It at the Movies

A new film offers a peek into the lives of editors and authors


Colin Firth as Maxwell Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe in “Genius.”
July 06, 2016

I am an amateur scholar of one of film’s most undernoticed and least action-packed genres: the publishing movie. If, as some critics maintain, the essence of cinema is spectacle, then movies about the cerebral and office-bound pursuit that is book publishing are an anomaly — and yet such unlikely films exist.

The canon is, well, compact. Its supreme achievement is the ur-girls-in-the-office movie The Best of Everything (1959), set in a giant paperback house in a gleaming midtown office tower in Manhattan. The struggles of its female protagonists to balance the imperatives of career and romance still contain many useful home truths a half-century later. Whit Stillman’s droll, druggy, STD-centric The Last Days of Disco (1998) features a ’70s-era publishing house recognizable as the Doubleday where he once worked and two glamorous editorial assistants, played by Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, who do far more clubbing than manuscript reading in their evenings. The witty romcom Bell, Book and Candle (1958) stars Jimmy Stewart as a publishing executive who falls for his downstairs neighbor, Kim Novak, a dealer in African shamanistic art who just happens to be a witch. When I dream of a new office, I dream of Stewart’s, with its floor-to-ceiling bookcase and rolling stepladder. Wolf (1994) features Jack Nicholson as a lycanthropic editor in chief fending off the challenge of a younger editor on the make, played in full feral-yuppie mode by James Spader. The perfectly ludicrous Youngblood Hawke (1964) has James Franciscus as the eponymous Thomas Wolfean novelist from the American outback storming the battlements and the bedrooms of the New York literary scene.

“It is all too easy for observers outside the sausage factory to adopt the cliched view of the author as the pure literary artist and the editor as the philistine bully.”
No publishing movie to date, however, has more single-mindedly focused on the author-editor relationship than the recent Genius, based on the acclaimed biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978), by A. Scott Berg. Perkins was the legendary editor in chief at Charles Scribner’s Sons, the man who brought the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe (and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ring Lardner, Dawn Powell, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones, and many other names now faded) into print, thereby altering the course of American literature. Perkins was a true genius of his craft; no less an authority than the equally great Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb says in his forthcoming memoir Avid Reader: "Seventy years after his death Maxwell Perkins … remains the paragon of paragons." I know from direct testimony that many of the most esteemed book editors at work today owe their career choice to their first encounter with Berg’s justly worshipful biography.

The screenwriter John Logan and director Michael Grandage have extracted from Berg’s book the most fraught and tumultuous episode in Perkins’s career: his discovery of, complex friendship with, stress-filled editing of, and eventual betrayal by the novelist Thomas Wolfe. Of Perkins’s Big Three, Wolfe is the one who has receded, probably for good, in the rearview mirror. For many decades, the reading of his three sprawling major works, Look Homeward, Angel, Of Time and the River, and You Can’t Go Home Again, were adolescent rites of literary passage. No longer, though: Bookscan reports that fewer than 3,000 copies of all those books were sold in 2015, a mere 1 percent of the sales of the most celebrated Perkins-edited book, The Great Gatsby.

It’s hard to recall, then, how Wolfe once loomed as an almost mythic figure in our literary imagination. Physically, at least, he was a giant, 6-foot-6 with outsize feet and hands so large he was unable to manage a typewriter’s keyboard. His appetites — for food, for sex, for experience — were equally outsize, as was his graphomaniacal passion for transcribing his every experience into words. It is tempting to see Wolfe as a Knausgaard avant la lettre, with no event or detail too insignificant not to be swept up by the Electrolux of his overripe prose. But Wolfe’s temperament was white-hot, his need to digest experience more urgent, and his style of expression too full of the divine afflatus, to the point where his bombastic writing strikes contemporary tastes as almost unreadable. In his marvelous look back at the Lost Generation, A Second Flowering, Malcolm Cowley sees Wolfe as less a traditional novelist than a kind of epic bard, "Homo scribens and Vir scribentissimus, a tragic hero of the act of writing."

In the film and in real life, this "ugly lump of Carolina clay," as Wolfe tauntingly describes himself, met, bonded with, and finally quarreled with the reserved, gentlemanly, and somewhat prudish and depressive Perkins, whose temperament fully reflected his Puritan New England ancestry. An Apollonian versus a Dionysian is an inherently dramatic conflict, and the filmmakers play this card to the fullest, conceiving the Perkins-Wolfe relationship as variously a literary bromance (they quote The Tempest back and forth to each other with delight), a symbolic father-son drama (the older Perkins had five children, all daughters), an editor-author agon of epic proportions, and finally a breakup tragedy fueled by misunderstanding and wounded pride. As their endgame approaches, Wolfe accuses Perkins of thinking that "he[’s] created me, like Pygmalion" — an accusation that led to their painful literary divorce and Wolfe’s moving from Scribner’s to Harper & Brothers with three crates of his work. 

Genius is literate, respectful, and well written, if more than a bit somber and strangely crepuscular, as if the incandescent bulb had not been fully perfected by the 1930s. The main action, to stretch that word’s meaning, concerns the epic editorial exertions as Perkins fought to bring narrative order and publishable size to the 3,000-page manuscript of Of Time and the River that Wolfe delivered to his office on December 14, 1933. Perkins read the whole thing, grasping the almost insuperable challenges the novel presented, and yet thought, "This book has to be done."

And he delivered on this conviction by working with the recalcitrant Wolfe for a full year, many hours a day, sometimes long into the night, sometimes seven days a week. I think of it as the greatest heavyweight bout in literary history between a Putter Inner and a Taker Outer. In one case, Perkins suggested that the hero, Eugene Gant, needed to register, briefly, the shock of the news of his father’s death while at Harvard. Wolfe, to Perkins’s dismay, generated many thousands of new words on the father’s terminal illness — writing Perkins deemed too good not to Put In. (Wolfe slyly comments in the film, "Hell, I don’t know when to stop, do I?" No, he didn’t.) In all, Berg reports, in the course of "editing down" the novel, Wolfe actually wrote 500,000 new words of material, most of it extraneous. Homo scribens indeed.

T he film succeeds in finding drama and pathos and some excitement in a pursuit — publishing — that even the most literate segment of the general public either misunderstands or romanticizes. It prompts reflection on the sometimes vexed, sometimes gloriously rewarding author-editor relationship and questions about whether such heroic devotion as Perkins offered Wolfe is either possible or desirable in today’s far more corporate publishing climate.

It is all too easy for observers outside the sausage factory to adopt the clichéd view of the author as the pure literary artist untouched by mercantile considerations and the editor as the philistine bully deforming his or her work to conform to the demands of the market and conventional taste. In the film, Wolfe imprecates against Perkins in this vein: "You’re nothing but a coward. Stuck in that sterile office, every beautiful thing and you stunt it." But the Wolfe-Perkins relationship was so stormy and intimate and extreme that it provides a poor template for understanding just what goes on between authors and editors. However much affection and mutual respect there is — ideally a lot — at bottom the relationship is transactional. The author entrusts the work to the editor and publishing house not just for the advance but in the expectation that he or she will receive the best professional advice and execution all through the publication process. The editor takes on a book (and arranges for that advance) with a full commitment to that responsibility, but also answering to the dictates of the market as he or she understands it and to the needs and requirements of the publishing house.

The possibilities for disagreements and bruised feelings are endless, from an unreturned phone call to an editorial spat to an author’s sense that the house and the editor are insufficiently behind the work. Even the warmest and most durable partnerships can go south, much like a marriage. All it can take is a bad review, an ad not run, a lousy cover, or a shoddy production job. (Saul Bellow left his longtime publisher, Viking, after Humboldt’s Gift for precisely those last two reasons, a painful parting of the ways.) Max Perkins never had to devote all that much editorial time to his marquee author, Ernest Hemingway, but their correspondence is replete with dozens of Papa’s bitter and sometimes irrational complaints about Scribner’s supposedly lackluster support of his work. If I may speak frankly, I think Perkins’s greatest achievement, a diplomatic feat to rival the Congress of Vienna, was in keeping that son of a bitch at Scribner’s until the end of his career.

Perkins’s superheroics on Wolfe’s behalf may have been outlying, but literary history shows that they were not unique. Take another famous Putter Inner, Jack Kerouac, and his counterculture masterpiece, On the Road. Legend has it that Kerouac typed out the entire novel on a roll of telex paper in three Benzedrine-fueled weeks and presented the scroll to his editor at Harcourt, Robert Giroux, exclaiming, "It was dictated by the Holy Spirit!" The book failed to find a publisher until Malcolm Cowley, an editorial adviser to Viking who was taken with the book and the rising generation of Beat writers, shrewdly lobbied the house over the course of four years to publish it and then prevailed upon Kerouac to accept the cuts and revisions necessary to give the book the pace and shaping that Cowley felt it needed. The rest is cultural history.

“Even the warmest and most durable partnerships can go south, much like a marriage. All it can take is a bad review, an ad not run, a lousy cover, or a shoddy production job.”
As is widely known now, America’s favorite literary novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, came to J.B. Lippincott in radically different form, as a novel titled Go Set a Watchman. Tay Hohoff, an editor there, had the genius-level intuition that the real story had to be the young girl Scout’s, convinced Harper Lee of this point of view, and then somehow prevailed upon her employer to let her devote six months to do nothing besides guide Lee in realizing that vision of the book. The chances of that happening today, in that fashion, are effectively nil. The pace of publishing is far more punishing than in the genteel era, and editors are expected to be in the office and digitally on call at all hours to attend to the thousands of details every book’s publication entails.

A more recent instance of editorial heroics occurred in the mid-1990s, when Michael Pietsch, at Little, Brown, undertook to persuade David Foster Wallace to cut several hundred pages from his huge postmodern masterpiece, Infinite Jest. As Pietsch has testified, every cut was akin to extracting an impacted molar. (I know how he felt, having engaged in a similar struggle when I edited David’s first novel, The Broom of the System. I’d make what seemed to me to be a simple suggestion, and he’d so baffle and befuddle me with his brilliance that I’d usually surrender.) And even as I write, Robert Gottlieb is engaged in editing — closely, collaboratively, line by line, word by word, comma by comma — the greatest work of political biography of our time, Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, four hefty volumes since 1982 and counting. On more than one occasion, I have witnessed this process taking place in an office on my floor of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, where I work. I’m sure they were arguing over the relative merits of a semicolon, a colon, or an em-dash as the proper punctuation for a sentence. They were using pencils, people! That scene should be recreated someday as a diorama in the Museum of Publishing.

Sometimes, it must be said, an editor’s impulse to play the hero can misfire and be seen by an author as meddlesome or misguided. The odds of this happening greatly increase when the author is an academic who is writing for a trade house and, theoretically at least, for a general audience. I’ve lived this problem. A couple of decades ago, my employer asked me to take over the editing of a two-volume biography of a giant figure in American literature by a scholar of international repute. As the figure in question was an obsession of mine, this was a job I was delighted to have, and I went at it with a will and no small amount of sitzfleisch. Volume One had arrived in a manuscript of some 1,400 pages, and I beavered away with, I thought, some sensitivity, to find cuts that would bring it down to a more readable and publishable 1,000 pages. I sent the results off to the author, and a couple of months later he returned it to me with fewer than 50 pages cut, a complaint that I had treated his work "with contempt," and a demand that he be released from his contract. In the event, the book was published in its two volumes by a fine university press with no cutting whatsoever. Some critics found it definitive (it was) and magisterial (well, maybe), while others thought it overlong and overstuffed. I’ve come to see that there was no right or wrong here. The author and I (and my employer, on whose behalf I was acting) just had a clash of irreconcilable expectations.

In any case, the heroic age of editing is by no means over, and I’m glad some filmmakers engaged in the commercial folly of turning the Wolfe-Perkins saga into such a well-made film. Two scenes in particular I’m sure will resonate powerfully with my tribe of book editors. The first is where Perkins is at his desk, opening his copy of The New York Times to find out what the paper — our Lord High Executioner, Maker or Destroyer of Our Fondest Hopes and Dreams — had to say about what he and Wolfe had wrought in Of Time and the River. (The Times approved; rapturous telegrams of congratulation were dispatched.) Many is the time I’ve made the long walk to the end of my driveway to pick up the paper to find out whether an author and I are going to have a very good or a perfectly awful day.

Then there is the lovely scene where Perkins, having packed the manuscript of Look Homeward, Angel into his briefcase, settles down on the commuter train back to Connecticut to read it. Colin Firth turns the pages, and gradually a smile takes over his countenance, a smile that says, to me, everything about the romance of book editing — the thrill of discovering something great that seems to be speaking directly to you. I’ve experienced something like that moment many times myself (not often enough, though), on a subway or on a Short Line bus speeding through the Meadowlands on my way from work, or in my study at home, often after 11 p.m., or in a coffee shop on my lunch hour. It’s the shock of recognition that stirs the blood, gets the juices flowing, tells you with no possibility of doubt: Ah. This one’s mine. I love this. I am going to publish this.

Gerald Howard is executive editor at Doubleday. In 2009, he received the Maxwell E. Perkins Award for the editing of fiction.